Flemish coastline: Golden shores

The Independent By Harriet O'Brien

The golden sands seem to stretch on forever, disappearing into a dreamy haze in the distance. The sea is a dramatic arena of moving colour, rapidly fluctuating from bright sparkling blue in the sunshine to an almost amethyst hue as the sky becomes overcast. And as the clouds clear again, the breeze whips up small white waves that sashay across the ever-changing shades of this seascape. It's an autumn outlook, but whatever the season, the view from the Promenade of De Haan on the coast of Flanders is entrancing. Elsewhere along the carpet of fine beaches bordering the north-west edge of Flanders, the scenery is just as enticing. This much-loved playground of the Belgians is divided into 14 resorts, each attracting a different clientele. Today, even though these resorts are just a few kilometres apart, the distinctive character and appeal of each has been proudly retained. Getting from one resort to another couldn't be easier, nor more enjoyable. The world's prettiest tram service operates from one end of the 70km coast to the other.

The Kusttram runs every 10 minutes in summer and every 20 minutes in winter. A full journey with 70 stops takes two and a quarter hours, while short hops can whisk you from port to beach to dune in minutes. There's also a scenic cycling trail through the area, leading you along the seafront in some parts while in others you ride through villages and past cow-grazed fields of land reclaimed from the sea. Nature remains very much a respected feature of this coastal region and a number of reserves have been zealously protected. The resort of De Panne, at the far western end of the coast, is particularly famous for two areas of wild. Bordering France, the Westhoek reserve is a magical sector of open dune landscape, wild grasses and great bird life. It backs on to the west end of De Panne, whose exceptionally wide beach is a haven for sand yachters. On the other side of the town you'll find Houtsaegerduinen. Don't struggle too hard to pronounce it, just go there: this impressive area of dunes is covered in rich vegetation and supports the likes of nightingales, willow warblers and crested newts.

Further east, there are more reserves at Koksijde-Oostduinkerke, including the tallest dune of the coast, the 33m-high Hoge Blekker. During the summer, off the beach at Oostduinkerke, you may see farmers fishing for shrimps on horseback: the horse wades through the sea pulling a net and the farmer hauls the catch into baskets on either side of the animal's back. East again, Nieuwpoort remains a fishing centre, as well as having developed into a very family-friendly resort; presenting a huge choice of boat trips, surfing, wave-carting and more during summer.
Nearby Blankenberge, with its food stalls, shops and buzzing promenade, is the place to go for a party. It lies between the coast's two most striking and up-scale resorts, De Haan and Knokke-Heist.

For old-time charm and quiet, head to De Haan. This is a perfectly conserved village, devised as an ideal resort between the late 1890s and about 1912. Building regulations were stringent: each residence had to be surrounded by gardens about two-thirds the extent of the house; and essentially the architectural modes of the day had to be followed, with most of the resulting properties either built in Art Deco style or with the mock-Tudor looks of the Anglo-Norman school of the time. It was – and still is – a refined resort, attracting genteel and distinguished visitors, including Albert Einstein who lived here for six months in 1933. There's a seated bronze statue of him at the end of the pretty avenue of Normandielaan. Today, De Haan retains a timeless elegance. There are no tall buildings and even at the height of summer it's a peaceful place, the 2km shoreline promenade remains wonderfully uncrowded.

Knokke-Heist, further east near the border with the Netherlands, is in an altogether different league. This is the St-Tropez of Belgium. The cool crowd comes here to be seen, the fashion aficionados to shop, while the super-rich spend weekends at their fabulous villas. Take a walk or drive around the streets radiating from Zoutelaan by the Royal Zoute Golf Club and you'll pass stunningly designed properties set behind beautiful gateways and lush hedges. Further into the town centre, Lippenslaan and Kustlaan are the principal shopping streets. Concentrate on Kustlaan and keep moving east: as you reach the Het Zoute area you'll see the cars and shops becoming more exclusive, more sophisticated, a Ferrari here, outlets of Olivier Strelli and Prada there. On this street and along Het Zoute promenade, or Zeedijk, you'll find some of the most exciting of Knokke-Heist's 50 or so modern art galleries: Guy Pieters, featuring works by cutting-edge artist Wim Delvoye is at Kustlaan 279; sleek Samuel Vanhoegaerden Gallery is at Zeedijk 720. Food is a real treat in Knokke-Heist, with fresh seafood a regional speciality. To try one of the town's three Michelin-starred restaurants, make for Jardin Tropical at Zwaluwenlaan 12 (00 32 50 610 798; www.jardintropical. be). Hopes are high that innovative young chef Frederik Deceuninck will win Knokke-Heist another star with his creations for Sel Gris at Zeedijk 314 (00 32 50 51 49 37; www.restaurantselgris.be). Reflecting the western end of the coast, Knokke-Heist is set beside a nature reserve that borders the Netherlands. Het Zwin is stunning and is particularly famous for its population of storks.

So, sated with food, fresh air and splendid sights, where do you lay your head? Some of the coast's finest accommodation is in the east. In De Haan, Manoir Carpe Diem at Prins Karellaan 12 is an enchanting boutique hotel with log fires, antiques and 15 charming bedrooms, as well as a swimming pool in the ample gardens (00 32 59 23 32 20; www.manoircarpediem .com; doubles from €135/£112 including breakfast). For a stylish B&B option, book into De Haan's Zonnehuis at Normandielaan 20 with four bedrooms, bikes to borrow and a swimming pool in the beautifully devised gardens (00 32 475 71 98 65; www.zonnehuis-dehaan.be; doubles from €125/£105 including breakfast). Over in Knokke-Heist, Manoir du Dragon at Albertlaan 73 is a lovely Twenties manor house near the Royal Zoute Golf Club. It has 16 bedrooms and wonderfully devised gardens (00 32 50 63 05 80; www.manoirdudragon.be; doubles from €220/£183 including breakfast). If you're on a tighter budget but still want to stay somewhere stylish, make for Knokke-Heist's great value Hotel Binnenhof at Jozef Nellenslaan 156, close to the casino and to the promenade along Albert beach (00 32 50 62 55 51;; doubles from €90/£75, including breakfast). For more information visit www.flemishcoast.co.uk; http://www.visitflanders.co.uk/

Getting there and getting around
By sea, there are two leading gateways for Flanders: Dunkirk, which is just across the border in France, is served by Norfolkline ferries (0870 870 1020; www.norfolkline.com) from Dover; and Zeebrugge, north-west of Bruges, served by P&O North Sea Ferries (0870 129 6003; www.ponsf.com) from Hull. By air, Antwerp is linked from London City and Manchester by VLM (0871 666 5050; www.flyvlm.com). Brussels has links from airports across the UK. From Brussels National airport, a direct train runs to Ghent, Bruges and Ostend, while easy connections are available in the capital to other destinations in Flanders. In normal circumstances Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) will whisk you from London to Brussels Midi in under two hours. Tickets start at £59 return, and are valid to any station in Belgium. Brussels offers fast and frequent connections to Ostend via Ghent and Brussels, to Antwerp via Mechelen and to Leuven. The coastal tram line (Kusttram) is paralleled by a picturesque road that stays close to the shore, with a faster motorway a short way inland. Because Flanders is so accessible by ferry, motoring is a good way to see the region; distances are relatively small, and motorways connect urban cities. Cities, though, preserve their character by closing many streets to motor vehicles, so you are advised to park up and explore on foot. The region has reliable regular-interval trains connecting cities, towns and villages. They are supplemented by buses operated by De Lijn, whose schedules are dovetailed with train timetables. At larger railway stations, bicycles are often available to rent.