Ghent’s gorgeous secret

The courtyard gardens at The Verhaegen in Ghent
The courtyard gardens at The Verhaegen in Ghent

About 15 years ago, while living in the Netherlands, I spent a long weekend in Ghent, Bruges’ larger but, to my mind, more appealing sister. The style-hunting factor in this canal city is high, from brocante and vintage-jewellery dealers to under-the-radar milliners. But I’d come to see a tiny guest house I’d heard about, called The Verhaegen. It’s tiny only in the sense that its rooms number just four; and to call them “rooms” does the massive, pied-à-terre-style suites in this 1760 palace with its own enclosed courtyard gardens an injustice (the “Suite années ’40” measures 70sq m).

Interior designers Marc Vergauwe and Jan Rosseel embarked on a years-long restoration of the palace
Interior designers Marc Vergauwe and Jan Rosseel embarked on a years-long restoration of the palace
Vergauwe and Rosseel have also opened Atelier d’Arthur, a separate property across the garden
Vergauwe and Rosseel have also opened Atelier d’Arthur, a separate property across the garden
A bedroom at the three-room B&B
A bedroom at the three-room B&B

It was acquired in 2004 by interior designers Marc Vergauwe and Jan Rosseel, who set about a several-years-long restoration and decoration project that has resulted in some of the prettiest, most original hotel interiors I’ve come across. Pedigreed antiques mix happily with modern French and Dutch designs; fresh flowers fill spaces with colour and scent; breakfast is served in a huge dining room and drinks in the drawing room (both can also be taken among the neat box hedges of the classical garden). Book the two-bedroom family suite, with its grand king-sized bed and two twin beds, if you’re in town to induct little ones into the genius of the brothers Van Eyck (or the joys of properly-cooked frites). For something a bit more contemporary, with self-catering in mind (think small kitchens and work areas), Vergauwe and Rosseel have just opened a second, three-room B&B, Atelier d’Arthur, across the garden. From €195, theverhaegen.com


Mexico, small and suite 

One of three pools at Coqui Coqui Cobá Papholchac Residence & Spa
One of three pools at Coqui Coqui Cobá Papholchac Residence & Spa © Britney Gill

The founders of the fragrance-lifestyle line Coqui Coqui hail from Argentina and Italy, but their lifelong love affair with all things and places Mexican has resulted in the brand being inextricably associated with that country. They are also its uncontested masters of micro-scale hospitality: witness the Coqui Coqui one-suite collection – their single, sigh-provoking private accommodations next to the Coqui Coqui ateliers in Valladolid, Merida and Izamal. Just inland from Tulum is their five-suite Coqui Coqui Cobá Papholchac Residence & Spa.

You won’t find televisions or air conditioning in the “sigh-provoking” rooms
You won’t find televisions or air conditioning in the “sigh-provoking” rooms © Cerruti & Draime
An outdoor bathtub complete with Coqui Coqui scents
An outdoor bathtub complete with Coqui Coqui scents © Britney Gill

Half ruin, half Arcadian idyll, it’s spread across a pair of stone towers, with three small but stunning pools, communal dining room and library, a bar and the promised spa, where local botanicals and clays feature in the wraps and oil massages. What you won’t find: televisions, air con, or guests in uninterruptible communion with their devices. What you will find: lovely pouches full of Coqui Coqui scents, strong on tropical notes of vanilla and white flowers, as your welcome amenity. From about $250, coquicoqui.com


Rural style – and privacy – in Sicily

The Palmento residence at Country House Villadorata
The Palmento residence at Country House Villadorata

Sicily’s Val di Noto has much to recommend it: splendid baroque towns, sand beaches, easy access to Etna’s wineries and the gleaming travertine squares of Ortigia (and also, handily, Catania’s international airport). 13 years ago, Seven Rooms Villadorata opened in the Palazzo Nicolaci amid the frothy, scrolled- and entablatured facades of Noto, and set a new style tone for the area. In 2015, its owner, Cristina Summa, opened Country House Villadorata, a rambling inn on what was once an olive mill, five kilometres outside of town. Its eight rooms and five suites are spread across three residences, and share living and dining areas.

