Our classic tour of the ArdennesMichelle Chenery reports on a Southern Belgium ITCM fam trip that coincided with the volcanic eruption and produced more adventures than we bargained for!
Our MICE buyers’ adventure in Wallonia started with a bang. All the early morning news was of the volcanic eruption in Iceland and how many flights were cancelled. Heathrow closed at 12 noon, but our 11.15am flight on Brussels Airlines was one of the last to leave UK airspace, which was then to close for a further six days. On arrival at Brussels airport after a comfortable flight on time we were transferred to Trajectoire, where we had our first sight of the classic cars we would be driving for the next three days. The delegates were like children let loose in a candy store. Inside the building there were wall-to-wall classic cars.
After an excitable lunch, we were issued with road books and were instructed how to reset the trip meter at every checkpoint so we wouldn’t get lost. In theory we would be able to retrace our steps and then get back on track. (I say ‘in theory’, as some of us got completely lost. I’m not mentioning names of course but they know who they are.) We were not given an overall route, so a reliable co-pilot was essential.
I got hold of the keys to my first car of the day - a 1969 MGB Roadster. Seated at the wheel, I informed my co-pilot, Rosemarie, that it was my first time on the right-hand side of the road. However, we were out in front of everyone else, until we hit traffic, allowing the boys to catch up with us. But we got ahead again, admiring the stunning scenery and following country lanes that twisted and turned until we reached the amazing 13thC Chateau de Modave.
It is perched on a rock, commanding the river below and all the countryside. The entrance hall displays wealth and power, the ceiling covered in reliefs of knights on horses and coats of arms. All the rooms display the same level of opulence, but with the different periods of time and residence obvious in each. Most of them are available for dinners and receptions. Then to something entirely different - the F-1 track at Spa. To get there we jumped into a 1957 MGA, with 55mph feeling vary fast when the wind is blowing in your hair.
Arrival at the track saw us all parking amongst a bevy of Porsches. Our trip coincided with a Porsche weekend. We were driven several times round the track in a Renault Megane RS, not quite as fast as some of us would have liked but as a result of ongoing work on a collapsed tunnel. Guided tours and experiences on the track can be arranged from March to November, with options of evening track sessions after 6pm. On-site facilities can host product launches, seminars, staff parties, receptions and VIP events during race weekends, with 24 rooms available for 25 to 600 delegates at a time.
We then drove to the 123-room Dorint Spa-Balmoral Hotel, where the bar was a great place to discuss the day’s events.
Our rooms were in the recently opened new wing with 24 designer rooms, all with concept bathrooms, which not only allow you to watch tv from the bath or shower but also to take in views of the Ardennes. The hotel has added five meeting rooms, making 16 in all, the largest of which, the Montreal Indianapolis, can seat up to 275 delegates.
Day Two -
The next day I found myself in the car that had broken down the day before. It was a lovely black Triumph TR3, the best looking car there in my opinion and it didn’t let us down all day. I was in the passenger’s seat for the first time and therefore responsible for not getting lost, otherwise we would not be getting any breakfast at Manoir de Lébioles. In 2006 the 100-yr-old property was renovated back to its former glory. Nearly all the 16 rooms and suites have a characteristic open fireplace. The wellness centre is situated just out of the main building, housing the vitality pool with hydro massage, steam bath, ice fountain, sauna and treatment rooms.
Then we drove to the Abbaye de Stavelot. Inside it houses the museum of the Principality of Stavelot-Malmedy, the Guillaume Appollinaire Museum and the Spa-Francorchamps museum, which is located in the vaulted cellars and has cars from the pioneers to those of the present day. Other Abbaye meeting rooms accommodate from 15 to 500 people.
In brilliant sunny weather, La Roche was our next stop and a very tricky section of the journey not only for the driver but also for the map reader. Our car was the last in the convoy and I spotted the turning that those in front had missed. We were, therefore, the first to arrive at our next stop for the day and a spot of lunch and refreshment at the Wildtrails base in Rendeux. The venue consists of log cabins built near the river, with blazing fires roaring away inside. We were only enticed out to get hold of some locally brewed La Chouffe beer. One of the larger cabins can hold 150 people for a banquet. A barbecue was prepared inside and we lunched on a salmon starter, followed by chicken, sausages and an extensive buffet.
