The newest hotel in Ghent is possibly the grandest, a palace once belonging to the wealthy poet Baron Olivier de Reylof (1684-1742). The Reylof is a Louis XIV-style mansion outside the boundaries of the medieval city walls built by the recently ennobled Baron in 1712. When the Dutch hoteliers Sandton began converting this run-down but sweeping, grey majestic block, they also incorporated the 19th-century house next door where Maurice Maeterlinck was born. As the only Belgian to win the Nobel Prize for literature (his play Pelléas et Mélisande inspired music by Debussy, Fauré and Sibelius), Maeterlinck is good company for the baron to keep.
Design of the hotel was overseen by Sandton CEO Guy Devries, working with Dutch architect Willemien Van Aartsen and using fabrics from Christian Lacroix and Designers Guild. The hotel has retained and restored all Baron Reylof's public rooms, which function as reception, lobby, drawing room and several gorgeous Jane Austen-style function rooms up a grand spiral staircase. His coach house has been converted into the spa and indoor pool.
Arriving at the Reylof is, initially, like visiting the 18th-century book-loving baron at his home. Black-coated porters linger in the spacious hallways, awaiting instruction.
But by contrast, the rest of the hotel is surprisingly edgy and up to date. Visitors walk under the exquisite, polished staircase to emerge into the culture shock that is the NJOY bar – a cheeky cocktail concept imported from Amsterdam that is dark and purple hued even at midday – then thread their way past and several pieces of hefty modern sculpture to LOF, the dining room.
LOF (short for Reylof but also Dutch for "praise") is a riot of colours – white banquettes streaked with reds, greens and blues, a glowing marble champagne bar and wallpaper covered in giant Cath Kidston-style roses that is only just this side of naff. The chef's "Lof Specials" include the Lof burger (€18.50) and open ravioli with salmon and lobster gravy (€24.50).
The 18th-century half of the hotel is like a National Trust property, restored in stunning detail with a golden trompe l'oeil dome over the staircase and expertly marbled walls. By contrast, the 21st-century section (wholly disguised behind the unbroken façade) tries not to look like a hotel at all. LOF and NJOY present themselves as free-standing entities independent of the hotel. The Reylof is two kinds of hotel simultaneously, but such a bold contrast works.
The surrounding neighbourhood, known as Poel, is an odd part of Ghent to the west of the centre that can't quite make up its mind – trendy or on its uppers? The street on which it's located, Hoogstraat, heads north past several down-at-heel palaces under refurbishment, a few mid-range brasseries, some gentrified residential property and the decidedly louche Hotsy Totsy Club. The original appeal of Poel must have been like Clifton in Bristol, a bit of high ground above the docks where wealthy merchants could keep an eye on their ships. Now it finds itself becoming fashionable again, a non-touristy side of town only five minutes' walk from the waterside tourist traps of Graslei and Korenlei. It would be an oasis for the weary traveller were it not for the traffic zooming past.
The Reylof has recently unveiled its 158th and final room, the Presidential Suite, on the fourth floor. Elsewhere, there are two kinds of bedroom and suite depending on which part of the hotel you are in. The old block has created rooms out of every 18th-century nook and cranny, including some imaginative use of rafter space. The new block rooms are much more regular. Most have balconies facing into the courtyard garden. Both are comfortable but the old block is much more fun. It's not every bedroom you find arranged around a large free-standing bath or that sends you up steps to your bed. Stripes abound: red, with a nod to history, in the old rooms and eye-catching green in the new.
The new, brightly lit public areas are a feast for the eyes rather than a place to plonk yourself, but the baron's panelled drawing room behind the reception is an exception: spacious, comfortable sofas, big cushions and books actually worth reading. This is the place to doze off after lunch.
Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof, Hoogstraat 36, Ghent, Belgium (00 32 9 235 4070; sandton.eu/gent)
Double rooms start at €139, including breakfast.