Beside the seaside in Belgium

by Trevor.Claringbold

The Belgian coast doesn't spring instantly to mind when you think of beach destinations - but it's well worth a visit, with endless dunes, unspoiled nature reserves and some quirky sights

Despite being one of the UK’s closest neighbours, Belgium has never enjoyed the same popularity as France when it comes to British visitors. And yet it has a good deal to offer for a convenient short break, with ferries direct from Kent, and a wealth of historic cities and other attractions to visit.
If I’m honest, although I’d always enjoyed the beautiful Ardennes, and the delights of Brussels, Ghent, and Bruges, the Belgian coast was not somewhere that immediately appealed. Having driven along the motorway that runs parallel to the line of the coast on many occasions, it had always seemed a flat and bland area. But, as is often the case, looks can be deceptive.
Having a few days to spare between appointments nearby, I based myself in Oostende, which is roughly in the centre of Belgium’s 40 miles of coastline. It is a graceful town, with a long promenade lining the wide, gently sloping, sandy beach. The Pacific Hotel, not far from the market square, was comfortable and friendly, and had the advantage of a garage where I could leave my car.
Rather than drive, and have the hassle of parking and suchlike, I bought a three-day pass for the excellent coastal trams. They run the full length of the coast, approximately every 10 minutes in each direction, and are a clean and relaxing way to travel. They also afford the opportunity of casual chats to locals, which is always a great way to discover the places you should be visiting.
My first trip was all the way to the southwestern end of the line, which gave me a chance to get an impression of the places along the way. I arrived at De Panne, a pleasant small town just a few miles from the French border. Its glory though, is its beach. Miles of glorious soft sand, backed by endless dunes, make this a wonderful place to explore. As I wandered along, I was somewhat bemused to discover cattle, horses, and Shetland ponies grazing. Apparently it’s because these dunes are part of the oldest National Park in Flanders, which preserves the unique make-up of this landscape. Well, that’s what it says on the sign! I just enjoyed my peaceful walk, in such serene, restful surroundings, and with nothing but the sounds of nature to accompany me.
A short ride away, and I was back on the beach at Koksijde. A local lady on the tram had told me to look out for the horseback fishermen’. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant until I noticed a rider trotting his large chestnut mare into the surf. I learned that this is the only place in the world where shrimp are still caught in this way, with the horses effectively trawling large baskets behind them though the shallow waters. And quite successfully from what I saw.
My next stop was the once chic resort of Westende, now sadly a little faded around the edges, but still worth a visit. The classic villas around the older parts of the town are reminiscent of a time long since passed. One, Les Zéphyrs (Henri Jasparlaan 173), was built between the wars, and is now preserved for visitors. It is quite basic, but I enjoyed it none the less. Nearby, House Yseland (Hovenierstraat 1) is one of the few remaining original fishermen’s houses that can also be visited.
I had one other notable location to visit in Westende – the Grand Hotel Bellevue (Zeedijk 300). Constructed in 1911, it was one of the first-ever buildings to be created using reinforced concrete. It may not seem glamorous to us now, but back then it was unique. The circular styling made it a favourite haunt of the well-to-do, including the Belgian royal family. Now, only the restaurant remains open to the public, but I can heartily recommend the seafood dishes, most locally caught.
The next day I headed northeast, through Zeebrugge, to Knokke-Heist. The tram ride was smooth and enjoyable once again, but with the scenery taking on a greener tone, and many buildings showing the proximity to Holland in their style. The architecture is far more appealing here, and the town has a feel that it is looking to the future, unlike those at the other end of the coast. There are some excellent shopping areas, and once again a choice of superb beaches.
A very acceptable meal can be had at t’Boerenhof (Koudekerkelaan 30), just next to Heist railway station. It’s an old farmhouse, dating from 1837, with the barn area a century older than that. After lunch, I set off to explore the Zwin Nature Reserve. The amazing unspoiled landscape is partly marshland and partly sandy expanses that are flooded by the sea each day. The aroma and colours from the salt-water heather are heavenly, and the adjacent aviary has more that a hundred species of birds.
I think above all the other places on this coast, Knokke-Heist and the nature reserves were the most surprising. Not at all what I had expected from Belgium, and certainly proof, if proof were needed, that there is more than enough to warrant several more trips here to explore further.