Belgium is most familiar to us through its cosmopolitan cities such as Brussels and Bruges, but as you head for the coast you feel your whole body step down a gear as you relax into the laid-back atmosphere of the Flemish coast, writes Marina Soteriou.The ferry crossing from Dover to Dunkerque is a pleasurable way to begin the break. And on arrival you are a just an hour's drive away from the charming town of De Haan which is an ideal base to begin exploring this beautiful coast. More than a dozen towns and resorts dot the coastline - and are all linked by one of the worlds' longest tramlines, the Kussttram(!). They run every ten to twenty minutes, and various day and multi-day passes are available. Tranquil De Haan is packed with fascinating architecture made up of Art Deco mansions and thatched cottages, which were once home to Albert Einstein, for five months. You can walk past his former home and gaze at the door buzzer which still bears his name. The proud residents of the town even erected a bench in one of the many town squares, on which a statue of the physicist sits with a wry smile. The town is served by the long tram route which runs along the coast. Nearby is the only sea-side city Oostende where you can get a fix of culture and nightlife. In 1811 Napoleon had a fort constructed in the dunes of Oostende because he feared an attack from England. As the attack never came, the fort only ever served as an ammunition depot and accommodation for the French army.Now the magnificent building has been transformed into a monument housing exhibitions, concerts and a diner. The neo-gothic church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul's in the city centre is home to the mausoleum of the first queen of Belgium Louise-Marie, who died in Oostende. A stroll along the beach brings you to the fish market where you can sample the fresh seafood caught that morning in the North Sea. A must-try are their famous shrimps. Whilst indulging in local produce there is a wide selection of local beers available in most establishments.It can be daunting choosing one from the long menu lists but the Trappist selection, made by the monks of the Cistercian order - called Westmalle, Westvleteren and Achel - are a good place to start. The locals take their beers seriously and each one comes in its own glass. In one Gwent bar customers ordering a Kwak beer must hand over one of their shoes as a deposit as the glass it is served in is mounted on a wooden frame sought after by collectors.
Further north on the coast things get seriously sophisticated. The exclusive resort of Knokke-Heist, close to the Dutch border, boasts three Michelin starred restaurants and a strip of designer shops.The beach even has a small army of cleaners who come out in the early morning to ensure the beach is spotless. It is lined with private galleries and antique shops, a world away form what British holidaymakers are used to. However don't be put off by businessmen and their sports cars as Knokke-Heist can offer some holiday gems. The Zwin nature reserve stretches more than a mile long across the coast. Here, storks fly above you and nest in the trees and the chimney tops. Over the hill, between the sea and the forest is a stark salt lake, home to many birds.
The resort of De Panne, known as the green pearl of the Belgian coast, offers something slightly more varied than the more well-heeled resorts. It seems younger and has a wider variety of restaurants offering something more than the ubiquitous sea food. Landscapes here are unique as it is the only place on the Belgian coast which has the sea, beach, dunes, forests and polders. Luckily enough, there are good walking and cycling routes to explore them all.Here, they know how to get the most out of their wide beaches. Activities include kite-surfing, land yachting, horse ridding and kite-buggying. The hills overlooking the beaches between De Panne and Dunkirk still accommodate tanks and artillery from the battles on the beaches. In the past, only rich people built in De Panne but after World War Two, there was a vision to make the place accessible to families, children and disabled people. There are even piers which allow disabled people to have fun in the sea too. Families in search of fun can visit the comically named theme park of Plopsland. Next time you are planning your holiday remember airport chaos, long-haul flights and delays do not need to dominate your planning.Instead why not try the gentle, relaxed pace of the Flemish coast.