Whether you go for the Duvel or the diamonds, the walled medieval towns or the open fields of blooming bulbs, Belgium makes for an ideal weeklong getaway in April or May. This 11,780-square mile nation, at the crossroads of Europe, is as compact and navigable as it is historically rich -- with its Dutch and French language traditions, its wealth of impeccably restored Gothic architecture, its unrivaled collections of Flemish master paintings, and its sophisticated contemporary food and fashion traditions. The cheapest means of getting to Brussels, Brugge, or Antwerp are Go Today's air-hotel packages. For a little more money, however, a fly-drive vacation or bike tour make the most of the countryside in spring and the proximity of Belgium's top attractions.
Through Go Today (tel. 800/227-3235; www.go-today.com), round-trip air from New York and six nights in the sophisticated, fashionable, French and Dutch language capital of Brussels are $569, good for travel until May 29. You'd pay about as much for airfare alone, and the lead hotel is the Vendome, which is widely reviewed as an excellent value. A three-star Art Nouveau-style establishment near the 17th-century Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Vendome is well kept and well located, with first-rate service at tourist-level prices.
For just three nights, the same city trip is available (with the same departure cities and dates) for $499. Tickets must be purchased by April 14. Additional departure cities are available (Washington, D.C., is $30 extra; Chicago is $80 more, and Los Angeles is another $240; see website for additional cities). All Go Today packages include daily breakfast, inter-city rail transport where applicable, and hotel taxes. Air taxes from $40 to $200 are not included.
Three nights in Brussels combined with three nights in the 12th-century walled city of Brugge (also known as Bruges, though residents prefer the Dutch variation) are $749, including rail transport between cities. The Brugge hotel, the three-star Mirabel, is modern but close to the cobbled, winding streets of one of Europe's finest Gothic Old Towns -- also a World Heritage site. The Memling Museum and Groening Museum include some of the finest known works by Flemish primitive painters Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling, as well as paintings by other Flemish art stars like Hieronymus Bosch and the Bruegels. With its brick medieval buildings, topped with gabled roofs, bestride an extensive street-canal system, Brugge is the pinnacle of Old World beauty -- and in spring it won't be sullied by the annual glut of summer tourists. This rate is good from New York only, and alternate departure cities are more expensive overall (Washington, D.C., is $140 more; Chicago is another $190).
Three nights in Brussels and three in Antwerp -- the heart of the world diamond exchange and hometown of Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, and their fellow fashion mavens known collectively as the Antwerp Six -- are $789 for six nights. The Antwerp hotel is the Eden Hotel Antwerp, a three-star establishment in the heart of the diamond district.
Finally, Go Today's Belgium fly-drive package offers seven days car rental and round-trip airfare for $579. The price is good from now until May 29, and from September 1 to October 31. For lodgings, Belgium's network of guesthouses offers clean, inexpensive places to lay your head throughout the country. Inn26.com (www.inn26.com) provides an extensive listing of properties. In Brugge, rooms start at $75 a night, but weekly rates are available, and prices drop outside the city.
E.E.I. Travel's (tel. 800/927-3876; www.europeexpress.com) six-night air/hotel package is slightly more than Go Today's ($619 for six nights), with the same lead hotel. Their "Biking Belgium and Brugge Mini Break," however, is worth investigating. It's land-only, so it's not especially cheap, but it's a great way to see Brugge and the surrounding countryside. Three nights (four days) are $349, including bike rental and lodging in three-star country inns. Both day-long, 40-mile bike trips are loops that start in Brugge and end either in the port city of Oostende or the coastal town of Knokke. You'll drive along the North Sea and along Brugge's gorgeous canal system. The price is good for travel from now until October 22. A similar, seven-night package is $749, good for the same dates. All E.E.I. Travel packages do not include air taxes and fees of $40 to $200.
For either bike trip, it's best to fly into Brussels and take the short train ride into Brugge. From April 28 to May 5, the cheapest airfare to Brussels from New York is $575, including taxes, on Iberia, from One Travel (tel. 800/929-2523; www.onetravel.com). From Chicago, it's $683, on Northwest/KLM, from One Travel. From Los Angeles, it's $739 on Delta, from Cheap Tickets (www.cheaptickets.com).
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