24-Hour Room Service: Hotel Julien Antwerp, Belgium

Mouche Van Hool opened this, her first hotel, in 2004 and it's been a hit with the fashion crowd (lured by the buzz surrounding the famous alumni of Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Art - among them Martin Margiela and Dries Van Noten) and other discerning travellers ever since.

At Hotel Julien, the owner has put her background in advertising and interior architecture to good use, with a sumptuous yet restrained aesthetic and an unfailing eye for detail. The hotel comprises two characterful 16th-century buildings, now joined.

From the spacious front room housing the low check-in desk, you can see through high, double doors to the courtyard (musically accompanied by a trough of running water), and exquisite lounge and dining room beyond. Here, vast, ornate, black-painted doors and panelling are the perfect backdrop to the furniture - a smattering of modern (mostly Eames) classics, unusual antiques and scrubbed, plain wood tables.

Upstairs, the 11 bedrooms range from attic-cosy (complete with outdoor terrace) to high-ceilinged elegance. The palette is soft and neutral without being bland; the bathrooms that perfect, restful blend of comfort and austerity.

The secret here is in the lack of cold tiling - the areas around the bath and shower are plastered using a Moroccan waterproofing technique called tadelakt.

Handsome, creamy ceramics (handmade by local artist Anja Meeusen in a faintly Japanese style) add to the non-corporate look, and make a welcome re-appearance at breakfast,which is a simple feast of home-made breads, jam, cheese, salmon, eggs, yoghurt and fresh fruit salad.

Oh, and if you're thinking this grown-up, sensual environment sounds a bit child unfriendly - not a bit of it: cots and extra beds can be provided on request. Besides, it's never too early to learn how hotels ought to look.

LOCATION

Hotel Julien, Korte Nieuwstraat 24, B-2000 Antwerp, Belgium (00 32 3 229 0600; www.hotel-julien.com). With its narrow pavements and a tram running through it, Korte Nieuwstraat at first looks a little unpromising. But once through the hotel's heavy doors, all thoughts of traffic are forgotten, and it's only a short walk from the cathedral and some of the city's best restaurants.

Time from international airport: 15 minutes by taxi from Antwerp airport. From the station it's a five-minute metro journey, plus a five-minute walk.

COMFORTABLE?

Supremely. Antwerp has some of the best clothes-shopping in Europe and knowing that your day's spending will end with complimentary afternoon tea served in the hotel's tranquil environment is bliss.

Freebies: Beautiful blocks of marbled soap and other Waterl'eau bath products.

Keeping in touch: Cable TV, wireless internet access (plus laptop-size safes and DVD players).

THE BOTTOM LINE

Double rooms from €165 (£118) including breakfast - worth every penny.

I'm not paying that: Hotel Scheldezicht (00 32 32 31 66 02; www.hotelscheldezicht.be) is close to the waterfront and punches well above its weight in terms of style and character for the price. Rooms start at €65 (£46) including breakfast.

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