The first thing that struck me as I collected my bag at Rotterdam's tiny international airport was that all my fellow passengers were leaving as soon as they had arrived. They were all hastily heading for connecting trains to Amsterdam or The Hague. When I asked for a map of the city centre at the information desk, the surprised response was: "You're staying?"
Rotterdam is the Netherlands' industrial heart and harbours the world's largest seaport. With a new metro link to The Hague due for completion by the end of 2008 and a new central station under construction, the city is certainly well connected. It is also busy. Last year alone, Rotterdam's port shifted 369 million tonnes of cargo – most of it crude oil and other liquid fuel – and the docks and surrounding area provides work for 60,000 of the city's inhabitants (quarter of a million countrywide).
Still, for those on business, or even those with some leisure time, Rotterdam's connections seem only to speed departures. Admittedly, the city's charms aren't immediately obvious; first impressions show a city of square concrete blocks lining wide grey streets. There are few traditional Dutch buildings left, and they now sit shyly among the 50s blocks. Although there are canals, they are underdeveloped apart from a few lonely pieces of street art which, to me, looked as though some pipes had fallen off the back of a lorry.
There is a reason for Rotterdam's hefty look, of course. On May 14, 1940, the city suffered huge destruction under fierce German bombardment. Forty per cent of the port was destroyed and the post office and city hall (below) were among the only buildings left standing in the centre.
"The best way to get a feel for this city is by bicycle as there is no real centre," says Dagmar Veenstra, a Rotterdam "Archi guide" who also works at the Centre for the Arts. "After the war, when the city was rebuilt, everyone had their own idea of where the centre was for them, so different areas just built up without any planning."
There is a plan now. When we visited the city information centre it was closed but, peeking through the darkened glass, I saw a huge-scale model of the inner city with grey, white and black buildings representing past, present and future. The buildings planned for the future are focused on the banks of the River Maas and around the financial centre on Coolsingl – one of the city's main streets. It is here that you will find the companies that many readers of Business Traveller will have visited over the years. Rotterdam already has a firm hold on insurance companies and is also Unilever's headquarters, and the concert and congress centre "de Doelen" has made the city a popular venue for meetings, conferences and incentives.
Cycling around the city I soon discovered that bubbling under the surface of the cold industrial waters is a flair of creativity. Harsh moments in Rotterdam's past have not been ignored but embraced. Indeed, the city has become well known for its innovative architecture and modern touch (the city is home to the Netherland's Architecture Institute), less inhibited than the beautifully crafted Amsterdam; Rotterdam is the rebel.
There are the paalwoningen (also known as pole dwellings), designed in the 1980s by Piet Blom, where cube-shaped houses hang off pylons at 45 degrees. Blom wanted the 38 houses to represent a forest in a city. He also designed the pencil-shaped building among the cubes, which is also residential. The government keeps 20 per cent of new buildings for social housing schemes, even in the most prime real estate areas.
We headed for the water to the peak of the Erasmus Bridge, Rotterdam's pride and joy. The silver arms of the cable-stayed bridge straddle 793 metres between Rotterdam's north and south banks, making it the longest of its type in the world. Built in 1997, The Swan, as it is known locally, was designed by Ben Van Berkel and cost E165 million.
From the bridge facing the port, to the left is the south side of the city "Kopvan Zuid" and the old docks area, where hopeful dreamers once left for a new life in America. Veenstra explains this has always been the poorer side of the city – home to the working class. It was also where sailors found wanton relief after months at sea. But with such an influx of cultures, the city also adapted to the more pious; the quiet streets of the north banks hold mosques, synagogues, Russian orthodox churches and a wooden Norwegian church.
The old-style New York Hotel on Wilhelminakade is currently one of the only attractions on the south bank. But redevelopment is on the way. There are plans to move the entire media centre over to the south bank, drawing comparisons with London's own centre on the Thames. The Luxor theatre has already made the move. The 43-storey Montevideo apartment block is one of the tallest buildings in the city. In its shadow I noticed a strange structure on the top of one of the old industrial buildings, which turned out to be a water tank – in the style of the New York skyline. The tank is part of the street art that some residents describe as "littering" the city but which is intriguing for visitors.
On the north side of the river around Schouwburgplein square (similar to London's Leicester square, strewn with theatres and cinemas) are huge, crane-like structures with lamps lighting the raised wooden stage-like floor beneath. These can be moved manually by passers-by, dipping and rising in a salute to the past.
With the focus of the city resurfacing once again on the riverbanks, restaurants and hotels have softened its harsh industrial feel. In a prime location under Erasmus Bridge, the Sailors Inn has rooms for E20 and a bar that attracts ale-drinking tattooed sailors. Next door is the Tulip Inn, and another business traveller option on the river, the Golden Tulip. The Westin is the only five-star property since the Hilton Rotterdam dropped from five-star to four-star in December. There are also dining options on the waterfront. Designed by Marcel Wanders, Blits serves small portions of food and has "love" boxes hanging from the ceiling, which you can sit in to enjoy a more intimate meal. It is famous for its "chandelier happy hour" where "angels" hanging from the ceiling feed diners with morsels of food.
Crossing back over the bridge we propelled ourselves towards the Scheepvaart Quarter, which was once a German ammunition storage point. It survived the war by a feat of British reserve. Covered with grass to disguise its whereabouts, the British planes mistook it for a football pitch and were loath to bomb it. The curved cellar like walls now house art galleries and international cuisine. For those who wish to dine in style there's another Marcel Wanders' interior at Moooi.
