Ripple effect: The Belgian coastline's white sand beaches and chic restaurants will seduce and surprise the sophisticated traveller
Saturday 20 June 2009
Saint-Tropez too pricey? Amalfi too busy? The Costas too hot? The Dalmatian coast too trendy? If you're looking for a quiet and scenic stretch of continental sand, look no further than the Flemish coast.
Belgium's answer to the Riviera is easy to overlook. Of the hundreds of thousands of British tourists who stream through the ports of Flanders each year, only a few see it as a destination in its own right, rather than just a place to fill up on petrol, stretch their sea-legs before heading deeper into Europe, or – on the way home – do a trolley dash around the drinks aisles of the local supermarkets.
As they speed past the Flanders coast they are ignoring 40 miles of wide, well-groomed white sand beaches, 12 smart, relatively quiet resorts and a cheap and efficient little tram that shuttles visitors between them. You don't need to be Poirot to figure out that there are few other European shores that are as easy to get to – or around.
The cognoscenti have long appreciated Flanders' many attractions: the wedding-cake architecture of Bruges, cutting-edge Antwerp, and chocolate-coated, beer-steeped trips to Brussels. And the coastline is as rich in interest as any of these.
The cool Nordic light and bleached-out scenery has been drawing artists to the area for centuries. Wildlife lovers can explore acres of empty dunes at Het Zwin nature reserve or cycle along the quiet wooded tracks that fringe many of the resorts, while those with more energy can try kite- surfing, sand-yachting or beach volleyball. Or take the tram from resort to resort, weighing up which has the best sand to lay your beach towel on, or which has the best seafood restaurant to while away a lazy, sunny lunchtime.
As a first-timer I chose De Haan as a base. Around halfway between Ostend and Zeebrugge, it's one of the most central resorts – and, arguably, the most attractive. Much of the town was laid out in 1889, when the Belgian government granted a long-term lease to those wealthy enough to build chichi houses on designated plots of land.
The grand Belle Epoque villas that went up then still stand. They are protected to this day by stringent planning regulations that ensure their thatched roofs, mock-Tudor detailing, icing-sugar turrets and manicured gardens are meticulously preserved – none more so than Manoir Carpe Diem, the boutique B&B that I checked into.
The immaculate owner – a Princess Grace lookalike – proudly described the décor as "English country house", though, fortunately, that meant power showers, designer wallpaper and lavish continental breakfasts rather than fraying carpets, draughty corridors and dotty maiden aunts.
As I polished off a plate of creamy yoghurt and bright-coloured berries on the first morning, a quick scan around the breakfast room illustrated that De Haan is principally a family resort – something brought into sharper focus as I strolled down to the beach later on, dodging a traffic jam of strange six-seater bicycles driven by gangs of smiling relatives.
King Leopold II personally oversaw the construction of the buildings in De Haan, and insisted no two buildings were alike. The residents are all fiercely house-proud, which gives the resort a sugar-coated prettiness, but also a slightly Truman Show eeriness. So I set off to explore further along the coast.
I started in the east at Knokke-Heist. The glitziest resort on the coast, beside its wide sweep of white sand, it's bumper-to-bumper with expensive interiors shops, designer clothes stores and art galleries – not to mention freshly waxed Audis and BMWs. The houses are possibly even more elegant than those in De Haan, but they're harder to gawp at because of the towering electric gates almost all of them have installed. It would appear that there's so much demand for high-end property in Knokke that £1.5m apartments are selling like hot waffles. Which explains why I appeared to be the only person ambling down the promenade not dressed in Armani.
But you don't have to be a euro-millionaire to holiday here. Hire a bike and pedal out past elegant, tree-lined avenues and friendly roadside restaurants and you eventually come to Het Zwin. As far east as you can go without hitting Holland (the reserve straddles the border), this is a place for secluded picnicking or long, sandy-toed walks – and for peering out across the waves to see if you can spot land across the Channel.
A reminder of just how close I was to home came later, when I hopped on the tram to the other end of the coast. De Panne, the most western Flemish resort, felt so familiar it could almost have been a British seaside resort. But although it has the requisite wide beach, well-kept houses and some smart seafood restaurants, the heart of the resort is definite "Kiss Me Quick" territory, with rows of cheap souvenir shops, dilapidated bars and high-rise holiday apartments.
I beat a swift retreat from here to Nieuwpoort, a fishing port turned smart resort. It has an array of sophisticated shops and bars, but without the snobbishness of Knokke. There's more to see here, too, with an attractive marina full of white-sailed yachts, a red-and-white striped lighthouse, a few small art galleries and one of the best beaches on the coast. Separated from the promenade by a sliver of grassy dunes, it's a gorgeous strip of soft, pale sand, dotted with lines of white, shabby-chic beach huts.
It would be easy to while away a holiday here, but there's a drawback for beach-lovers; you wouldn't know it from the numbers of hardy locals lolling about in the waves, but even on the sweltering day I was there the water felt icy cold.
The real draw for the new wave of tourists coming to the Flemish coast is gastro-tourism. Connoisseurs have long maintained that Belgium has better food than France and the country's coastline doesn't let the side down. The shore boasts a staggering seven Michelin-starred restaurants – and plenty of boutique hotels and designer B&Bs if you want to sleep in equally urbane style.
Fortunately you don't have to have a fat wallet to enjoy the region's food. A highlight of my trip was dinner at De Oesterput ("the oyster hut") in Blankenberge. It is converted from an old fishing shed, tucked away unpromisingly in the harbour, down a lane filled with boatyards and car parks. It's not the kind of place you happen upon, but it's worth the effort.
Indoors, you can sit at a row of shared tables set among fishing nets, old boating paraphernalia and fish tanks. Outside, if the sun shines, you overlook a pretty, landscaped pool. Either way, you'll be served some of the freshest seafood on the coast: fat mussels, sweet langoustines and oysters the size of babies shoes. All of this is accompanied by delicious caraway bread and washed down with chilled white wine.
Just down the coast is Ostend where even cheaper fare can be had at the jumble of fish and waffle stalls set up along the city's atmospheric quayside.
Ostend also offers the perfect post-dinner stroll. Walk along the promenade, stopping in at one of the beachside bars or looking out from the shady, pillared colonnade of the slowly decaying Hotel Thermae Palace and you get a sense of what the coast was like in its 19th-century heyday. Perhaps Flanders' proximity, accessibility and civility will restore its pride of place in the 21st-century.
The writer travelled from Hull to Zeebrugge with P&O Ferries (08716 646464; poferries.com). Returns for a car, two people and a cabin start at £218. Norfolkline (0844 847 5042; norfolkline.com) operates a service from Rosyth (Edinburgh). Alternatively, Ostend is easily accessible from London by train (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) via Brussels.
De Oesterput, 16 Wenduinse Steenweg, Blankenberge (00 32 50 411 035; oesterput.com).
Manoir Carpe Diem, De Haan (00 32 59 233 220; manoircarpediem.com). Doubles start at €135, including breakfast.
Flemish coast tourism: 00 32 50 30 55 13; flemishcoast.co.uk
Visit Flanders: 020-7307 7738; visitflanders.co.uk.
For more detailed listings of fashionable bars, shops and restaurants in the region, it's also worth clicking on "Belgian Coast" on the City Zine website (cityzine.eu).
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