Visiting the Belgian Coast

Miles and miles of sandy beaches are the big draw when visiting the Belgian Coast. 40 miles of golden sand. Even better every one of those miles is linked up by the world’s longest tramline. For 42 miles (it kinks inland round rivers) the Belgian Coastal Tram trundles along connecting all the resorts.

Sunset, shell sculpture and arty angles

How we ended up visiting the Belgian Coast

Where to go for half term? GCSEs are looming. We wanted somewhere no more than three hours away from Cultural Wednesday Towers. A place that had a table that the teens could use for revision. Some walks with a cafe at the end for Mr CW and I to undertake in the morning, when the teens were working. Interesting stuff to do in the afternoon when the books got put away and good food for the evening. The Belgian Coast ticked all those boxes, so we booked the Eurotunnel and got planning. We opted for a two centre holiday the first half in an apartment with lots of space for revision and the second in an hotel with hot and cold running breakfast, because the CW family love an hotel breakfast.

Blurry portrait three men looking though a port hole
I really need to work on focussing!

Belgian Coast Cities

Well city is too big a word for the communities that line the Belgian Coast but villages they are not. What struck us most about the coast was just how built up it was. We were staying in February when it was largely empty but you can see that in summer the place must thrum with activity. There are officially ten towns and fifteen resorts, this confused us when we were searching for places to stay! For our tour we’ll start in the east next to France and work our way west toward the Netherlands.

Sea birds Breakwater Belgium
There were lots more birds but they were camera shy and flew away!

De Panne

If sand dunes are your thing, then De Panne is for you. They stretch for miles toward the French coast. De Panne beach is the widest in Belgian, the hard flat expanse of sand exposed at low tide make it the perfect place to try sand yachting, I confess that whilst I like a spot of water sailing I have never been tempted onto a land based yacht and find their speed as a pedestrian scary! Less scary are these three heads at de Panne the De Drie Wijsneuzen van de Panne or the the Three Wise Noses of de Panne by Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys.

Three Black heads on plinths against blue sky
Three Wise Noses of De Panne

Oostduinkerke

We stayed in Oostduinkerke. I chose it because it is here that the UNESCO listed shrimp fishermen are based. Trouble is modern Oostduinkerke is made up of several smaller places and we were in St Idesbald right at the opposite end to where the fishermen hang out! No matter, the beach was excellent, Mr CW and I enjoyed some fine walks and spent time in a couple of cafe’s. Koksijde is the place to go for bustle and big shops. Oostduinkerke itself is the best place to see fishermen.

Hoge Blekker

Hoge Blekker is a huge sand dune, well a complex of sand dunes at the Oostduinkerke end. It’s pinnacle is the highest point on the Belgian Coast. It’s name means ‘High Twinkler’ in English and marks the fact that it was the sight of a twinkling welcoming beacon to fishermen. We got a map from the local tourist office and spent a happy afternoon walking through the dunes and along the coast.

Sand dunes marram grass
UNESCO Shrimp Fishermen

Regular readers will know that I love a UNESCO cultural site. The Shrimp Fishermen of Oostduinkerke are one of the intangible cultural things listed by UNESCO. At low tide the fishermen head out with horses to harvest shrimps. There are 12 households involved in the fishing, during the summer the fishermen set out twice a week. In the winter it is as and when they think that the catch will be good. Sadly low tide coincided either with nighttime or gathering dusk and we didn’t see them. They are one of the many reasons that we will return!

Paul Delvaux Museum

Paul Delvaux was a surrealist painter, friends with Magritte. He set up home in what was then the tiny hamlet of St Idesbald and encouraged his friends to join him. For a time St Idesbald thronged with artists. Now you can visit his house, just a word of warning some of his works have an adult theme.

Paul Delvaux Museum
  • Paul Delvaux Museum, Paul Delvauxlaan, 42
  • Open: April – September, Tuesday – Sunday 10.30am – 5.30pm. October – January, Thursday – Sunday 10.30am – 5.50pm
  • Admission: Adults €10
Navigo

Everything you ever wanted to know about fishing in Belgium. Navigo is the national fishing museum. Here you can learn about life in a fishing village, aboard trawler and all things fishy …. provided that you speak French or Flemish.