The shared pool of the three residences
The shared pool of the three residences © Mattia Aquila
A deluxe room in the Palmento residence
A deluxe room in the Palmento residence
The cement-floored, timber-clad eco-suite
The cement-floored, timber-clad eco-suite

The renovation is a fairly modern one – less majolica, more groovy task lamps and butterfly chairs (and one very contemporary new eco-suite, with cement floors and sustainably sourced timber cladding) – but the charms are in what the Country House delivers from the land: its organic Officine Villadorata line includes house-produced oils, soaps and more. And the perfection that is Calamosche Beach is an easy 10-minute drive away. From €549, countryhousevilladorata.it


Destination Johannesburg

The conversation pit in the garden at AtholPlace
The conversation pit in the garden at AtholPlace

Johannesburg suffers unjustly as a consequence of southern Africa’s great wilderness offerings – often viewed, and thus experienced, as a stopover or gateway instead of a destination in its own right (a shame, given its dynamic contemporary-art and food cultures). Those same transient safari-goers often default to the big full-service hotels here, missing a clutch of small, thoughtful places whose opposing scale means you get a different take entirely on the city. 

One of the smallest is AtholPlace Hotel & Villa, in the lush northern suburb of Atholl. In effect, AtholPlace is two discrete houses on one property, with four and nine bedrooms respectively, each of which is designed to be taken over (since people tend to safari in groups or families, this is ideal). The contemporary Villa’s four bedrooms are all on the first floor, while downstairs are a lounge-bar, indoor-outdoor living room, and garden with a private pool and a conversation “pit”, lit by braziers of a chilly July or August evening. The galleries and shops of Sandton are a short ride away; likewise the busy cafés and restaurants of 4th Avenue in Parktown. Athol Villa from €1,500 a night for eight guests, morokuru.com


Lisbon’s house-hotel perfection

“A distillation of serenity”: Santa Clara 1728 in Lisbon
“A distillation of serenity”: Santa Clara 1728 in Lisbon © Alex Reyto

And finally to Lisbon, and a definitive and unassailable permutation of the small-is-beautiful model. Santa Clara 1728 is far from an unknown: opened in 2017 by João Rodrigues – the TAP pilot turned entrepreneur-hotelier, and founder of the singular Silent Living collection of Portuguese hotels – it has earned accolades to spare for its superlative combination of high design, easeful ambience and utterly convincing home-from-home welcome (go ahead, walk into the kitchen to ask for a platter of cold cuts and cheese – or pick up a knife and start chopping herbs with the sous chefs; both are totally condoned).

A view of the 17th-century Church of Santa Engrácia
A view of the 17th-century Church of Santa Engrácia © Arina Voropoyeva
Breakfasts are taken at the refectory-style communal table
Breakfasts are taken at the refectory-style communal table © Arina Voropoyeva
The standalone stone tub in the author’s suite
The standalone stone tub in the author’s suite © Arina Voropoyeva

The six suites are masterclasses in infusing old spaces with contemporary spirit, the work of laurelled architect and frequent Silent Living collaborator Manuel Aires Mateus. The 18th century meets the 21st softly, with natural, tactile materials – stone, wood, clay, lime, linen – in elemental tones. I don’t think I’m ever getting over the bathroom in my suite, whose huge window and standalone stone tub faced the cupola of Santa Engrácia and, beyond, the green-grey expanse of the Tagus. Everyone breakfasts at one long refectory-style table; guests read and sip cocktails in the riad-like interior courtyard, where light and shadow play across bright-white interior walls. In a city that’s reckoning with an increasingly mass, and invasive, form of tourism, the Santa Clara is a distillation of serenity. From €550, silentliving.pt

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