Gent’s wonderful secret
About 15 years ago, while living in the Netherlands, I spent a long weekend in Ghent, Bruges’ bigger but IMO more appealing sister. The style-hunting factor is high in this canal city, from brocante and vintage jewelery retailers to low-key milliners. But I had come to check out a tiny guest house I had heard about called The Verhaegen. It’s tiny only in the sense that there are only four rooms; and to call them ‘rooms’ is unfair to the massive pied-à-terre suites in this 1760 palace with its own enclosed courtyard gardens (the ‘suite années ’40’ measures 70m²).
It was acquired in 2004 by interior designers Marc Vergauwe and Jan Rosseel, who embarked on a multi-year restoration and decoration project that has resulted in some of the most beautiful and original hotel interiors I have come across. Purebred antiques happily mix with modern French and Dutch designs; fresh flowers fill rooms with color and fragrance; Breakfast is served in a huge dining room and drinks in the drawing room (both can also be taken among the manicured box hedges of the classic garden). If you’re in town to introduce the little ones to the genius of the Van Eyck brothers (or the joys of properly cooked fries), book the Two-Bedroom Family Suite with its large king-size bed and two single beds. For something more contemporary, with self-catering in mind (think small kitchens and workspaces), 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
The founders of the fragrance lifestyle line Coqui Coqui hail from France, but their lifelong love of all things Mexican and places has meant the brand is inextricably linked to this country. They are also their undisputed masters of micro-scale hospitality: experience the Coqui Coqui One Suite Collection – their individual, sigh-inducing private accommodations alongside the Coqui Coqui ateliers in Valladolid, Merida and Izamal. Just inland from Tulum is the five-suite Coqui Coqui Cobá Papholchac Residence & Spa.
Half ruin, half Arcadian idyll, it sprawls across two stone towers, with three small but stunning pools, a shared dining room and library, bar, and the promised spa, which features local plants and clays in the wraps and oil massages. What you won’t find: TVs, air conditioning, or guests in uninterrupted communication with their devices. What you will find: beautiful sachets full of Coqui Coqui fragrances, strong on tropical notes of vanilla and white flowers, as a welcome gift. From around £330, coquicoqui.com
Country style – and privacy – in Sicily
Sicilian’s Val di Noto has a lot to offer: sumptuous baroque towns, sandy beaches, easy access to Etna’s wineries and the gleaming travertine squares of Ortigia (and conveniently Catania International Airport too). 13 years ago, the Seven Rooms Villadorata in Palazzo Nicolaci opened amid Noto’s sinuous, curved and arched facades, setting a new style for the area. In 2015, its owner Cristina Summa opened Country House Villadorata, a sprawling inn on a former olive mill five kilometers outside of town. Its eight rooms and five suites are spread across three residences and share living and dining areas.
The renovation is fairly modern — less majolica, more groovy task lamps and butterfly chairs (and a very modern new eco-suite with cement floors and sustainably-sourced wood paneling) — but the charm lies in what the country house delivers on: the organic line Officine Villadorata includes homemade oils, soaps and more. And the perfection that is Calamosche Beach is an easy 10 minute drive away. From €549, landhausvilladorata.it
Johannesburg suffers unfairly from Southern Africa’s great wilderness offerings – often seen as a stopover or gateway rather than a destination in its own right and therefore experienced (a shame given its vibrant contemporary arts and food cultures). The same transient safari-goers here often choose the big, full-service hotels and miss out on a cluster of small, thoughtful resorts whose contrasting sizes mean you get an entirely different view of the city.
One of the smallest is the AtholPlace Hotel & Villa in the lush northern suburb of Atholl. In fact, AtholPlace consists of two separate houses on one property with four and nine bedrooms respectively, each designed to be taken over (as people tend to safari in groups or families this is ideal). The contemporary villa’s four bedrooms are all located on the first floor, while on the ground floor there is a lounge bar, an indoor/outdoor living room and a garden with a private pool and a conversation pit surrounded by braziers on a chilly July or August evening is illuminated. Sandton’s galleries and shops are a short drive away; as are the bustling cafes and restaurants of Parktown’s 4th Avenue. Athol Villa from €1,500 per night for eight guests, morokuru.com
Lisbon’s home-hotel perfection
And finally to Lisbon and a definitive and unassailable permutation of the small-is-beauty model. Santa Clara 1728 is anything but an unknown: opened in 2017 by João Rodrigues – the TAP pilot-turned-entrepreneur-hotelier and founder of the unique Silent Living collection of Portuguese hotels – it is renowned for its excellent combination of quality design, relaxed ambience and an absolutely convincing home-from-home welcome (go into the kitchen and ask for a cold cuts and cheese platter – or grab a knife and start chopping herbs with the sous-chefs; both are perfectly tolerated).
The six suites are masterclasses in bringing contemporary spirit to old spaces, the work of award-winning architect and frequent Silent Living collaborator Manuel Aires Mateus. The 18th century gently meets the 21st century, with natural, tactile materials – stone, wood, clay, lime, linen – in elemental tones. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the bathroom in my suite, whose huge window and free-standing stone tub overlooked the dome of Santa Engrácia and the green-grey expanse of the Tagus beyond. All breakfast at a long refectory-style table; Guests read and sip cocktails in the riad-like courtyard, where light and shadow play across bright white interior walls. In a city expecting increasingly mass and invasive tourism, the Santa Clara is a distillation of serenity. From €550, still life.pt