Eager to inject a slice of adventure into my (more eco-friendly) rail trip to Amsterdam, when I looked at a map of the region it was Bruges and Ghent that called out at me as a possible stopping points. But Antwerp? Hands up, I’m afraid to say the city barely registered. So, when this secret assignment entered my universe, I was intrigued.
First impressions mean a lot and my arrival into Antwerpen-Centraal, following a Eurostar from London St Pancras to Brussels where I change trains easily, has me hypnotised.
As I step off the train I let out an audible gasp, and that’s not just from trundling off the train with a suitcase the size of Holland and another one the size of, well, Belgium (I know, I can’t pack light, but in my defence, I am away for six weeks, and it’s winter, and you know how much room a winter coat and a pair of chunky boots can take up. Ahem).
I gaze up at the majestic dome, the iron-clad windows and back down to the marble floor. There may be scaffolding around the entrance hall, but it’s no surprise to later learn that the building, which has earned the name Spoorwegkathedraal meaning ‘railroad cathedral’, has become a destination in its own right.
But I have my own destination to turn to: Botanic Sanctuary, a former monastery that has recently opened and gained a worthy stamp of approval as Antwerp’s first five-star hotel.
Like the nearby station, on arrival I’m already won over. As I make my way through the long lobby, overflowing with plants and with a green-framed glass ceiling nodding to the botanical gardens its located next to, I feel a wave of calm fall over me.
Customer service queen Vivien delivers the news that my room is available (three hours early is a gift) and my suitcases are kindly transported. Phew. Up a staircase and labyrinthine passageways, and I open the door to a room to swoon over.
Well, when I say room, I mean plural, for the luxurious honey-hued suite has three rooms if you include the area for the wardrobe, and is larger than my flat in Margate, which is big enough to run a yoga studio from (but don’t worry, there’s already approximately 150 already there so I won’t be adding to the market just yet). The wins also include the suite overlooking a courtyard and church, fresh flowers on the table, and an enormous bathroom with a freestanding tub (bingo).
I’m toying with the idea of spending a couple of hours relaxing in the mother of all spas when Vivien persuades me otherwise, informing me of the poor rain forecast in the coming days and suggesting that given the current baby blue skies and bright rays of sunshine, I should seize the day and venture out on two wheels, pointing me in the direction of a sculpture park.
With a very vocal penchant for cycling, it’s not long before I’m jumping on the saddle of one of the hotel’s bikes and pedalling to the local park Stadspark, before taking on a bigger adventure to Middelheim Park, a sculpture park with rich tree-lined paths and hundreds of artworks spread over 30 hectares of green space. I come back hours later feeling overjoyed and swearing that I will hire a bike more often in cities.
I return for a short meander around the teeny botanical gardens and then park nature in favour of the arts. After an 11-year closure and a wallop of investment, I hear the Royal Museum of Fine Arts has reopened to much fanfare.
There’s a juxtaposition with the grand hall clearly giving off a traditional feel, but enter through and you’re greeted with bright fresh white walls, with old masters artwork such as Peter Paul Rubens mixed with modern works such as early Expressionist James Ensor. After that injection of art, I wander to the Foto Museum to see a new perspective on the photographic history of colonial Congo.
I return ready for a soak in the gigantic tub before heading out to Yust, where I indulge in what turns out to be a 10-course vegan gastronomic affair. I chuckle at the napkin which says something along the lines of, ‘You Shall Not Dine Alone’ when clearly I’m sat solo amongst mainly couples.
Luckily as a solo traveller for 20 years, I don’t feel embarrassed, rather I’m all smiles because hey me, myself and I am accompanied by a Basil Smash gin cocktail and have my own damn fine company to enjoy the rounds of deliciousness including tempeh bravas gnocchi with capers, and grilled courgette with basil foam.
The next day, after a lengthy snooze in the dreamy king-size bed and waking up looking out at the gardens, leafing over a copy of The New York Times, I experience even more gourmet joy with one of the most impressive breakfast bars I’ve seen. Who knew I wanted a chia seed coconut yoghurt for breakfast (on top of the mushrooms on toast, fresh fruit platter, and so on).
As Vivien so rightly pointed out, the weather ain’t looking so sublime but I’m secretly grateful for the rainy day as it means I can hang out in spa all day without pangs of FOMO that I should be experiencing Antwerp.
The spa is a feast for sore eyes, or should I say, bodies. The building is hidden behind ancient walls within the botanical garden, and there’s a huge conservatory-like glass ceiling to make you feel like you’re enveloped in nature.
I rotate like clockwork around the 18-metre pool, the jacuzzi, the steam room, the ice fountain, and the different saunas. The only downside is the Jacuzzi overlooks the pool so you feel like you should put on an athlete-like performance for the spectators in the tub. Instead I impress them with my calming breast stroke while looking out the windows. But more R&R awaits with a Botanical head-to-toe bespoke treatment. (I may have nodded off…)
But I need to wake up ready for my next encounter: dinner at one of the hotel’s much raved about restaurants. Unfortunately, it’s not the Michelin-starred restaurant on site which didn’t offer any vegan options – tut tut in this day and age – but I’m heading to 1238, this time with a companion.
In the lobby, I squeal with excitement when I clasp eyes on Bernara, a friend I made almost nearly five years ago in a tea café on my first day in Yangon and her last. We bonded over travel (Bernara, from Kyrgyzstan, was in the midst of travelling for three years, spending a month in each country) and men (hers an English guy she’d met in Myanmar; mine a French guy living in Yangon who I’d end up having a six-week dalliance with).
As soon as I realised I’d be stopping in Antwerp, where she now lives, I messaged her. It’s like five years has instantly been swept away although we have A LOT to catch up on over cocktails in the hotel’s Henry’s Bar first followed by an assortment of innovative plates over three hours at the cosy, romantic conservatory-like restaurant.
The next day I stop for frites with peanut butter (I’m glad there’s no photo to accompany the review as it may put you off Belgian fries forever) and wander around the food market, before heading on the train to Rotterdam. I soak in the splendour of the grand train station again, making a promise that this won’t be the last time given I’m now a one-woman tourist board for this under-the-radar city which has got firmly under my skin.
Suzanne Bearne is a freelance journalist who writes for the likes of The Guardian, Evening Standard, The Observer, Business of Fashion, the BBC, Refinery29 and more. Much to her mother’s dismay, she has an unstoppable dose of wanderlust and regularly dusts off her trusted backpack for an yet another overseas adventure and to report on local stories. While she has called New York (twice), Berlin, Sydney, Lisbon, York and London home during her adult life, in late 2016 she packed up her whole life (which admittedly wasn’t that much) and migrated with the masses to Margate.