  • Navigo, Pastoor Schmitzstraat 5, Koksijde
  • Open: April – October, Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 6pm. November – March, Tuesday – Friday 10am – 5pm, weekends 2pm – 5pm
  • Admission: Adults €7

Nieuwpoort

Nieuwpoort is at mouth of the River Ijzer. That has put her in the firing line of many European wars, most notably the First World War. Faced with a seemingly unstoppable Germany advance the Belgian opened the sluice gates at the Ganzepoote (or goose foot) the point where five channels converged, causing widespread flooding. This flooded area became the Western Front, Nieuwpoort, like much of this part of Belgium was all but destroyed.

Art Deco rotunda with horse statue
West Front Museum
West Front memorial and museum

The Ganzepoote is now the site of the national memorial to the Belgian soldiers who died on the Western Front and their Commander in Chief King Albert I. Under the monument is a fascinating museum outlining the flooding opening of the sluices, once you have seen the museum you can climb to the top of the memorial and look across the low lying land that was flooded and the site of some of the most fearsome fighting in the First World War.

Oostende or Ostend

I first came to Ostend aboard a Sealink ferry, we got off and boarded a train to take us to Germany. It was more exotic that Harwich but still a working port. Ostend has changed massively since the 70s! She has great beaches, good restaurants, museums, art galleries and street art. All in the perfect destination for the Cultural Wednesday family, just as well that this is were we stayed!

Ostend train station exterior
Ostend station where my first European train journey ever started!

Mr CW and I spent the mornings strolling around whilst the teens revised. On our first morning we made our way along past where the Sealink Ferry docked all those years ago, past many stalls selling fish. Ships still come and go in the harbour, but the marina looked be full of pleasure craft.

Fishing boat coming into harbour Ostend
Fish for tea

Back on the seafront we found ourselves surrounded by the huge red shapes that make up Rock Strangers by Arne Quinze. Whilst we were there there was an infant school outing visiting. The children ran up to the blocks, some of them hit them and enjoyed the resonating noise, some sat on the little ledges in the blocks, others leant up against some and some just roared round and round. It was fantastic to see how each child reacted differently and how when they went the grown ups did much the same but with no exuberant running.

Red boulders sculpture at sea front Ostende
Rock Strangers by Arne Quinze

Ostende has miles of wide sandy beach. She was once the seaside home of the Belgian Royal family. When they decided that they no longer needed a seaside pad it was given to the City and is now an art gallery. You can stroll along the Royal Galleries which were designed to shelter visitor from the elements as they made their way from the Casino to the race course.

Ostend Casino and beach
Ostende Casino
Amandine

Ostend was once home to a sizeable fishing fleet that fished the Icelandic waters. The Amandine is one of the last ships that plied this trade from Ostend and is now open as a museum.

Amandine Green fishing trawler Ostend
Amandine once braved the seas round Iceland in pursuit of cod
  • Amandine, Vindictivelaan 35, Ostende
  • Open: April – December Daily 10am – 5pm, Winter weekends only
  • Admission: Adults €5, Child €3
Mercator

The Mercator is handsome ship, all masts and sleek lines. She is Barquentine or Barkentine or Schooner Barque …. all amount to the same thing … and was launched in 1932. Sleek and seaworthy she sailed round the Pacific before becoming a sail training vessel. Now you can step aboard and explore as she is a museum.

Mercator sail ship Ostend marina
Mercator seen from the roof terrace of the Hotel Burlington
  • Mercator, Opposite the station in the Mercator Dock
  • Open: Daily 10am – 5pm
  • Admission: Adult €5, Child €3
The Crystal Ship Street Art Trail

50 giant murals adorn the city forming part of the Crystal Ship Street Art Trail. You can hire a bike and undertake the 18 mile long trail or tackle the shorter 6 mile one by foot. We dipped in and out of the trail whilst seeing other things. Whichever way you choose to tackle the trail, you can pick up a map showing the route and locations at the Tourist Office on Monacoplein.

Strook street art Ostend
Strook starting off the Street Art trail
Marvin Gaye Trail

Did you know that Marvin Gaye used to live in Antwerp? In fact, he even wrote Sexual Healing here! To celebrate this fact you can hire an audio guide from the Tourist Board, in which you hear Marvin Gaye and people who knew him as you explore his haunts.

