Road Trip: Holland and Belgium
Day 1: Amsterdam to the Hague (40 miles)
Set out from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, following the signs for the A2 to Utrecht. The passing countryside (dikes; pitched-roof farmhouses; windmills) bears a striking resemblance to those Jacob van Ruisdael landscapes of centuries ago. Home to one of Holland’s best universities, Utrecht has a vibrant mix of shops, cafés, and restaurants. Begin with the half-hour-long, 465-stair climb to the top of the 14th-century Domtoren church tower—worth it for the views alone. Back at street level, browse for antiques in the shops on the Oudegracht (Old Canal), the historic center’s absurdly picturesque main drag. Grab a sandwich at the hip organic bakery Broodnodig (lunch for two $25), then get back on the road, looking for the A12, which takes you straight into the Hague. Headquarters for the International Criminal Court and home of the Dutch royal family, this is the country’s stealth good-taste capital. Check in to the Hotel des Indes, a Luxury Collection Hotel (doubles from $370), a grande dame on Lange Voorhout square that underwent a total makeover by French design star Jacques Garcia three years ago. For dinner, there’s the tiny Maxime (dinner for two $100), where the lacquered walls and velvet banquettes are a sumptuous backdrop for a light, seasonal menu (try the North Sea bass with fennel and cucumber).
Day 2: The Hague to Maastricht (140 miles)
Rise early and head to the Binnenhof, a small compound of buildings on a tranquil lake that’s been the center of Dutch government for more than 600 years. Nearby sits the Mauritshuis museum, which holds Rembrandts, Brueghels, and two of Vermeer’s great masterpieces, Girl with a Pearl Earring and View on Delft. Back behind the wheel, hop on the A12, which merges with the A2 and leads down to Maastricht, one of the country’s oldest cities (settled in 50 B.C. by the Romans). Tefaf, the European fine-art fair, is held here every March, but you can soak up great art year-round: Visit the Bonnefanten for old masters. The Netherlands Architecture Institute’s new Maastricht outpost is right next door. Stop for a cocktail under low vaulted-brick ceilings at Molo 5, then order the chef’s-course dinner at Beluga for sublime fresh fish, such as wild turbot with langoustine. End the night at the Kruisherenhotel (doubles from $500), a Renaissance monastery turned design hotel.
Day 3: Maastricht to Ghent (100 miles)
From Maastricht, it’s a straight northwesterly shot along highway E40 through Belgium to its northern coastline, where you’ll find Knokke-Heist, a favorite resort for wealthy Dutch, Belgians, and Germans. The modest-looking two-story storefronts along the Kustlaan, the main road, house Hermès, Vuitton, and luxe Belgian housewares giant Flamant, plus dozens of smaller jewelers and men’s and women’s boutiques. The beach is wide and sandy, ringed by a Croisette-like boardwalk and pristine grassy dunes. In the warmer months you can take a rest on a striped beach chair, then it’s time to backtrack a bit, taking the pretty two-lane routes N34 and N9 toward Ghent, a city that’s equal parts early-Renaissance splendor and 21st-century grit. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb—a.k.a. the Ghent Altarpiece, painted by Jan van Eyck in 1432—stands in the Saint Bavo Cathedral. A few blocks away, clothing stores filled with Belgium’s signature deconstructed looks line the Mageleinstraat. Ghent has one of Belgium’s loveliest B&B’s, the Hotel Verhaegen (doubles from $280), five enormous rooms in a former mansion. End your journey at Belga Queen (dinner for two $110), a restaurant set in a 13th-century granary on the oldest canal in town. Expect low beamed ceilings, a backlit lounge, and a long list of meat-based dishes—served, of course, with frites of several varieties.
In the realm of unlikely trends: ancient monasteries are being reinvented as luxury hotels with rigorously chic interiors. Among the most stylish—and least remote—is Kruisherenhotel, carved out of a 15th-century church complex near Maastricht’s main shopping district. Hotelier Camille Oostwegel, known for smartly repurposing crumbling Low Country châteaux as luxury accommodations, assembled the new 60-room hotel inside the church’s exoskeleton. A cardinal-red runner suspended in the nave and choir leads to a dining loft that resembles an erector-set project. Ingo Maurer’s quirky “flying saucer” chandeliers hover from the vaulted ceilings, and the chancel houses a wine bar with tufted-velvet banquettes. In the bedrooms, massive support beams emerge at curious angles from the wall.
Order the chef’s-course dinner for sublime fresh fish, such as wild turbot with langoustine.
Domtoren Church Tower
Don the walking shoes, pack a camera, and line up behind a guide to ascend the country’s most sky-scraping church tower. A symbol of Amsterdam, the "Dom Tower" is 369 feet tall and the highest accessible viewpoint is at the 312-foot mark. Along the way up, the guide stops briefly at different points to provide rest as well as share short talks about the background of the tower. The ascent and descent takes around an hour, and tours are available in many different languages.
Grab a sandwich at this hip organic bakery.
Hotel des Indes, a Luxury Collection Hotel
This grande dame on Lange Voorhout square that underwent a total makeover by French design star Jacques Garcia in 2006.
The lacquered walls and velvet banquettes are a sumptuous backdrop for a light, seasonal menu (try the North Sea bass with fennel and cucumber).
The museum holds Rembrandts, Brueghels, and two of Vermeer’s great masterpieces, Girl with a Pearl Earring and View on Delft.
Stop for a cocktail under low vaulted-brick ceilings.
St. Bavo Cathedral
The Gothic spires are one of the town’s most recognized landmarks, but inside the church is the true treasure—the 15th-century altarpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a towering, multi-panel painting by Jan van Eyck.
Chambres d’Hôtes Hôtel Verhaegen
This lovely B&B is comprised of four enormous rooms in a former mansion. To their listed 18th-century hôtel particulier, Jan Rosseel and Marc Vergauwe (who met in design school in Ghent) brought their own high intelligence, treating the architectural shell as the treasure it is while adding wit, comfort, and appropriately invisible technology. Shapely modern lamps offset boiserie and paintings by 18th-century Flemish artist Pierre Norbert van Reysschoot. Striped carpets on the stairs and in the bedrooms complement the original herringbone-wood and black-and-white marble floors. If it is possible to be both taut and lush in decoration, then Rosseell and Vergauwe are masters.
The restaurant is set in a 13th-century granary on the oldest canal in town. Expect low beamed ceilings, a backlit lounge, and stainless-steel accents. The menu includes updated Belgian classics such as eel stewed in cream and herbs.