The unlikely fact of Belgian beaches produced a couple of articles, including this one for the in-flight magazine of BMI airlines.
Mention Belgium, and beer, chocolate and Poirot are likely to come to mind. Beaches probably won’t figure. In fact, it might come as a surprise that Belgium even has a coastline, but it does, some 69 kilometres of it, squeezed in between France and the Netherlands, and from one end to the other, the land slides gingerly into the North Sea via miles of carefully tended, perfectly manicured sand. Add to these unexpected beaches Belgian expertise in food, design and fashion, and you have the ingredients for a surprisingly varied get away.
The coast tram (de Kusttram)
Sitting by the North Sea, Belgium can’t rely on its weather, so it has to try that bit harder to attract visitors. A Eurostar train ticket carries with it free onward railway travel anywhere within Belgium, so no queuing to pay for a connection at Brussels station. Even more remarkable, however, is the coast tram (www.dekusttram.be). This runs the length of Belgium’s shore, from De Knokke in the east to De Panne in the west, with 70 stops along the way and a journey time from end to end of a little over two hours. With nowhere more than a short walk from a stop, all the resorts become easily accessible. During the summer services run every five to ten minutes, so should the crowds become too thick on one particular stretch of beach, it’s an easy matter to hop on the tram and alight a short time later among grass-covered dunes and stroll down to a relatively empty shore.
The largest city on the coast (the only city on the coast according to locals), Ostend combines smooth expanses of sand, dotted with the gaily painted beach cabins that are rolled out each season, pedestrianised Kapellestraat (the best shopping street in Flanders according to the readers of local paper Het Nieuwsblad), excellent restaurants and fascinating art museums. It’s the sort of place people come to for the beach, but return to for everything else it has to offer. Let’s start with food, and the stalls along the harbour selling freshly landed fish; you can buy snack-size pots as well as whole fish. If that whets your appetite for seafood, splurge at the excellent Beluga (Kemmelbergstraat 33, Oostende, 059 51 15 88, www.belugaoostende.be).
James Ensor and Léon Spilliaert, two key painters in early 20th century art, were both Ostenders – Ensor hardly ever left the place – and their work forms the core of the aptly named Art Museum by the Sea (PMMK – Kunstmuseum aan Zee, Romestraat 11, Oostende, 059 50 81 18, www.pmmk.be). Art can even be used as cover for a visit to the casino. Paul Delvaux decorated the gaming room of the Kursaal (Monacoplein, Oostende, 059 29 50 53, www.kursaaloostende.be) with murals and the building itself, rebuilt after World War II, can hardly be missed, particularly at night when light streams from its windows over the promenade. The Kursaal also stages concerts, and has a fine restaurant and lounge.
East from Ostend
Hop on the tram and the coast is your oyster. First stop, just east of Ostend, is Earth Explorer and Fort Napoleon. Earth Explorer (Fortstraat 128B, Oostende, 059 70 59 59, www.earthexplorer.be) does exactly what it says, exploring the natural forces that have shaped the planet through interactive exhibits focussing on wind, water, fire and earth – the volcano flume ride does get rather wet though. A short walk into the dunes is Fort Napoleon (Vuurtorenweg, Oostende, 059 32 00 48, www.fortnapoleon.be), the only intact Napoleonic fort left in Europe. In a typical Belgian touch, it’s now home to a fine bistro and restaurant. The beach beyond is particularly lovely as it remains free of the apartment blocks that elsewhere jostle each other for that elusive sea view.
Moving eastwards, quiet De Haan is the prettiest of the towns on the coast, its streets lined with carefully restored belle époque buildings and its beach as smooth and broad as anyone could wish. Should it all get too tranquil, Blankenberge will set things buzzing again. Endless retail opportunities – there’s a particularly wide selection of chocolatiers – a nearly endless pier and apparently endless crowds make this the liveliest of the resorts. But should De Haan’s belle époque buildings have wakened a taste for a lost age of elegance, then its brash neighbour can sate it at the Belle Époque Centrum (Elisabethstraat 24, 8370 Blankenberge, 050 42 87 41, www.belle.epoque.blankenberge.be). Three restored seaside villas provide an insight into a time when people dressed up, rather than down, on the beach. Visitors more interested in life below the waves should head to Sea Life (Koning Albert I Laan 116, Blankenberge, 050 42 43 00, www.sealifeeurope.com).
The tram ends at Knokke-Heist, the most fashionable resort on the coast. It’s got the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in Belgium (four in the last edition); you won’t go hungry.
West from Ostend
If time allows only one journey, head east, but the tram west from Ostend reveals some unexpected treasures, as well as the usual miles of beach. The first of these is a salutary reminder of the area’s past in the shape of the guns mutely pointing out to sea that the tram rattles past. These were part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and were placed there to drive invaders back from Fortress Europe. The Atlantic Wall Museum (Nieuwpoortsesteenweg 636, Raversijdem, 059 70 22 85, www.west-vlaanderen.be/raversijde) has preserved command posts, trenches, tunnels, bunkers and gun emplacements, and gives a vivid sense of what the men coming ashore many miles to the west in Normandy had to face.
The tram trundles west past some generally quieter resorts like Oostduinkerke – where shrimpers still fish from horses wading through the surf – before drawing near its close at De Panne. The town is surrounded by dunes, many protected, and a walk through them provides a fascinating insight into the nature and formation of the coastline. But the tram continues on to Plopsaland (Gemeentebestuur, Zeelaan 21, De Panne, 058 42 16 16, www,plopsa.be) – yes, you are reading that right – a family-friendly theme park that now has the added teen attraction of adrenaline-inducing roller-coaster Anubis. And where better to end a visit to this gently surreal country?