Rotterdam may not be attracting the same numbers of tourists as other Dutch cities, and it's not likely to seriously rival Amsterdam. But Dagmar says it doesn't want to be. After all, who wants hoards of intoxicated youths from the continent staggering around the streets in search of the untouchables? But if you're keen on history, architecture and innovation, it could be Rotterdam for you.
For more information on the city and available tours see rotterdam.nl
The museum park is 13 years old and was designed by Frenchman Yves Brunier. Around the quiet gardens are the Natural History (Natuurhistorisch) Museum, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, the Netherlands Architecture Institute and the Chabot Museum. The park joins onto the trendy Witte de Withstraat, home to the Netherlands Photo Museum (which is moving to the south of the river as part of the media area). The Maritime Museum and Port Museum are found closer to the waterfront. The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (E8 entry fee) is worth a visit for its quirkiness alone. Entering the first dark exhibition hall I was initially disappointed. The museum holds over 116,000 exhibits, but there was no English at all. But later we discovered a temporary exhibition of Thomas Rentmeister. Among his pieces were 1,400 Tempo tissue boxes stacked carefully into a huge rectangle. Old battered fridges and chocolate furniture were also on display. Although a temporary exhibition, this type of art is what the museum seems to do best. (Check boijmans.rotterdam.nl for the latest exhibits). It's easy to spend a few hours here, wandering from room to room. Opening hours are 10-6pm Monday-Friday and 10-5pm Saturdays.
Westin Hotel Rotterdam
FIRST IMPRESSIONS Built for the turn of the millennium, this is currently the only five-star hotel in Rotterdam. The contemporary building rises over the north of the city and is situated opposite the central station with connections to Amsterdam and The Hague. We had arrived three hours before official check-in time but were shown to our room immediately. The decor of the hotel corridors is almost gothic with deep, thick purple carpets and yellow detail but the rooms are completely different, feeling fresh and modern.
WHERE IS IT? Opposite Centraal Station and around 6km from the airport. Shops, casinos and restaurants are all within walking distance or a short tram or metro ride away.
HOW MANY ROOMS? 231 including 10 junior suites and 12 executive suites.
ROOM FACILITIES My room was an executive room on the 12th floor with views of the Euromast and harbour area with cranes in the distance. The furnishings were pale wood with a black desk and complimentary internet access (though you need to have your own laptop). The main feature of my room was the Heavenly Bed, which Starwood spent over a year developing. Apparently 50 beds from 35 major hotel chains were tested to perfect this bed with 10 layers, a custom-designed pillow top mattress, a cosy down blanket, three sheets, a duvet and five pillows. It was very comfortable.
There were coffee-making facilities in my room but no kettle, so we asked for one to be brought up to the room, along with an adaptor for a mobile charger, which I had to sign for. Bathrooms have a separate bath and shower, sinks made of white marble with black granite, the hotel's own-brand toiletries and speakers for the TV.
RESTAURANTS AND BARS The Lighthouse bar is designed to resemble a boat, shaped like a hull with angled decking. The high-backed red chairs and dark wooden tables don't have a very nautical feel but the atmosphere is pleasant. There are generous bar snacks; the barbecued chicken and dim sum (E16) was a filling treat. There is no barrier between the bar and the restaurant except for a few large plants, but the space is large enough for bar-goers not to encroach on a quiet dinner among the lighthouse pop art or overlooking the street below.
BUSINESS AND MEETING FACILITIES There is a 24-hour business centre and wifi throughout the hotel plus five meeting rooms and one conference room. There is also a skywalk which links the hotel to the concert and congress centre "de Doelen" which has made Rotterdam a popular MICE venue.
LEISURE FACILITIES The gym has just been refurbished with a new entrance and, as well as Technogym equipment, it now has new weight lifting equipment, special Reebok stability balls and a core board. The hotel provides bottles of water and towels in the lobby for joggers, as well as suggested jogging routes. Lastly, if you dislike exercising in front of others you can work out alone in the "Westin Workout" room. The hotel has one of these, which has a bicycle or treadmill, pilates programmes, dumbbells, yoga mat and medicine balls.
PRICES For a midweek stay in early April, the internet rate for a superior room was E247, and for an executive room E300 including breakfast.
VERDICT Fresh and very comfortable, with excellent service.
CONTACT The Westin, Rotterdam, Weena 686 Rotterdam 3012 CN, Netherlands, tel +31 10 430 2000, starwoodhotels.com.
other places to stay...
Weena 10, tel +31 10 710 8000, rotterdam.hilton.com; four-star, with internet access and meeting space for up to 325 people.
Hotel New York
Koninginnenhoofd 1, tel +31 1043 90500, hotelnewyork.nl; four-star with wifi access (E5 per 30 minutes) and seven meeting rooms.
NH Atlanta Hotel Rotterdam
Coolsingel/Aert van Nesstraat 4, tel +31 10 206 7800, nh-hotels.com; four-star with free wifi access and six function rooms for up to 100.
Eden Savoy Hotel
Hoogstraat 81, tel +31 104 139 280, sterlinghotels.com; four-star with wifi in public areas, and one meeting room. No on-site restaurant.
Golden Tulip Rotterdam-Centre
Leuvehaven 80, tel +31 10 413 4139, goldentulip.com; four-star situated next to Erasmus Bridge, with indoor swimming pool, internet access and seven meeting rooms.