Captivating coast an ideal getaway

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2007, 12:00am

Belgium's justifiably well known for its chip shops and its chocolate - and also for being a heady mix of French and Flemish. Taking in all four, and quite a bit else besides, is the Coast Tram, which runs the 70 or so kilometres between the borders of France and Holland.

There's no easier way to appreciate the whole of Belgium's shoreline in its entirety. A day pass costs Euro5 (HK$57), and there are 70 stops between De Panne, a croissant-toss from France, and Knokke-Heist, that's clog by jowl with the Netherlands. The electric-powered trams run smoothly from dawn until well after dusk, and passengers are free to hop on and off at will.

The chief attraction is, of course, the beach. In summer, city slickers make a dash for the firm flat sands, clustering in front of favourite resort towns like Blankenberge and Middelkerke, where ranks of chalets and old fashioned wooden bathing machines provide a temporary, charismatic home.

Strong winds favour kite and windsurfers, and in between the main housing there are long stretches of empty beach patrolled only by seabirds and the more energetic hikers. Belgium's solitary official naturist beach occupies a couple of hundred prominently-signposted metres outside Bredene, a latter-day Eden carpeted with families and couples wearing nothing more than a liberal application of sunblock.

But the beach is only the start. Outside Knokke, a 150-hectare nature reserve is made up of polders and mud flats where geese, ducks and swans pause on their annual migration. At the opposite end of the tram line, Plopsaland is a merry theme park welcoming seven-year-olds of all ages and featuring a plethora of Belgian television characters such as Wizzy and Woppy and Big and Betsy, who make a change from the ubiquitous Disney cast. Other kid-friendly entertainment includes the Children's Farm at Nieuwpoort, a mini menagerie of dogs, cats, goats, pigs, calves and chickens, that's very much hands-on.

A large chunk of the Atlantic Wall, vainly built on Hitler's orders to ward off the Allied invasion, is on show outside Middelkerke, while Ostend, a major ferry port, pays minor tribute to Soul godfather Marvin Gaye, who wrote the lyrics of Sexual Healing there in the 1980s, thereby relaunching his career. Another - rather different - artist, Paul Delvaux, whose paintings are often favourably compared with Magritte, is showcased in a small museum at Sint-Idesbald.

Quite the most picturesque destination along the coast tram route is De Haan, a few minutes' ride north-east of Ostend. It got a kick start with a certain amount of encouragement from the royal family in the late 19th century, and it wasn't long before trees were blossoming along its wide avenues, shading the stately belle epoque mansions which the country's aristocracy and nouveaux riche were building. And Belgium's only links golf course, the Royal Ostend, opened behind the dunes in 1903.

Amazing to record, De Haan's first householders would recognise substantial parts of the town even now. The main drag, Leopoldlaan, winds its way sedately from the art nouveau tram stop (which prominently displays De Haan's French name, Coq sur Mer) down to the seaside. It's very much a family resort, with youngsters coming out first thing to meet the door-to-door fresh soup seller, or making their way down to the bakery.

A flotilla of bicycles is up for hire, from racers and sit-up-and-begs to multiseaters decorated with animal heads. There's some 60 hectares of woodland to explore nearby, evening concerts under the park's bandstand, and the ice cream parlours do a roaring trade from mid morning onwards.

The highlight of the week is the Wednesday market, when traders set out their stalls parallel to the tram line, selling everything from fresh fruit to the latest fashion, crying their wares in French, Flemish, German and English. It's as much a social scene as a commercial operation, with regulars exchanging gossip and visitors soaking up the atmosphere and hunting about for mementos.

Of course, both chips and chocolate feature widely among the goods on sale. The former are well nigh irresistible, and the latter perhaps the best souvenir of a holiday spent traversing Belgium's captivating coast.