The coronavirus health pandemic has wrought havoc with the hotel industry in Belgium, as elsewhere.
Add to the mix travel chaos caused by quarantine restrictions and it all adds up to a nightmare year for the sector.
But, thankfully and contrary to what you might think, it is not quite all doom and gloom and you need look no further than one top Belgian hotel that has bucked the trend. In fact, you could say that the health crisis has proved a real boon for Manoir de Lébioles, a delightful hotel/spa/restaurant, situated just a few kilometres from Spa in the Belgian Ardennes.
Since it (along with all other hotels in the country) was allowed to re-open again in June after a three-month lockdown, it has been pretty much full every single day.
That is testament to the fact that most Belgians are now opting for a staycation, that is, taking a break or holidaying at home.
But the hotel’s amazingly busy schedule over the last three months also reflects the fact that its reputation for quality, service and affordability has now clearly spread far and wide.
Before the crisis struck, the business used to count on about 50 to 60 percent of its guests coming from Belgium but that figure has now soared to 80 to 90 per cent.
The hotel has always proved a big attraction for visitors from neighbouring countries like the Netherlands and Germany but, of course, the risks of overseas travel are currently deterring many people.
Despite that, judging by the volume of bookings for the rest of 2020, this is one hotel in Belgium that is assured of excellent business (provided that hotels are allowed to remain open, that is).
For anyone thinking of a short break from the depression that is coronavirus then the upcoming half term break is the perfect chance.
Autumn in the Ardennes is always a magical time of the year and there surely cannot be a better spot than this place to wonder at the changing colours of nature.
The hotel is located at the very heart of quite beautiful countryside, with majestic scenery on all four sides.
If you are a love of game then, with the hunting season now into full swing, this is also the perfect time to pay a visit, not least to avail yourself of the pleasures (including wild game) at the hotel’s internationally acclaimed restaurant.
This gastronomic, Michelin-rated restaurant is overseen by the renowned and highly decorated chef Laurent Leveille whose impressive CV includes stints at some of the best restaurants in London. A gastronomic menu is offered from Wednesday to Sunday with a smaller, a la carte selection on Monday and Tuesday (it’s possible to book a table even if you’re not a guest at the hotel).
The new menu features, of course, wild game dishes such as boar sourced from the locale. The four-course offering also might include Scottish scallops, duck liver and a lovely desert of pear cooked in red wine. Laurent, awarded 15 points by Gault & Millau, and who celebrates his third anniversary at the hotel this month, is ably assisted by head waiter Serge Rompen, who comes from nearby Thimister and marked his third anniversary here in July, and sommelier Stephanie Noel. As well as first class classic French selections, she says she always tries to include a quality Belgian wine on the menu. Sergee, who used to be in charge of catering at a Belgian army base in Cologne, says the secret of the restaurant’s success is both the excellence of the cuisine and service, saying, “that’s what it’s all about.”
The hotel itself, set in the gently rolling hills of the Hautes Fagnes, has 16 rooms (doubles and singles), including ten in the main building which are individually named. Open year round (apart from a three week break in January 2021), this is ideal for couples but also has two large suites ideally suitable for families. During the summer, three-night stays are the average but, for the rest of the year, this usually falls to 1 or 2 nights.
Another feature (now boasting an outside terrace) is the super spa, including sauna, steam bath and hydro massage, which opens from 8am to 8pm daily with additional spa treatments also available.
Manoir de Lebioles is known as the “Little Versailles of the Ardennes” and, if you pay a visit, you will see why this architectural gem has earned such an accolade.
Located in a fairytale-type setting and surrounded by thick forest, it is notable for its large rooms, warm colours and sweeping staircases. But its current appearance belies its recent history. A hotel for 20 years, the building fell on seriously hard times between 1999 and 2005 after a “new concept” for it flopped. Parts of the building were vandalised and windows broken. It was frequently squatted and even used for illegal parties. Luckily, a “saviour” was on the horizon in the shape of German-born Ann Lussem who, having fallen in love with the place and location during a previous stay, decided to buy the hotel when it came up for purchase.
Ann, backed by the likes of another long-serving staff member Benoit Toussaint, supervised its remarkable transformation which has seen its size increase markedly from just four rooms to 16. Under her ownership the spa/wellness centre was added (in an area once used to stable horses), the chimneys and 120-year-old windows were restored, old staircases expanded, historic floors exposed and the gardens returned to their former beauty. After a major restoration lasting 14 months, the hotel reopened opened to guests in 2006 and has not looked back since.
The Lussem family now look back with pride on returning the building to what Georges Neyt, the original builder, may have envisaged. Built between 1905 and 1910, Neyt, a diplomat and said to have been a natural son of King Leopold I, sadly only enjoyed his “small Versailles of the Ardennes” only for a short time.
Heiress and only daughter of the builder, Mary Neyt, sold Le Manoir to Edmond Dresse, a Liege businessman, in 1912. His family lived in the building for the next 69 years and, during this time, it acquired a new fame and glamour, hosting national theatre, concerts and balls. Fast forward to the present and Manoir de Lebioles is again the place to be seen, for example, accommodating Formula 1 racing teams like Red Bull and their sponsors during the famous annual F1 race at nearby Spa-Francorchamps, just 15 minutes away.
A nice touch with the past is an elderly surviving member of the Dresse family who, until recently used to travel from her home near Liege to regularly dine at the hotel.
The hotel, it should be noted, has also gone to some lengths to ensure it meets all the social distancing requirements demanded by the Belgian government.
These, though, do not detract for a minute from the pleasure of experiencing its renowned delights.
So, if you’re looking for a short getaway this autumn or chance to recharge the batteries before the dark nights set in, you’d do well to consider this splendid place at the heart of the country’s francophone region. With the changing autumnal colours, the Ardennes provides a particularly colourful backdrop for a refreshing short break.