Having been a fan of hostels since my first 3-month backpacking trip around the USA in the mid-90’s, during the last 20 years or so I’ve been witness to some wonderful developments in the world of affordable accommodation. Gone are the days when a hostel meant an uncomfortable bed in a cramped dorm, or having to choose between price and privacy. Of course, there have always been plenty of incredible hostels around the world – Australia and New Zealand in particular – but it seems the overall standard is constantly improving as travellers become ever more discerning and demanding, regardless of budget.
I recently became a convert to the Stayokay chain, during a delightful visit to Utrecht in the Netherlands, home to their newest property, Stayokay Utrecht Centrum which is also blessed with a fabulous central location – less than a 45 minutes drive from Amsterdam (and Schiphol Airport) and only a 10-minute walk from Utrecht Central Station. As a member of Hostelling International, you know it’s going to be clean, safe and well staffed – but whereas in the past some of the HI properties can sometimes feel a tad sterile, Stayokay Utrecht Centrum is a riot of colour and quirkiness.
The first sign that welcomes you as you climb the stairs to the spacious lounge/bar/dining room The Fifth (which also serves as a perfect socialising spot) is a greeting to smile, because there’s cake! I also loved their obvious eco vibe; they aim to become the Netherlands’ most sustainable hostel chain as well as a CO2-neutral organisation. They also work hard to save energy and water, to reduce waste and promote health and wellness – not a bad ethos in my book at all!
While equally suitable for solo travellers, couples or groups, the hostel is also hip enough to act as a live music venue for the general public too. During my visit, local band The Brahms were doing a gig, having recently scored a sizeable hit (“Golden”) during the summer – though they were almost upstaged by an impromptu visit from Bep, the rather animated “cleaning lady” who also works the crowd rather cheekily! The venue is used sensibly though – they’re aware it’s primarily a place to get a good night’s sleep, so the music is used to entice some Utrecht’s considerable student population as place to start a night of partying, but it’s not so loud or so late as to disturb anyone wanting an early night.
Now, this being The Netherlands, of course the hostel also has bicycles for hire too. It’s the perfect way to see the city – easy, practical, good exercise and rather stylish too! The friendly staff at the hostel can give you advice on where to ride – cycling is such an intrinsic part of the city that even the Tour de France chose the city to host the first stage there in 2015!
Setting off from the lovely Neude square where the hostel is located, you could go as far as the Miffy Museum to learn more about local hero Dick Bruna’s much-loved children’s book character – you might even be lucky enough to spot a traffic crossing where Miffy has replaced the usual red green man. I also spotted a rather psychedelic rainbow-coloured road crossing, which I can only guess was designed by someone who’d spent a bit too long in an Amsterdam coffee shop…
Or you could ride to the Dom Tower for an impressive view over the city – it’s the highest church tower in the Netherlands – and once your legs have recovered from the ascent and descent, it’s only few moments ride to Theo Blom, the oldest bakery in the city, for a well-earned cake.
Back at the hostel, the spacious dorms are bright and airy, spotlessly clean, with equal importance given to good security and nice quirky decorative touches (as well as a fabulously funky range of toiletries)! I even learnt some facts about the city while bedding down for the night! It’s the kind of place that has a few statues of Miffy of hanging from the ceiling but also grows its own mint to put in your mojito – little details always count! Breakfast – served up in a suitably funky kitchen – is both tasty and healthy and there was always something to snack on throughout the day if you return hungry after a day of sightseeing – whether it’s the mashed up comfort food of Stamppot…or a stroopwaffle for those with a sweeter tooth! I didn’t leave hungry!
Stayokay Utrecht Centrum is a great place to meet other travellers too, and pick up tips for the rest of your journey round the Netherlands. They currently have 24 locations around this compact country, including one in Rotterdam’s iconic “cube houses”. In fact, I think by name alone they sell themselves short – instead of Stayokay they should really be called StayAmazing!
All words and images by regular contributor Lee Hubbard. Lee was a guest of Stayokay Utrecht-Centrum for its Stayokay Sleepover event and official launch party but all his opinions are his own.