Flanders special

Ostend: Sea and be seen

A resort that has it all: style, cuisine and culture. Henry Palmer is swept away by Ostend

Wind, waves and action. For sheer spectacle head to Ostend. The kite surfers of the largest coastal resort in Flanders will inevitably have you spellbound. As you stand on Albert I Promenade overlooking the wide sands that generously fringe the northern shores of the city, you gaze out on a dance of man and wind and sea, the air around a mass of brightly coloured, darting canopies. It is a mesmerising sight. And in many respects it both reverberates and amplifies the sense of energy elsewhere in Ostend. For over the past few years the city has been changing fast.

Ostend presents a lively mix, smoothly combining the functions of elegant seaside resort, port, fishing centre and yachting venue. An ancient settlement, it developed significantly as a fishing village back in the 15th century. Weathering the effects of silt and sieges, it prospered and became particularly rich through its operations as a port during the 1700s. The first seaside visitors arrived to bathe here in the early 1780s. Championed by the Belgian royal family, Ostend became a gracious getaway with impressive architecture and a lovely promenade where the fashionable took the sea air.

It was very much a place to see and be seen, attracting the precursor of the jet-set crowd in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After major wartime setbacks, Ostend recovered swiftly and continued to boom, especially in the Fifties and Sixties as tourism continued to develop. But latterly Ostend has started to falter in the face of low-cost air travel to beach resorts that can guarantee more sunshine.

No matter, however, this enterprising place has been cheerfully transforming itself, not only suiting but anticipating the tastes of a 21st-century clientele. This is rapidly becoming very much an all-year foodie destination, with an astonishing choice of gourmet restaurants, as well as great-value seafood from more modest outlets. There's an increasing selection of cool shops, too, and a variety of hotels to suit all wallets. Most of all, though, this is a city with a distinctive urban buzz: it's a place whose business is the sea – as a means of transport, a source of wonderful ingredients and perhaps now most of all, a venue for visitors.

Stroll along the quayside of Visserskaai, running north from Ostend's magnificent station, and you'll be almost overwhelmed by the riches of the sea. Lines of stalls offer inexpensive eats, from hearty bowls of hot whelks to fantastically fresh oysters. The other side of the road is said to be the world's longest "restaurant". Along this extensive, virtually uninterrupted line of good-value eateries you'll find ever-popular Brasserie De Kleine Garnaal (Vindictivelaan 34; 00 32 59 43 40 74) offering shrimp salads and light dishes such as omelettes with frites, and sleek Restaurant De Sloep (Visserskaai 16; 00 32 59 50 44 39) presenting bowls of mussels and more.

For really fine fare, head west to Albert I Promenade. The city's majestic casino, or Kursaal, is positioned midway along this famous walkway, which today looks splendid after recent renovations.

As much a stylish restaurant complex and entertainment hall as an elegant gambling venue, the Kursaal is also looking super-slick after extensive refurbishment. It now offers a ground floor coffee shop, a first-floor lounge bar – whose décor of white banquettes and huge overhead lights decorated as jellyfish attracts the really cool crowd – and an amazing top-floor restaurant, Ostend Queen (00 32 59 29 50 55; www.ostendqueen.be). This venue was the brainchild of Belgium's renowned chef Pierre Wynants (of Comme Chez Soi in Brussels). In a contemporary setting of leather chairs, leather screens, lime and orange walls and clever lighting – along with stunning views – wonderful dishes of the best local ingredients are served, the likes of crab tempura, and sole meunière.

Ostend Queen has helped to put the city back on the gourmet map. Some of the city's other most sought-after restaurants rub shoulders along the promenade just to the south. At number 64 you'll find hip Bottarga (00 32 59 80 86 88; www.bottarga.be) serving Asian-Belgian fusion food against a funky backdrop of bold orange lights, crimson walls and black-and-white photographs.

Further along is cream-cool Savarin at number 75 (00 32 59 51 31 71; www.savarin.be), a serene scene for some of the area's best seafood. Villa Maritza next door (00 32 59 50 88 08; www.villa-maritza.be) presents a suberb (mainly seafood) menu in a wonderfully opulent Art Nouveau setting.

Make for Leopold II Laan, stretching down from the Kursaal, for some of Ostend's most fashionable clothes options – notably Icons at number 245 and L'Oxygene at number 30.

Adjacent, Adolf Buylstraat is home to an outlet of chic Belgian handbag store Delvaux (at number 25), as well as Roxy (at number 48) for young trends.

Over on the corner of Kapelstraat and Wapenplein, a sleek new shopping arcade is a newcomer to Ostend scene, housing outlets of Espirt, L'Occitane and more.

For a great place to stay, head to the seafront Andromeda Hotel and Thalassa Spa, just by the Casino at Kursaal Westhelling 5 (00 32 59 80 66 11; www.andromedahotel.be). The hotel has wonderful sea views, elegant art on the walls and every comfort in its rooms. Doubles cost from €126 (£105) excluding breakfast. The spa is also open to non-guests.

For style on a budget, try the Strand Hotel at Visserskaai 1 (00 32 59 70 33 83; www. strandhotel.be; doubles from €79/£66 including breakfast) or La Passion Interdite, at Graaf de Smet De Nayerlaan 16 (00 32 473 35 84 01; www.lapassioninterdite.be), which offers two bedrooms from €75 (£63) per double per night, including breakfast. For more information go to www.visitflanders.co.uk

Join the culture club

More change is in the air for Ostend, this time over its role as a significant art centre. It was thanks in no small part to the British-Belgian artist James Ensor (1860-1949), who lived and worked in Ostend, that the city became well regarded in the art world. Ensor's house at Vlaanderenstraat 27 is now a small museum fronted by an old souvenir shop such as the artist's parents ran. Meanwhile the Provincial Museum of Modern Art (PMMK) at Romestraat 11 (www.pmmk.be) has a renowned permanent collection from Belgian Expressionism to contemporary video installations and also regularly presents cutting-edge temporary exhibitions. The museum is housed in an impressive Fifties building that will also soon become home to Ostend's small Fine Arts collection. The amalgamated gallery will subsequently be renamed Art Museum by the Sea. For more details on Ostend's art and other attractions contact the tourist office at Monacoplein 2 (00 32 59 70 11 99; www.oostende.be).

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