A creature of habit, I happily return to my favorite haunts when in need of a travel fix. Europe and South America seem to dominate my short list in terms of desirable destinations.

Perhaps, it is really true that one can never get too much of history, culture and architecture. And, let us not forget to add in local wine, craft beer and culinary mastery for good measure.

This year, my goal was to mix it up, making an effort to explore smaller undiscovered places. Grand cities like Rome, London, Barcelona, and Paris are truly magical, but a visit can be a feat. Much like a mega-shopping spree, the thrill of the treasure hunt is often overshadowed by lack of time and money.

Enjoying my limited time leisurely, without sacrificing the travel experience, was my top priority.

I managed to work out all the details, combining a family visit with a river cruise followed by a three day post adventure to Belgium.

I have never been to Belgium nor was it on my bucket list. But after closer inspection, I was quite impressed.

Belgium is a player in world politics, home to the European Union and NATO.

Roughly the size of Maryland, Belgium borders Germany, France and the Netherlands. As a consequence, there is not one but three official languages – French, Dutch and German. Flemish, a regional dialect, adds to the confusion.

So far so good.

But, I think it was Belgium’s renowned reputation for fine chocolates that sealed the deal. Where there is chocolate, there is surely a rich past of refined luxury and an abundance of history.

I found this and more in beautiful Bruges.

A close friend had planted the seed, recommending I choose Bruges over Brussels. I will be forever grateful for her guidance.

The celebrated city is about three hours from Amsterdam by train, located in the northwest corner of the country.

Bruges (sounds like rouge) is a medieval marvel. Spared by the many wars, Bruges has much of its historic architecture still intact. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, Bruges is recognized as one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in the world.

Fast Fact: Bruges was once a celebrated trade center for cloth and lace; the weavers and spinners of Bruges were thought to be the best in the world.

Picturesque canals and quaint bridges have also been part of its claim to fame.

Hailed the” Venice of the North”, Bruges has been welcoming and charming tourists for centuries.

The 2008 dark comedic crime film, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell put this small Flemish city back in the spotlight. Only after my return, did I chance to see the film recounting favorite scenic spots.

No longer an undiscovered gem, Bruges’ annual visitors are now in the millions. There is much to see and do. It is easy to be seduced by the city and lose oneself amidst it all.

The main market square, home to city hall and famous bell tower, is a great place to start your sightseeing adventure.

Be forewarned in your planning, there are as many hotels as there are chocolate shops in the historic center.

The Hotel Heritage, just a short walk from the square, was my special find.

The luxury property oozes old world charm.  I was pampered like a princess every moment of my two day stay. An exemplary elevated experience!

Well-deserving of a travel diva 5-star rating for impeccable service and accommodations.

Part of the exclusive Relais & Château luxury collection, The Heritage Hotel is owned and operated by a discerning and dynamic duo, Johan and Isabelle Creytens. The couples’ vision and hard work, transforming the 19th Century mansion to its current modern day magnificence, has paid off with countless global awards, stellar reviews and returning loyal guests.

The Hotel Heritage project was the Creyten’s first foray in the hotel business. Nearly 26 years in the making, their dream is a successful reality.

The Luxury Hotel Awards bestowed the title of “Best Boutique Hotel in the World” to the Hotel Heritage in 2014.

The hotel property is small and inviting with a focus on superior service and amenities.

Special guest pleasures go well beyond convenience. One may find an in-room iPad in other upscale properties, but to find a chocolate sampler tray in the breakfast lounge is truly golden.

The Creytens’ attention to every detail is divine from the restored architectural accents to the fine linens. An elegant chandelier and a stately fireplace dress up the intimate reading room where guests can cozy up with a book or enjoy a game of chess.

Mirroring a grand manor home parlor room, the lobby is warm, welcoming and tastefully decorated with antique furniture and fixtures.

And, the owners love to share the tales and treasure of the house’s storied past.

Among the artifacts, are the original keys to a bank vault found in the building’s basement cellar (now, the fitness/sauna chamber) artfully framed and displayed by the lobby desk.

Guests are greeted by a polished staff which includes resident interns from some of the top hospitality schools in the world. The students are afforded the unique opportunity to learn the business first hand from front desk to housekeeping.

And, on any given day, you will find the owners chatting with guests and helping out where needed.  I was delighted to meet Isabelle Creytens at breakfast.  As she was delivering more champagne to the buffet (yes…one can start the day with a mimosa), I snagged her to rave about the food and the sumptuous selection.  I simply could not get enough of a special cottage or curd cheese called Platte Kaas or Quark. I learned later this Quark is a popular ingredient in many cheesecake recipes.

