Desperate for crashing waves on a beautiful sandy shore – but keen to avoid a beach packed with boozy post-lockdown holidaymakers – I’ve opted for a road trip along Belgium’s North Sea coast, which stretches for 40 miles between the French and Dutch borders. There are 15 resorts dotted along the dunes that line the entire coast, and as Belgium has been out of confinement since 8 June, everything has pretty much reopened. I can choose between campsites, B&Bs and classic hotels, enjoy a traditional Belgian beer in a cosy, pub-like estaminet or sit outdoors at a sunny beach cabana, ordering at the bar. Restaurants have also reopened, and the only reason to book is to ensure a table, capacity having been reduced to ensure social distancing.
While it is easy to drive here from the UK, via the Eurotunnel or the ferry to Calais or Dunkirk, I am embarking on a different kind of road trip, jumping on the Eurostar to Brussels, followed by a local train to Ostend, where right outside the station, De Kusttram, the Coastal Tram (€1.80 a ride, €7.50 for a day ticket) is waiting to whisk me off to my first stop, De Panne. Close to the French border, this is the starting point of the world’s longest tramline, which hugs the coast up to Knokke-Heist near the Dutch border, with 67 beach stops along the way.
After checking in at De Panne’s family-run Hotel Cajou (doubles€120 B&B), I forgo the tempting beach just across the road and head to Westhoek nature reserve on the edge of town. Travel brochures describing the reserve’s dunes as a “Little Sahara” had caught my attention, and on a sunny July morning I discover a landscape of peaked dunes stretching as far as the eye can see.
During an hour-long ramble I meet just one man, walking his dog. The reserve is free to enter, there are no boundaries or rangers, and several paths lined with thick heathland gorse and a kaleidoscope of sea lavender, wild thyme, evening primrose and pansy of the dunes, criss-cross the rolling dunes.
Walking back into town I pass the Sportstrand, a kilometre-wide beach where people are racing up and down on high-speed sand yachts – basically go-carts with sails – a sport invented here in De Panne. In town the weekly Saturday market is in full swing. As in every Belgian coastal resort, pedestrians follow one-way signs on the pavement to avoid close contact – but I, of course, don’t know about this and feel like Jacques Tati in the 1971 film Traffic until locals politely ask me to cross the road.
At the entrance to the market, friendly young volunteers in bright yellow “Summer Safe 2020” T-shirts, squirt gel on our hands as we patiently line up, most of us wearing masks voluntarily. (Recent laws made face coverings compulsory in shops and museums.) I buy provisions for a lunchtime picnic – local cheeses and home-cured ham and salami – and walk over to the beach.
With brightly striped windbreakers and retro bathing huts, it resembles a Victorian seaside postcard, with rented sunbeds and deckchairs laid out to ensure each group has their own bubble. Families are having all the usual fun: building sand castles, playing beach tennis, paddling, swimming, and wind- and kite-surfing. There are signs everywhere warning people to respect distances – and of a possible €250 fine – but the police presence is minimal and three constables patrolling the boardwalk I speak to are confident they could even cope with an invasion of partying bank holidaymakers. I notice that we are also being monitored from above, with helicopters checking crowd levels.
Back at the hotel restaurant, over a dinner of plump moules marinières and crispy frites, owner Bruno Dequeecker says, “We are delighted to see people coming back, especially foreigners who are discovering our coast for the first time, but we are by no means fully booked. I expect a quiet summer.”
This section of the Belgian coast is not strong on campsites, but there are some delightful B&Bs, especially in the neighbouring town of Koksijde, where I discover the romantic Loxley (doubles €125 B&B), a half-timbered 1930s cottage where owners Anne and Koen also run a bistro and bar in the garden.
The next day I trundle along to and Ostend, the midpoint of the Belgian coast and its largest city. I disembark to explore for a couple of hours but the boardwalk and beach are packed, so I head into town. Ostend has become something of an avant-garde cultural hub in recent years, and while everyone is at the beach, the museums (advance booking necessary) are forgotten by visitors, including both the contemporary Mu.ZEE and the new interactive James Ensor House, showcasing the work of the Ostend painter and printmaker. I go for a rooftop aperitif cocktail at the desperately hip Grote Post, the majestic former post office and modernist masterpiece, before sitting down to a plate of Ostend’s speciality shrimp croquettes at Café Botteltje, where the beer list runs to some 300 varieties.
