It’s my birthday soon, which is leading me to much idle fantasising about what I might like, if money – and indeed, reality – were no object. Sold out Isabel Marant boots? A demented no-limits trolley dash around Senteurs d’Ailleurs? Silk stockings and a pug puppy à la Linda from the Pursuit of Love? A PONY (always a pony)?
Most often in these short cold November days, what comes up on my list of fantasy birthday treats is a weekend at the Manoir de Lébioles.
(This post is blighted by terrible pictures taken on my old phone, apologies. )
I visited this place at the beginning of last February, on my own, on a last minute commission. It took me about a thousand years to get there, on a variety of slow, meandering trains through rural Belgium, and I had to pre-book a taxi about three weeks ahead to manage the last 5 miles (despite being minutes away from the Francorchamps Formula One track, it’s deep, deep country). I was glad I did, because it was snowing, a thick, businesslike flurry of proper snow, which made it even more amazing to slither along a treelined driveway in the very middle of nowhere and end up here:
The Manoir is a pocket sized hotel, only 16 rooms, built in a loopy, fin de siècle mini-chateau what was once the home of Georges Neyt, who may or may not have been Léopold I’s illegitimate son. It’s incredibly pretty and slightly over the top, with turrets and towers, gatehouses and groomed gravel. In winter there was a constant, roaring baronial fire in the grate.
I stayed in the second category of room and it was ridiculously large, wood panelled, warm, with a view over mile upon mile of uninterrupted Ardennes forest, topped with a light dusting of snow.
There was a vast, free-standing roll top bath with the same view, and huge candles provided for Flake style bathing. I had a bath and kept, obsessively, trying to photograph its epic glory, with very poor results.
When I emerged, I padded out across the snowy gravel in my heavy heavy robe and towelling slippers to test the spa. I didn’t go with very high hopes, but actually it was amazing, brand new and shiny with a pretty, decent sized dark stone pool filled with hydrotherapy jets, and warm as anything. There was a sauna and steam and an ice foot bath and something bonkers called a rainforest shower that I think has cicadas and fresh coconuts and possibly baby aye ayes to massage conditioner into your hair with their long probing fingers. I didn’t test it out, because I am chicken. Best of all, I was the only one there, floating on my back on my own in the pool and watching the snow gather on the vast skylights. I felt pretty great about my job right then.
If you stayed longer than I did, you could go and drive around the Ardennes, or go to the spa at Spa, which is pretty magnificent, and worth a whole post of its own. You can take the waters too: there are three different kinds. I do not recommend the one that tastes of drains, but it’s probably very good for you.
With no time at all for taking sulphurous waters, I got dressed and I went and had dinner, all on my own, like Miss Marple or something, looking over my pince-nez from time to time with an expression of beady curiosity. It is a strange thing, eating on your own somewhere properly formal, because you can’t really read your book all the time or poke endlessly at your phone, instead you have to observe the other diners and look deeply at ease, to convey that you are totally normal and not a weirdo with no friends. Thankfully, the food was really wonderful, which helped. The chef, Olivier Tucki, worked at the Connaught in London and the Sea Grill in Brussels before landing at Lébioles and he’s really pretty great. The only thing I can remember now was a whole giant caramelised onion that cooked overnight on a very very very low heat, which had been filled with a gorgeous lobster bisque, and that was memorable enough that I occasionally still dream about it. (I have just looked up what I ate: there was apparently a truffled egg cooked at 63°C which I seem to have enjoyed too. I suspect there may also have been wine, in fact I am sure there was)
Then I rolled back up to my vast room and peeped out at the snow until I keeled over into the vast, comfortable bed with those cool, pressed sheets that you never, ever get at home and slept like a baby. A baby that had eaten a caramelised onion the size of its own head.
In the morning I didn’t get around to much more than having another bath in the vast bathtub with a view, in daylight this time, and plotted how I could hide in a cupboard and never go home. Instead, I had to get on a rail replacement bus service round several hundred kilometres of far-flung Ardennes filled with cheerfully vocal and numerous mad people, during which I had ample time to add Le Manoir de Lébioles to my fantasy birthday list. Fairy godmothers, long lost uncles, sheiks, benefactors, you still have time.
Le Manoir de Lébioles, Domaine de Lébioles 1/5, Spa
Rooms from €199
(Have the onion)