How to keep the kids happy on holiday, while getting a dose of “borrrr-ing” culture for the adults
Surely it wasn’t a big ask? A week’s holiday within easy reach of the UK (but no flying - ash clouds, cabin crew strikes and less than a 20kg allowance for toys were off-putting to say the least); day-long entertainment for the four-year-old; culture and history for the adults; great food; and a shot at a decent bout of weather. Ok, so it was a massive request of the holiday gods...but thankfully Belgium played its trump card.
Less than four hours by ferry, a holiday village on the coast crammed with water slides, wave pools and ducks needing feeding, a fairytale city not thirty minutes from there, and some of the finest moules and frites, waffles, chocolate and beer in the world: welcome to West Flanders in the underrated country of Belgium.
Sunparks De Haan aan zee
I was stumbling into new territory with a week in a holiday village. Visions of rusty caravans and swarms of unclean children flooded my terrified mind. I needn’t have been concerned. Our accommodation was a four-bedroom lakeside villa and the swarms of children were manageable (and mostly clean).
The villa was clean and modern, with two giant sofas and a flat screen TV to flop out on, and in front of, after a long day in the water/play area/bowling alley/mini golf course. The kitchen was well-equipped and the bedrooms, though all made up of two single beds, boasted enough storage to house even the 30kg of luggage and seven pairs of shoes I’d managed to pack for a week. The best feature of the villa was the decked terrace over the lake and the double patio doors that slid fully back to extend the living area. The weather was mixed (much the same as the UK), but we still managed a few alfresco drinks and dinners with the sound of the fountain and the lake-dwelling birds for company.
Not many Brits have caught wind of Sunparks, which is very similar to the Center Parcs concept: a swirl of holiday homes around the pivotal point of indoors water-based fun. And because not all Brit school holidays match Belgium’s term breaks, the park was nice and quiet when we visited during the UK half term.
The park has four restaurants and, while we mostly self-catered, Paolo’s Pasta and Pizza (in the main building next to Aquafun) served up a surprisingly delicious slice of Italy in Belgium for 10 euros (I say surprising because, I don’t know about you, I don’t always trust restaurants aimed at children...).
Access to the Aquafun area was included in the cost of the villa. The four-year-old loved being bashed by the water in the wave pool, and I was taken back to my own childhood with frequent runs down the black hole water slide (well, the little one needed someone to accompany her...).
Escaping the squeals of delight from the dripping wet kids for a while, I retreated to the calm of the Thermae spa and, being a reserved Brit, made sure to visit during the only two “swimwear permitted” sessions during the week (Wednesday and Saturday 11am-2pm, but check to avoid any surprises!). There’s all the usual stuff: steam bath, sauna, Jacuzzi and outdoor pool and as a resident you get two euros off the entry fee of 16 euros for four hours. Plus you get a five euro reduction when you book a treatment alongside your spa session. I went for a half-hour massage for 25 euros and, though the treatment itself was thorough and vigorous, the treatment rooms left a little to be desired – I got a view of a dusty tiled floor and the sound of nothing compared to most spa experiences where you get to gaze at a flower/candle in a bowl to the sound of pan pipes.
De Haan aan zee
Take a fifteen minute walk from the park to the coast under the cool umbrella of a nature reserve and you’ll find a beautiful expanse of sand at the edge of the sea. The dunes have been carefully planted with rows of willow, so you can set up camp in your own square of beach “garden” and take shelter from the howling wind.
Another fifteen minutes further along the beach is the town of De Haan. It’s the sort of place where the shops sell a lot of postcards; it really is that pretty. Flags, monuments, grand Belle Époque architecture, old-fashioned post-boxes in which to pop those perfect postcards: it’s how Disney World would recreate a typical town of continental Europe.
Tired from the beach jaunt and with a hungry child in tow, we opted for dinner at The Lord (Leopoldlaan 14; +32 59 236863). I’m ashamed to say we were lured in by the Carlsberg signs, the English name and the large signage (in English) declaring it was a “Traditional Belgian Restaurant”. But we were entirely wrong to be sceptical about its obvious nod to visiting Brits. The staff took as much delight in dishing out a colouring mat to a child as they did serving the adults a wine and a beer. My well-presented steak dinner was tender and tasty and the surroundings were warm and cosy. Sit at the front of the restaurant to people-watch on the street or in the middle to get lost gazing at the modern open fire at the heart of the room. Main courses cost around 16 euros.
Thoroughly dried off after almost five days immersed in water, we headed 25 minutes inland to Bruges. This is another advantage of ditching the wings and taking the ferry – we had our own transport with us.
The “Venice of the north” is an enchanting vision. Famous for beer, chocolate and frites with mayo (there’s even a museum dedicated to the fried goods!), there’s more to be gained from Bruges than a bulging belly.
We opted out of the 88-metre climb of the Belfry (worried about steep steps and little legs – the kid’s, not mine) and took a dose of chips and mayo from a kiosk in its shadow instead. These rumbled around our bellies as a horse-drawn carriage whipped us around the main attractions (the carriages pick up and drop off in Markt square; 36 euros for half an hour, including a short stop at Beguinage, a Benedictine monastery). The attractions of Bruges are more about life in this attractive city, and not shiny towering monuments to mass tourism.
Had it been an adult-only trip, we would have found ourselves in one of the city’s fine cafés or bars, whiling away an afternoon with an alfresco beer. As it was, we visited Chocostory, the chocolate museum (Wijnzakstraat 2; www.choco-story.be; entrance six euros, children under six free). It’s a good job the little one didn’t pay because she would have demanded a refund if she had. The museum is a collection of text presentations on boards and there’s very little to hold the interest of an adult or a child. The best bit was a life-sized Barack Obama made of chocolate...
The Hotel Walburg makes an ideal base in the city centre. Just a short stroll from the ornate surroundings of the Burg, Bruges’ second biggest city square, the four-star hotel is a classy family-owned affair with a lovely courtyard garden and a fine chandelier-lit reception. Take breakfast in the garden on sunny mornings. Ask for a room at the top (the third floor); we watched the sun dip with the flood-lit Belfry on the horizon. The larger-than-average rooms are of varying style and decor; doubles start from 130 euros.
We ate in the delightful Simon Slewin square at Het Fonteintje (+32 50 33 10 77). I had to sample the moules and frites (22 euros) and it’s a treat to dine in the middle of the square as tourists whisk past in horse-drawn carriages. Zara Urquhart also dishes up some tasty places to eat and drink in her guide: Bruges: a taste of the good life in Belgium.
Sunparks has villages in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France. A four bedroom lakeside villa, suitable for up to eight people, at Sunparks De Haan aan zee starts from 719 euros. A four night break starts from 319 euros for a family of four in a two bedroom standard villa, or 499 euros for the week.
Get the ferry from Ramsgate, Kent, to Ostend which is twenty minutes by car from Sunparks, with LD Lines (0844 576 8836; www.ldlines.com). There are four return sailings daily with a crossing time of four hours. Fares start from £49 single/£78 return.