Wildtrails is a team-building specialist, with many locations throughout Belgium and Benelux. Just a few of the activities available at the base we visited include rock climbing, zip-wire ride (or ‘death slide’ as they refer to it), kayaking, horse riding and mountain biking. We next drove on to Chateau Jemeppe in the village of Hargimont. The castle dates back to the 13thC, with the different owners making changes over the years. Jemeppe received its first paying guests in 2006 and with the completion of the Farmhouse in 2007 now has over 100 bedrooms, a choice of meeting rooms, swimming pool, sauna restaurant and lounges. All-inclusive packages, including drinks, are available. La Grange is the largest hall, able to hold up to 500 people.
Our next stop was Durbuy, the smallest town in the world. No wonder we nearly drove right past it.
The Hostellerie Le Sanglier des Ardennes includes four buildings, six restaurants and eight conference rooms. The Sanglier des Ardennes on the banks of the river Ourthe has 24 rooms and two junior suites with current expansion plans underway to add a new wellness centre as well as a conference facility. The Chateau Cardinal, a converted convent nestled near the old city walls, has six suites. The Vieux Durbuy has a further 15 rooms and is located in the pedestrian district of the town, whilst the Victoria Hotel is more modern, offering a further ten rooms and one junior suite. The wine cellar in The Sanglier boasts over 15,000 bottles and a collection of Armagnacs dating back to the early 1900s, so you can have a drink of the year of your birth if you so wish. In the restaurant kitchen we were able to observe the chef at every step, whilst we munched some snacks he made for us.
Even in the smallest town in the world we managed to lose two people. Luckily they were on foot and not in a car so we were soon on a 50 km drive to Namur and our overnight destination, Chateau de la Poste. Set in a 100-acre estate and built in 1895, it had been the residence of Princess Clementine for more than 40 years. Sold in 2007, its current owners have carried out a major refurbishment. There are modern touches with the richness of the original features. The castle has 42 rooms, all with flat screen monitors, cable tv and Wi-Fi. There are ten meeting rooms in a separate building, all with the latest technology. Outdoor activities include horse riding, mini golf and mountain biking and French bowls.
The Group had an amicable if intense discussion about which cars we still hadn’t driven and who would be driving which car, as well as the times and destinations where we would swap. First off for Rosemarie and me that day was the Alfa Romeo Spider Duetto. Signals that turned themselves off as well as a fifth gear - these may sound like simple things but they were luxuries after driving some of the other cars.
We were the last car to leave that morning, but somehow we were the first to arrive at Namur Citadelle, much to our surprise, they had all sped right past the entrance again. We were met by Vincent Busana of Action Team Training, and one of his colleagues, dressed up in special ops gear.
We were informed that we were new recruits and that we had to answer three questions to be able to listen to a tape relating to our first investigation as full-blown CSI agents. This involved walking in and out of tunnels and caverns, most of which were pitch black, entering in one part of the complex and emerging somewhere else about 20ft above where we had entered. The tunnels had been built to guard against anyone planting bombs against the outer walls. I’m glad we had guides, otherwise I have a feeling we would have not been seen for quite some time.
The questions were put to us after we had scrambled through tunnels and emerged into a cavern. We managed to answer them and were rewarded with a full interview with a suspect to a murder. This would help us with our investigation later.
I was then back in the driver’s seat in one of the easiest cars to drive, once I got the hang of the fact that the gear-stick was mostly on the passenger’s side of the car. After problems finding our way due to the closure of some railway tracks, we arrived at Chateau du Lac, the scene for the full murder investigation, in which we failed to find out who murdered a Mr Lee. It will be one of the great unsolved mysteries.
Overlooking Lake Genval, the Chateau du Lac has 23 meetings rooms. The largest, the Argentine, can accommodate 1,050 delegates and has access for showing vehicles. There are 122 bedrooms ranging from the Cosy room up to the Executive Suites, all of which have been recently refurbished. We had a quick drink and then had lunch in the Genval Les Bains bar and restaurant overlooking the lake and parkland. This was supposed to be our final day in Belgium, but by this time we had heard that there were still no flights in and out of the UK.