Isabelle explained the hotel supported area farmers and the breakfast buffet always included fresh breads, pastries, fruit and specialty items from local markets and bakeries. A made-to-order menu is also available. I was treated to an authentic Belgian waffle topped with powdery sugar and jammy fruit for my farewell meal. Guests are spoiled with the best of Belgium with every bite.

In the evening hours, the breakfast dining area transforms to Le Mystique, the hotel’s award-winning restaurant. The menu features classic regional dishes and offers an extensive wine list.

Enjoy the magic of the city and the carillon music of the belfry tower from the small sundeck for two on the top floor. The secluded space is the perfect spot for shared conversation and a little romance.

Dedicated to sustainable tourism practices, water and energy conservation are top of mind; the property now features smart in-room lighting, digital thermostats and an electric car charging station.

The Hotel Heritage’s reputation for classic elegance blended with modern comfort will give you reason to celebrate and savor every moment in Bruges until your faithful return.

For current rates, availability, special offers and packages, visit the Hotel Heritage website 

Niklaas Desparsstraat 11
8000 Brugge

Guestrooms: 22 rooms; Classic to Suites (215-430 sq ft)

Rates: Seasonal;  Starting at $250 USD per night

Hotel Amenities & Highlights:

  • 4 Star historic boutique property
  • Nilson queen bed or twin beds with luxury linen   ( http://www.nilsonbeds.com/)
  • Writing desk with iPad
  • Nespresso coffee machine
  • Complimentary WiFi
  • Fruit basket upon arrival
  • Stocked mini bar
  • Flat screen television & Bose sound system
  • Marble bathroom with tub
  • Plush bathrobes and towels
  • Controlled lighting & temperature
  • Trouser press, iron & ironing board, shoeshine, laundry service
  • Concierge & room service
  • Telephone & in-room safe
  • Daily newspapers in lobby
  • Twice daily housekeeping with evening turn down service
  • Fitness room with sauna
  • Bar & fine dining restaurant
  • Breakfast service (7-10:30 am)
  • Non-smoking property
  • Currency exchange service

Note: Hotel Heritage also offers adjoining rooms in a side annex featuring a shared private courtyard. Perfect accommodations for a family or small group.

Bruges’ Best Bets:

The Belfry Clock Tower:  If you dare, climb the 366 steps (272 feet) for a breathtaking view of Bruges and the countryside. Open 9:30 am to 6 pm. Admission fee required for access. Carillon Concerts are Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m with an additional evening concert on Monday and Wednesday during the summer.

Triennial Bruges 2018 “Liquid City”:  There is still time to catch this spectacular outdoor exhibition. Snag a free detailed walking guide from the tourist office and discover each artistic installation as you explore the city.  My favorite: a giant whale structure rising out of the canal near Jan van Eyck square. Created from plastic waste pulled from the ocean, it is a testament to how art can influence change.

St. John’s Hospital:  The medieval hospital, located next to the Church of Our Lady, was founded in the 12th Century.  St. John’s is one of Europe’s oldest preserved hospital buildings.

Church of Our Lady: The church, dating back to the 13th Century, showcases treasures which include the tomb of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and Michelangelo’s world famous Madonna & Child sculpture. The church tower (377 ft) is the tallest structure in Bruges.

Bruges City Hall:  A gothic architectural masterpiece built in 1376. It is the oldest city hall in the Netherlands. Tour the inside for a glimpse of stunning 19th Century wall murals that capture scenes of Bruge’s history.

Le Trappiste: Indulge in a tasty Belgian brew – over 130 to choose from –  in a crypt-like setting at this popular haunt just off of Acadamie Street near the Bruges Theater. An easy 5 minute walk from Hotel Heritage

Canal Cruise:  Bruges by boat is a must. Tours kiosks are speckled along the canals. A 30 minute canal cruise averages $10 USD  for adults/ $5 USD for children.

Historium:  A virtual realty experience giving visitors a glimpse of the Golden Age of Bruges. Be sure to check out the fabulous panoramic view while enjoying a beer tasting from the terrace bar, Duvelorium.

Information on historic sites and museums can be found at Musea Brugge online.

For vacation planning tips and more about Bruges visit the city’s official tourism website: www.visitbruges.be

Photos Courtesy of S. Gaspers and Hotel Heritage