There is, not far from home, a North Sea coast that you never knew existed. Flanders’ narrow strip of beaches, dunes and villages is less than three hours from London and twelve minutes from the beaten paths of Bruges . And if you take the train, getting here won’t cost you a penny: simply hop on a train in Brussels , flash your Eurostar ticket and watch the easy-on-the-eye Flemish farmlands whizz by.
Belgium ’s coast runs for close to 45 miles, separating France in the south-west from the Netherlands to the north-east. This stretch of seaside, beloved by locals, is served by an almost unique mode of transport. The Kusttram (Coast Tram) is one of the world’s few inter-urban tram services, boldly going where other trams don’t even try.
On its two hour journey the tram threads its way through every town and village on the coast, at times separated from the sea only by a thin strip of dunes, unlocking the secrets of the coast as it goes. Want to visit the worlds’ only remaining Napoleonic Fort or some mighty World War II gun emplacements and bunkers? Seeking out cycle paths, yacht havens or even (well-signed) nudist beaches? With a €5 day ticket securing unlimited travel, and with trams every fifteen minutes you can explore at will. Note however that clothes are not optional on the tram itself. And with the three main coastal towns – De Panne to the south, Ostend in the middle and Knokke in the north – all connected to Bruges , Ghent and Brussels by regular trains, getting here is a doddle.
Ostend still feels like the seaside grandee and wears it well. The curvaceous art nouveau railway station was clearly designed as a great gateway to the continent and its position right next to the ferry terminal will delight those who remember the days when Calais Maritime was the launchpad for summers of European adventuring. Ostend was for many years Belgium’s premier seaside resort – the beachfront Hotel Thermae Spa dates from this period and this palatial residence even has its own tram stop – and for many Briton’s was the gateway to northern Europe. And the town has bequeathed great art to the world – influential anglo-Belgian artist James Ensor lived here for over 30 years and his preserved house is one of several draws for art buffs in the town.
If you find yourself feeling amorous while you’re here, you’re not alone. It was while on an extended, head-clearing visit to Ostend in 1981 that Marvin Gaye composed Sexual Healing. Watching internet videos of him strolling the Albert I Promenade and belting out soul classics is a surreal and beautiful way to see some of Ostend from a generation ago.
A stroll along the lively Promenade is a good place to start exploring, pausing at the quayside Fish Market for a fresh and fast plate of whatever’s come out of the sea that morning. But venture into town, too: the uninspiring apartments lining much of the seafront hide a lively town centre. Here you’ll find boutiques, bars and an artisan chocolatier selling hand-crafted chocolate whales, complete with smaller fish-shaped sweets trapped in its jaws. This being Belgium , it tastes better than it sounds. Though Ostend has few old buildings compared to inland Flemish cities, the unmissable Hotel du Parc has a sweeping art deco staircase leading to funky modern rooms. The attached bar, also harking back to roaring days, is the perfect place to while away a rainy day sampling the extensive beer menu.
But it’s the beaches here that will really grab you. Indeed, if you’re in any doubt that this would be a fun place to bring your family, a word about the sand you find on Ostend ’s town beaches and all along the Flanders ’ coast. This isn’t softie, pebbly stuff. This is real sand. Sand that sits shouts ‘make me into a sandcastle!’ as you walk past. Beach buffs take note: the spades on sale here wouldn’t look out of place on an allotment.
After this big and bold resort, De Haan comes as something of a shock, especially as I got off the tram too early and stumbled close to the Nudist Beach. Two stops on from naked Europeans, another, smaller art nouveau tram station welcomed me to what on first glance is Hampstead Garden Suburb-on-sea. Though Albert Einstein’s visit here in 1933 (he was heading to Germany but changed plans when Hitler came to power) is the town’s main claim to fame, its seaside, lined with upmarket cafes, timeless beach huts and golden sands suggests it may be the perfect summer holiday diversion. To top it off, there are boutique ice-cream parlours and a wonderful old-school toy shop.
The joy of the Belgian coast is that if – and I can’t see why you wouldn’t – Ostend and De Haan don’t grab you there’s plenty of other spots to try (see boxed text), all easy and cheap to get to. The Belgians love it, and with beer to drink and chocolate to eat, you will too. Just don’t be surprised if while digging a sandcastle or two you hear Marvin Gaye in your head.
~ Tom Hall
Tourism Flanders – Brussels (020 7307 7738; www.visitflanders.co.uk ) is the best place to plan a visit to the Belgian coast. Eurostar operates up to 10 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £59. Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 08705 186 186 and are valid for travel to any Belgian station. See www.dekusttram.be for route and fare details for the Coast Tram.
Five other Belgian coastal classics
Knokke-Heist – Belgium ’s swankiest seaside resort is a playground for the country’s jet-set during summer
Paul Delvaux Museum – This gallery is dedicated to one of Europe ’s greatest surrealist painters. It’s in St Idesbald – Koksijde, 40 minutes by tram from Ostend
Oostduinkerke – Horse-riding local shrimpers go about their business in the traditional manner – the only place in the world where this still happens.
De Panne – the end of the tram line and a mecca for sand-sailing and windsurfing
Bredene – two and half miles of unspoilt sandy beaches and mighty dunes