Marvin Gaye Ostend Music Mural
Marvin Gaye and friends
  • Marvin Gaye Midnight Love Tour
  • €5 per person
  • Toerisme Oostende, Monacoplein 2
Muse.zee

What a splendid name for a museum by the sea! Here you will find the works of Belgian artists, especially those associated with the coast. James Ensor, a surrealist who lived and worked in Ostend figures largely. HIs house is currently undergoing renovation but will be available to visit soon.

  • Muse.zee, Romestraat 11, Ostend
  • Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 6pm
  • Admission: Adults #9, under 26 €1
Atlantic Wall Museum

During World War II the German’s fortified the Belgian coast in what became known at the Atlantic Wall. Most of these defences are now gone but a complex of 60 bunkers, observation posts and gun emplacements can be seen a short tram ride east from Ostend at Raversyde.

World War II German Gun emplacement
  • Raversyde, Nieuwpoortsesteenweg 636, Ostend
  • Tramstop: Domein Raversijde
  • Open: March – November Daily 10 – 5pm
  • Admission: €8, under 13 free
Fort Napoleon

Wars have regularly swept over this part of Belgium. Napoleon was here too. Head west out of Ostend on the tram and you will find Fort Napoleon. Built in 1811 by Napoleon to defend against the British it is now open to the public. When we visited the fort was being restored but is due to reopen in July 2019.

  • Fort Napoleon, Vuurtorenweg 13, Ostend
  • Tramstop: Duin aan Zee

De Haan

De Haan is the one low rise resort along the Belgian Coast. Strict building controls were put in place when development started at the turn of the twentieth century. All the buildings are in a half timbered Anglo-Normand style, none of them more than four stories high. The beach is as sandy as all the others on the Belgian coast and it has pleasant bars in which to set and drink a beer whilst watching the sun set.

Belle Epoque tram stop De Haan Belgium
Even the tram stop is Belle Epoque in De Haan

Two De Haan facts, that seem unrelated but are ….. I recently read Albert Einstein Speaking by R J Gadney and read that that Albert Einstein stayed in Le Coq sur Mer after leaving Germany and before catching a ship to America. Odd, I thought, I was convinced that he stayed in De Haan. I mentioned this to Mr CW who suggested that Le Coq and De Haan are merely the French and the Flemish name for the town. Feeling foolish I then enquired if that was why there were many human sized fibre glass chicken around the place. Mr CW has not stopped laughing yet.

Blankenberge

Blankenberge is billed as the Costa del Sol of Belgium. One friend, who used to live in Brussels, said how much she had enjoyed her visit. Our stay on the Belgian coast was bathed in sunshine apart from the day we visited Blankenberge when it was so foggy we couldn’t see from one end of famous pier to the other. In the summer on a fine day the beach has cute stripy beach huts on it and the nightlife is reputed to be livelier than elsewhere on the coast.

Foggy Blankenberg Pier Belgium
There is a pier down there …. honest

Zeebrugge

My first abroad ever was Zeebrugge. A Townsend Thorenson ferry carried us over from Felixstowe en route to Germany. She will always be glamorous in my heart. You can still catch a ferry from the UK to here, no longer from Suffolk but from Hull. There is a lookout on the Zweedse Kaai (Swedish Wharf) where you can see the ferries, cruise ships and vast tankers float by.

Knokke

Knokke is the place to come with money in your pocket. It is a swish resort with many designer shops to tempt you. Knokke started life as an artists retreat in the 19th century, it remains arty with over sixty galleries offering art for delectation. Now it is regarded as the smartest of all the Belgian Coastal towns.

Belgian Coastal Tram

I love public transport. Longest, shortest, tallest …. what child of the 70s did not watch Record Breakers and hanker after all things record breaking. The seaside is also a big favourite of mine. So a record breaking tram along the coast is just about heaven for me. De Kusttram covers the full length of the coast and you are never too far from a stop. You could easily visit the Belgian Coast without a car.

Belgian Coastal Tram by sea
Seaside tram
  • Single ticket, valid for 1 hour €3
  • One day pass €9
  • 3 and 5 day passes, plus tickets that include entry into some attractions are also available
  • Full details of tickets and timetable available online De Lijn.