I then put on my mask (obligatory on public transport) and pick up my faithful tram again, direction Bredene-aan-Zee. Bredene and neighbouring De Haan stand out from other Belgian resorts as neither were afflicted by the 1970s building boom of concrete holiday apartments. Bredene may be the coast’s best-kept secret: there are no buildings at all along its seafront, just a protected dune reserve, pristine beaches and a couple of casual bars – perfect for a sunset cocktail. The modern town lies inland on the other side of the main road, where some 28 campsites offer self-catering chalets, caravans and tents.
Prices are reasonable at the friendly Veld & Duin (pitches from €20, chalets, apartments or caravans sleeping 2-6 from €550 a week in summer or €100 for two nights off-peak) run by a brother and sister team, Els and Stefaan Casier. You can’t miss the campsite as it has an upturned caravan outside the entrance, actually an art installation.
There are six beaches at Bredene – one used to be nudist but has been reserved for day-trippers this summer – and electronic roadside panels indicate whether beaches are empty, filling up or already at capacity. This efficient Crowd Barometer operates all along the coast and can also be checked online .
The next tram stop is the belle-époque De Haan (or as French-speaking Belgians call it, Le Coq-sur-Mer), which resembles a doll’s house village of ornate red-roofed villas, many converted into elegant B&Bs such as La Tourelle (doubles from €120 B&B). Pleasures are simple here, from waffles and gelato to renting pedal karts and a round of mini golf. This is where I meet Andrew James, a British businessman living in Brussels, and here with his wife Petra and young son Philip. “For us, it was natural to book our holiday in De Haan. We’ve already been twice before: it is great for families, the common sense choice after lockdown. In fact, when we get back to Brussels we will voluntarily self-isolate for 14 days by working at home, and many Belgian friends intend to do the same thing.”
At the busy Jeannine tearoom, a big sign announces: “We are so happy to see you again”. It is in English because “it is the international language of tourism,” says Paul, a young masked waiter. “We are already seeing a lot of foreign travellers arriving.”
In between De Haan and chic Knokke-Heist is the retro resort of Blankenberge. With its art deco pier, surf club and kitsch amusements – including the 1933 funny-bike Lustige Velodrome – the town revels in its role as the noisy neighbour.
Sipping a beer at Salito Beach bar, Céline Claeys, the town’s tourism director, tells me: ‘‘I like to think we are a family-orientated, democratic resort where everybody is welcome. And while some of our neighbours are trying to discourage day-trippers that is not the spirit here in Blankenberge. Just look around: on one of the sunniest days of the year there are no huge crowds, kids are having fun in the playground, people are enjoying a cold beer or spritz, but no binge drinking.”
I quickly pass through Knokke, the St-Tropez of the coast with its Ferraris and Porche SUVs and Hermes and Louis Vuitton boutiques. Beyond the exclusive villas, almost on the Dutch border, is the Belgian coast’s final hidden secret, Het Zwin (entrance €10), a stunning wetland and bird reserve inspired by the philosophy of the UK’s Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust founder, Peter Scott.
It is a total contrast to Westhoek, where I started my trip. Numbers are limited and visitors must book a 30-minute time slot during which to enter, but can then stay all day. As I follow the trail through the freshwater marshlands I pass numerous lookout spots equipped with high-powered telescopes for birdwatching, and helpful guides everywhere. This is a popular migratory stop-off for spoonbills, avocets, geese and terns, as well as a dozen families of storks perched on high poles.
Then I reach the grassy tidal mudflats, whose changing landscape ebbs and flows with the North Sea, where many visitors don wellies or go barefoot across the inlet. The only company here is the grazing Highland cattle, sheep and wild goats, and the distant worries of lockdown life seem to be from another world.