Detailed review by Chouchin
Kent, United Kingdom
What is the Imperial Palace in Peking doing in the middle of the Dutch countryside? And why is it masquerading as a hotel? It all seems far too frivolous for the sensible Dutch, even allowing for their Far Eastern connections. Nor is this a discreet, bashful replica. It is a big building (3 floors, 140 rooms) gaudily painted red, green and orange and complete with pillars and curly roof-lines. Certainly eye-catching.
Where is it?
Location, location, location is the mantra, and this hotel's location is spot on. Right beside exit 5 of the A2 motorway between Amsterdam and Utrecht, 23km from Amsterdam, about the same from Schiphol. Even better, it is 2 minutes from Breukelen station from which trains take about 30 minutes into Amsterdam (€8.30 return). You don't want to be driving in Amsterdam - many of the streets are under water and those that aren't are narrow and generally one-way, usually not the way you want to go. Utrecht also has the reputation of being difficult to get around by car (though I can't vouch for that). As visitors we could, of course, have chosen a hotel in the city centre but being country bumpkins we tend to avoid staying in cities and anyway wanted to also visit the countryside around. As we were there in the middle of a heatwave, this was a good decision.
So a good strategic location but scenic - no. Sandwiched between the motorway and the railway line it also shares this space with a scrap metal yard, a stonking great electricity pylon and, bizarrely, a windmill. I ought to be able to spin a series of surreal insights out of this particular conjunction, but that would be digressing ..
So it's noisy?
Well no. It sits down below the level of the railway and motorway so any noise tends to pass over it. The trains, though frequent, are fairly quiet. All the rooms are double-glazed (and air-conditioned) so you can keep the windows closed and not hear a thing. There is a Chinese-style garden at one side, full of shrubbery, ponds, paths, little bridges and gazebos where no noise seems to impinge at all.
Who runs it?
It is part of the Van der Valk chain (da-da-da-DUM-da-da-DUM-D UM-DUM for those of you who remember the eponymous 1970s Dutch detective series that ran on UK TV; for those of you who don't, you didn't miss anything). I feel a shudder running through those of you who dislike hotel chains. Agreed they can be soulless and you can feel processed, but equally I have often been disappointed in attractive-looking independent hotels, not usually by the public rooms but by the bedrooms. At least with a chain you can be reasonably sure of the standard. Van der Valk is big in Holland as you would expect with 58 hotels, but only has a small footing elsewhere with 9 in Germany, 7 in Belgium, 1 each in France and Spain, 3 in Florida and 1 in Curaçao. None in the UK. Glancing at the brochures of their other hotels I was struck by the fact that they are all quite different in design, so you will be relieved to know that Holland is not littered with Imperial Palaces!
Were they welcoming?
I find the Dutch very charming and likeable and everyone here, receptionists, waiters, cleaners, was indeed that. Like all the Dutch they spoke excellent English which helps no end. Before we went we chopped and changed our arrival and departure dates 3 or 4 times but that was dealt with very smoothly - just a phone call and confirmatory exchange of e-mails and it was sorted.
Can you swing a cat in the bedrooms?
Certainly, easily. It is a big building and the spaciousness inside strikes you as soon as you walk in. There is a lovely feeling of airiness and openness which is carried through to the rooms. Even the lifts are huge! The rooms have plenty of space for a large double bed, decent-sized wardrobe, luggage storage, the usual table-against-the-wall arrangement for a TV, lamp and brochures, and a separate table and 2 easy chairs. You can still walk around easily.
There is no mini-bar; instead there is an incongruously large Coke machine in the lift area. Nor are there safes in the room, but they are available in reception. It is equipped with wi-fi.
Good night's sleep?
Yes great. Comfortable bed, no noise either from the motorway or from revellers inside the hotel, virtually silent air-conditioning.
No great shakes. The interior designer obviously thought it was a good idea to bring the red and green of the exterior into the room design. I disagree. It was OK, just, because the walls were magnolia which lightened it up considerably. The picture on the wall was Jack Vettriano's Singing Butler of all things, one of my least favourite pictures, and this in a country with centuries of great artistic tradition.
But the bathroom's tacky?
Neither tacky nor great. Floor to ceiling tiling in a cream-coloured marbled design makes it very light and spacious. The wash hand basin surround has bags of room for all your sprays and unguents and a generous selection of freebie bottles and packets. There are mirrors on all 3 sides of the surround so you can see yourself reflected to infinity. (Memo to self: must do more jogging.) The shower was disappointing. Although it delivered plenty of hot water at a reasonable pressure the shower-head was flimsy and old-fashioned and the tile grouting and sealant was discoloured. It is an over-the-bath installation and didn't have very much space, as the bath was quite narrow.
Who's the clientele?
The hotel has half a dozen meeting rooms of various sizes for corporate shindigs, so there were business suits, and tourists like us. But strangely the restaurant in the evening was filled with jolly Dutch families having a jolly Dutch time. The air was thick with tortured vowel sounds interspersed with guttural throat-clearings (God, it's an awful language). Were they local, or had they come from Amsterdam or Utrecht for a breath of fresh air? They certainly weren't in their glad rags. Whatever, it made for a very pleasant ambience - busy and bustling without the frenetic stridency of its French or Italian equivalent. Like everything else, the restaurant is spacious, and there is a terrace, so it would have been pretty dismal half empty.
So they came because the grub's good?
Unlikely. The food is OK without being distinctive in any way. It's international cuisine, and a little heavy. Prices range from €7 to €11 for starters, €12 to €20 for main courses. All main courses come with a serving of chips and salad as well as the vegetable garnish on the dish. Desserts consist of various ice-cream concoctions. There is no set menu. The wine list is quite varied and most wines are available in half-bottles or by the glass.
Breakfast is buffet-style and has everything you could possibly want, including a chef on duty cooking pancakes and omelettes to order. Everything, that is, except a pot of your preferred beverage brought to your table - you have to fetch it by the cup from a machine. Actually the coffee was very good, but I would have liked my own pot.
As well as the restaurant there is a brasserie, but it was only open on one of the days we were there and only starts serving food from 9pm. It is right in the middle of the hotel with no windows or natural light, and it wasn't the weather for enclosed, smoky areas.
Talking of smoking, are non-smokers catered for?
The Dutch smoke like chimneys, worse almost than the French, so it's a valid question. Rooms on the first floor (the virtuous are rewarded) are designated non-smoking so ask for one of those. There is a small area in the restaurant designated non-smoking.
And the bottom line?
€110 per night for the room and 2 breakfasts, plus a tourist tax of €1.15 per person per day. I think that's perfectly reasonable for what's on offer.
Would I go again?
Yes, although I wouldn't rush. It's an ideal location but needs better food and some attention to the bathrooms.
And the answer to the very first question - why the Imperial Palace?
Not entirely sure, other than it's supposed to combine "western luxury with eastern refinement" (I quote). Maybe Mr Van der Valk just fancied it. He'd never get it past the planners in the UK.
Van der Valk Breukelen