Sculpture on the Belgian Coast

One of the great joys of the Belgian Coast was the fact that we kept on stumbling across great works of art just lurking in the sand dunes. Some of these are left over from the Beaufort festival which, once every three years, see’s many sculptures being installed along the length of the coast for an entire summer. Some of them are stay put for ever, like this human sized whelk by Stief Desmet

Large green whelk sculpture Ostend
Monument for a Wullok by Stief Desmet

World War I and the Belgian Coast

Reminders of both the First and Second World Wars can be found along the length of the Belgian coast. If you have teenagers studying for History GCSE it is like being in a living history book. You see signs to war graveyards quite often as well as the hugely informative and thought provoking Altantic Wall and West Front museums. Although not on the coast we visited Ypres just a few miles inland.

Ypres

Our visit to Ypres, or Ieper in Flemish, was at the request of the teens who had been here on a school trip and wanted us to visit too. The first instance of them taking us somewhere!

The prosperous medieval wool town of Ypres has been lovingly rebuilt, you have to keep on reminding yourself that this was a town destroyed in the First World War. As you wander round the magnificent St Martins Cathedral you have to pinch yourself to remember that this is the place in ruins that you have seen in photographs.

My Grandfather and his brothers spent time here during World War I. What brings it all home is the Menin Gate, the huge memorial to more than 54,000 soldiers who were lost at the Ypres Salient between 1914 – 1918. That’s lost. Dead, not found. Thousands more died and were identified. It is a sobering place that makes you value peaceful European unity. Every night at 8pm the Last Post is sounded in memory of those who fought, you need to be at the gate at 7pm for the beginning of the ceremony.

Where to stay on the Belgian Coast

Belgian’s decamp to the Belgian coast by the bucket load, there are a mass of holiday homes available to rent. There also many camp sites and hotels, the latter are undergoing a bit of renaissance. In common with many Northern European seaside resorts the final years of the twentieth century had seen a period of decline now resorts and hotels are being spruced up to match the finery of the Belle Epoque.

For the first half of our stay we selected on of the many properties on offer on AirBnB. Sea Colours in St Idesbald ticked every box we had. Steps from the sea, close to shops and restaurants, two bedrooms and a table large enough for the teens to work at. Our previous AirBnB experience had left us wary but Kris was the perfect host, everything went smoothly and we are converts!

In Ostend we stayed at the Hotel Burlington overlooking the marina. In Ostend we wanted to be close to the centre, have parking and family room that had some space for work. Our room was in effect a mini suite, with the boys housed in an adjoining room equipped with bunkbeds and floor cushions. There was a roof terrace to lounging and a sauna in the basement.

Where to eat on the Belgian Coast

Fish is the thing to eat on the Belgian coast, especially brown shrimps straight from the North Sea. Every menu we saw had Shrimp croquettes on it and they were delicious. There are six Michelin starred restaurants dotted along the coast, book ahead if you want to eat in one of these. Carcasse in Sint Idesbald caught the teens eye but no reservation meant we had to look else where. Julia Fish and Oyster Bar has outstanding fish dishes. In Ostend restaurants line the Visserskaai offering all manner of fishy delights, on the harbour side of the road stalls offer lunch time fishy treats.

Brown North Sea Shrimp market stall

How to get to the Belgian Coast

Train, plane, ferry, Eurotunnel and car is the short answer of how to get to the Belgian Coast. We crossed the Channel via the Eurotunnel and then drove for an hour to get to St Idesbald. We could have also crossed the Channel on a ferry from Dover, P&O cross from Dover to Calais and DFDS operate both a Dover-Calais and a Dover-Dunkirk route. On the way back Mr CW and the teens drove and tunnelled back and I travelled by train spending a few days in Bruges on the way.

Trains from Ostend to Brussels take just over an hour, it is a few yards in Brussels to the Eurostar platform and trains to London take just over two hours. You could choose to stay on an extra couple of stops to Brussels airport to connect to flights all over the UK.

The ferries that I caught to Ostend and Zeebrugge from Felixstowe and Dover no longer run but P&O still operate a ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge. There is a daily overnight crossing, meaning that you can bookend you stay with a mini cruise.

Bruges is just a short hop inland by train or car, you can read about my weekend in Bruges. If your appetite is whetted for further exploration in Flanders why not visit Antwerp.

Visiting the Belgian Coast

We were guests of Visit Flanders our stay in Ostend, all opinions and fondness for shrimp are our own.

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