You don't have to be The Muscles from Brussels for this sport," the suntanned kite-surf instructor said, as he prepared me for my lesson. "It's all in the technique." I had spent the morning soaking up the vibes at the top of the Californian lighthouse and watching those who had already ventured out on the waves. Judging by the numbers, it seemed, the beach at Surfers' Paradise was living up to its name.
It may not benefit from the same weather as its Antipodean cousin, but this Surfers' Paradise is much closer to home. Only 80 miles east of Folkestone in fact.Families with buckets and spades vie for space on Belgium's North Sea coast alongside thrill-seekers of all shapes and sizes. There's enough to satisfy even the most voracious adrenalin junkie. Kite-surfing, land-yachting, windsurfing, speed-sailing (like windsurfing but on the sand) skim-boarding and wake-boarding are all available in starter and main course portions. And according to Frank Vanleenhove, the founder of Surfers' Paradise at the fashionable resort of Knokke-Heist near the Dutch border, in certain conditions even wave surfers wouldn't be disappointed in Belgium.
For our first kite-surfing lesson, however, we were told we would not need wetsuits. We were going to learn about the kite's capabilities on land before we ventured on to the water. At two square metres, our kite was small compared with those being used by the surfers out at sea, but I was shocked by its strength. As it tugged at the bridle I struggled to keep my feet on the ground. Our instructor, Johan, encouraged me to alter the handlebar movements, making the kite sweep across the sky in large figures of eight, dragging me behind. The next day, my shoulders sore, we travelled an hour south-west to De Panne, at the other end of Belgium's coast. We had heard this was an excellent place to learn land-yachting. "We have the perfect conditions here with long, wide uninterrupted stretches of sand," said Benny Dezeure, who heads the team at Lazef beach-sailing school.
As I listened to him explain that some of the finely tuned speed machines can reach a hair-raising 80mph, I hoped my start would be somewhat slower. Judging by the way the other first-timers were having a job keeping their vehicles upright I doubted that I would get very far at all. But under Benny's instruction I was soon careering across the beach in my steel Birdie, a two-seater learner vehicle.
But Belgium's beaches are not just stretches of water and sand inhabited by speed freaks. Hordes of cyclists, in-line skaters, eight-seater pedal cars, walkers, dogs, children on scooters, people with karts, and teenagers on skateboards crowded the promenades at every resort. They would pass each other in a breathtaking series of near-misses. To add to the commotion, the crowds ran a gauntlet of shopkeepers selling ice creams, postcards and children's fishing nets.
Behind the esplanades we found restaurants and bars which spilled on to the pavements, offering delicious coffee, croissants and pastries. In the shops, too, the Continental touches were obvious – purchases wrapped in neat boxes with ribbons and wine prices that rival those of Calais and Boulogne.
For another gourmet experience we were told to try shrimps caught fresh from the ocean at Oostduinkerke, where fishermen still go out to sea on horseback. We watched them at sunset, their draught-horses ploughing steadily through the water chest-deep, hauling in the nets. From time to time they would return to the shore where the riders, clad in yellow oilskins and waders, would dismount and empty the catch from wicker baskets fixed each side of the wooden saddle. Then a word of command, a twitch of the reins and off they would go again into the waves.
"It is hard work, especially in the winter, but very rewarding," fisherman Eddy Dooster told me. He is believed to be one of just five people left in the world to practise this ancient tradition. "And when we're the only team out during a beautiful sunrise," he added, "I feel like the king of the sea."
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