La Butte aux Bois spa hotel review: An old château lets you leave with a glow
- Credit: HUGO THOMASSEN
A forest retreat in Belgium has all you need to recharge your batteries, from a morning bootcamp run by the lake to a lazy afternoon in the spa
On the edge of a Belgian forest sits La Butte aux Bois, a spa hotel with giant golden doors and sumptuous feasts laid out every night. It sounds like the start of a wellness themed fairytale, but it’s been brought to life by husband and wife team Eric Bullens and Dr Yolande Bullens-Goessens.
The new extension comprising the entrance, spa and gym complex, and new rooms have been realised in three low eco-lodge style buildings with a dark façade. It’s mode-ish architectural style that compliments both the natural surroundings and original building.
The old château is storybook pretty, with a sunny terrace and a lawn rolling down to the lake. We were ushered out there for a delicious light lunch. A delicate square of shrimp, egg and asparagus melted under stream of creamy broth poured from a teapot into a moreish soup, followed by a seafood platter of melt in the mouth raw salmon, crayfish and squid with salad and a sweet and sharp citrusy dressing and paired with a fruity white wine.
All the meals struck a careful balance between proper continental cooking that didn’t skimp on the butter and cream but paired with light, fresh and seasonal ingredients in sensible proportions, meaning you were never too full to contemplate fresh air and exercise or peruse the spa facilities. It’s the kind of holistic wellness that doesn’t buy in to the ridiculousness of courgette noodles but means you come back from your mini break feeling fairly virtuous.
Fed but not overfed, I decided to make the most of the sunshine before supper to explore the forest. The Hoge Kempen National Forest is huge; you could spend a week there and not take the same route twice. Reception has maps on hand, with handily colour coded routes for different lengths. I opted for the 5k, which took about an hour. The routes are also clearly marked with coloured tags on posts at regular intervals along the paths, so you don’t have to worry if your map reading skills or sense of direction isn’t up to the task. The path is more than pretty enough, and with air perfumed with pine sap it was the perfect picturesque afternoon amble.
Back at the hotel I settled into my ‘Ambience’ room and delighted in running myself a hot bath in the sunken tub, complete with a window through to the bedroom with its floor to ceiling glass, so you can admire the breathtaking view of the forest outside. The decor had a distinctly masculine twist, all dark wood and clean lines. The hotel deems it ‘eco chic’, but to me the minimalism and charred wood aesthetic brought to mind wabi-sabi, the Japanese answer to hygge.
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After meeting for sparkling wine and nibbles, including a really tasty lobster and crab bisque we were shown into the private dining room for a four course menu with wine pairings. Pressed circles of goats cheese and watermelon served with dabs of sweet chilli and tightly furled pickled cucumber. Smoked salmon draped over an expertly poached egg with asparagus and another creamy, egg laced. Delicately grilled skate wing with lemon, capers and buttery vegetables was melt in the mouth. Each course came with a pairing of local wine. Almost flagging under the weight of the three preceding courses I valiantly snaffled up the desert of white chocolate fondant with a berry sorbet and ginger sorbet, which was too tasty to be healthy. The incredibly accommodating staff even managed to whip us up an espresso martini to finish the evening.
Lest you think press trips are all fun and wine tasting we were up at the crack of dawn for yoga on a terrace overlooking the woods or a run through the forest with a ‘boot camp’ twist. Not fancying showing off my inflexibility in front of yogi level lifestyle writers and bloggers, I opted for the run. Luckily the preternaturally good looking former golf pro and head of the health club went easy on us, but the casual jog down to the lake and back interspersed with squats, lunges and tricep dips was enough to work up a sweat and an appetite for the breakfast buffet.
Access to the well stocked and stylish gym comes with the room, but being opposed to any form of exercise conducted indoors I decided to give the spa facilities a thorough test run instead.
Brand spanking new and spotless there’s an indoor lounge with herbal teas and fresh fruit smoothies on tap, and indoor daybeds looking out on a suntrap terrace with loungers. Downstairs there’s a swimming pool that could be out of a music video, all dark glittering tiles and low lighting. There’s a hot tub outside, then a steam room, infrared treatment chairs, ice chips and cold bucket showers.
I had the anti acne facial. Disappointingly there was no steaming or extractions, so the pimple party on my chin remained unmolested. The cleanse, tone and mask ritual complete with lymphatic massage was lovely though, and the fruit acid peel was a slow burn wonder - I glowed for a week after.
If a facial isn’t going to cut it for the well rested look, the spa has a secret weapon. The owner’s wife is a dermatologist and runs an aesthetic treatment clinic on site. Botox and lip fillers are all on the menu. If you’re in the market for a little extra help Dr Bullens-Goessens really knows her needles, and the regulations around cosmetic procedures in Belgium are far stricter than you’d find on Harley Street.
After trying out the lunchtime spa menu (similar to main menu but lighter, tasty, but I prefer my burrata creamy and dense rather than aerated to reduce calorific intake) and (more) wine I had a full body massage. Not life changing but totally relaxing and the warm quartz bed, spray painted gold to go with the theme, felt like lying on the softest, warmest sandy beach imaginable.
Knots kneaded and fresh faced it was time for La Source, the Michelin starred restaurant that deserves its own separate review. Suffice to say Chef Ralf Berendsen, sommelier Marc Teuben and Maître Kevin Vondenhoff really look after their dining guests and each dish is picture perfect. It’s defintely a treat, but it made for the perfect final evening of the trip.
They really have thought of everything, from the spa facilities to the outdoorsy opportunities, fine dining and exciting architecture. It’s hotel catering for those who work hard and want to relax harder. You can enjoy fresh air and good food without breaking your workout routine, and maybe get a little bit of cosmetic updating whilst you’re at it.
3-day/2-night short-stay package: 725EUR pp (2 sharing 2 nights in an Ambiance or Experience room) includes full access to all spa facilities, refreshments in the Spa Lounge, La Forêt cocktail, La Forêt signature facial, day make-up, body exfoliation, next/shoulder/back massage, manicure or pedicure, nourishing paraffin pack for the hands, a hot stone massage, a hydro-massage in the spaJet and an Ergoline tanning session. Includes breakfast each day, two culinary lunches with wine and water, and one 4-course and one 5-course dinner in Le Bistro.
The Domaine is a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux portfolio and also included in Austria’s respected Niche Destinations portfolio (niche-destinations.com).
Access is easy via a choice of international airports all within a one-hour drive including Brussels, Brussels South Charleroi and Liège in Belgium, Eindhoven in Holland, and Düsseldorf, Weeze or Cologne/Bonn in Germany.