My final car was a 1966 Triumph TR4, good fun until I reached the car park at the Dolce La Hulpe hotel. But whilst I was busy trying to find reverse my parking space was pinched by one of the other cars, whose two occupants saw the funny side of it all. Set in the Soignes Forest minutes from Brussels city centre and the airport is the Dolce La Hulpe Brussels. It might look a bit like an office building, but all 264 guest rooms have a view overlooking the surrounding forest and the green areas located throughout the hotel. It has 47,900sqft of meeting space, including two auditoria with state-of-the-art technology, a further 23 meeting rooms, 12 colourful breakout rooms with climate control, free Wi-Fi, continuous refreshment buffets and on-request secretarial services. Its Cinq Mondes spa has six treatment rooms, two rooms for hand- and foot-care, a large Hammam with four scrub tables and a double VIP suite with a double Japanese bath.
Outdoor activities include mountain biking, two tennis courts, a volleyball field, jogging paths and Tai Chi Chaun, Nordic walking or team treasure hunts. Located inside the building is an all-purpose team building facility known as ‘The Cube’. Set five floors below the basement, you are locked in whilst completing five tasks, some physical, some mental, but all good fun. The aim is to get as many points as possible on each task so you’ll gain enough serum to escape from the laboratory.
Our group took part in two physical challenges. The first involved cyclists pedalling fast enough to get a code to show up on a screen. A bungee runner had to strain to reach it, then get flung back to pass the code on to be punched into a keypad, then out for another code. The second challenge was firing sponge balls through holes in a wall, whilst a third was testing our powers of observation to gain enough points to escape from The Cube. As there were no flights to the UK that evening, we were very kindly provided with rooms at the Dolce La Hulpe and, over a drink, we had a brainstorming session on how we might get back home the following day.
Getting back to the UK!
Take a few Belgian beers, a few glasses of wine, Philippe Maree of the Belgian Tourist Office, Brussels & Wallonia, an ITCM reporter (me) and our group of event planners and give them one topic before retiring to bed: ‘How do we get back to the UK?’ Our options were the ferry or the train. Eurostar’s website kept showing seats available but timed us out, so first thing next morning we hurried off to the station Our hopes were dashed - the earliest availability would be Wednesday, four days away. Plan B kicked into play, but it was so difficult to get to Calais that we opted for one train ride straight to Ostend for the ferry to Ramsgate.
There we found a big notice stating ‘No foot passengers!’ Only vehicles could go aboard with their passengers. It was suggested we could take taxis on board and pay the drivers to travel back to Belgium. In the meantime we checked the situation at Calais, but Wednesday was quoted as the first chance down there, too. Whilst some of us ate lunch, a couple were despatched to the booking office, where they found that queuing drivers were being asked if they had any spare capacity. We got our names on a list of hopeful hitch-hikers. Now we just had to wait, so we made a quick dash to the Cathedral and put some money into the collection box. We returned to find that two of our people had already been able to get a lift on board and then, (praise be!), all the rest of us were offered a lift in a minibus. The ladies with the vehicle turned out to be event organisers who had been running a conference in Frankfurt and had finally managed to see their delegates safely away to various countries. So we landed back in Ramsgate, got lifts to home or to our own cars in Heathrow car park and were back on Sunday evening, just 24 hours behind schedule. All in all, it was a great trip and definitely a brilliant team-building exercise!
Rosemarie: The whole trip was fabulous! The Belgian weather behaved itself. Couldn’t have been better. Who could have anticipated three dry days at this time of year? The company was excellent - and the boys and the girls thoroughly enjoyed themselves. It was the perfect event to generate team spirit within a group. Although we did not know each other at the start, everyone had a good understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses by the end of the event. This sort of knowledge can rarely be acquired in such a short space of time, and not in such an enjoyable fashion. I have already discussed the concept of using something similar as an incentive for one of our clients. As for the return journey - we were very lucky - sometimes all of the modern technology available doesn’t beat personal communication (begging for a lift across the Channel!) Bit like coaxing a Classic Car along really! The personal touch is what the MICE industry is all about !”
Wayne: “Knowing very little about Southern Belgium, I had no idea how scenic it was, with fabulous views of winding rivers through pine forests and stunning châteaux. My favourite was Manoir de Lebioles. To see this all by classic car was the icing on the cake. Our clients are always looking for something new and this fits the bill as an incentive for staff, or a partner programme.”
Alan: “Take a group of seasoned professional trade buyers, some wonderful vintage cars, great scenery, good food and an erupting volcano. What do you get? ,....well, apart from the volcano, one of the bests fam trips I have ever done!”