This is a report of a trip I did recently – Enjoy, Carmel.
THINK of Belgium and the words De Haan are unlikely to flit across your consciousness – lace, chocolate, waffles, Bruges maybe, but the coastal resort of De Haan…
But it is a place well worth a visit and is well-suited to the more relaxed demands of the older traveller. It sits on the coastal tram route north of Ostende and south of Zeebrugge, 15 kilometres (25mins drive) from Bruges.
In the centre of town, a few steps from the quaint little railway station, is the Grand Hotel Belle Vue – a place once frequented by De Haan’s most famous visitor, Albert Einstein, who lived there during the summer of 1933. Call in at the tourist office to book a guided tour and you may meet the one-time owner of the hotel who remembers the famous Mr Einstein who drank coffee on her parents’ veranda when she was a little girl.
The upper rooms of the hotel have recently been refurbished which has caused a loss in character but a gain in comfort. Our dining experience was confined to breakfast and was of the self-service variety – very functional and more than adequate but lacking in charm.
The town itself is delightful, being blessed with beautifully individually designed houses dating back to the early 1900s, thanks to the watchful town planners, and miles of beaches bordered by an elegant promenade where waffles, pancakes, ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate are on every menu.
An alternative is presented by the delightful, unassuming Hostellerie Astrid at Wenduine, a few tram stops away from De Haan. It has rooms from 85 euros a night but also offers a gastronomic dining treat to residents and non-residents alike with menus changing according to the season. Expect shrimp, snails, cod soup and fresh tuna, duck, homemade breads, fluffy light puddings, Belgian cheese and fine wines at ‘sensible’ prices.
A few miles up the coast is Knokke-Heist. Not as picturesque as De Haan, it is better known for its exclusive boutiques, high concentration of Michelin starred restaurants, two golf courses, 50 art galleries and miles of unspoilt sandy beaches – hence its ‘Flemish Riviera’ subtitle. Unlike the towns of Antwerp and Brussels, its designer shops are open on Sundays. The central tourist office has maps, leaflets and advice in English.
Access to the Flemish coast is easiest by car although the intrepid may prefer to travel along the shoreline by tram which runs from Knokke-Heist to De Panne, taking in Zeebrugge and Ostende along the way – a great way to see the countryside. Only the links from the ferry are lacking so require taxis.
Places worth a visit include the 370-acre, Zwin Nature Reserve on the Flemish coast, close to Knokke-Heist – a bird watchers delight which is about to undergo major changes to create a modern educational and environmental visitor centre. In the meantime, it will stay open the public, offering brilliant views across the salt water marshlands, mudflats and North Sea beaches where rare sea lavender flourishes as well as the chance to see white storks which nest in and around the centre. There is also a small zoo. If you have time, request a guided tour of the park – it’s well worth it.
South of Ostende, tucked away on an inconspicuous side street in Oostduinkerke, is the fascinating National Fishing Museum. Recently refurbished, it is full of delightful surprises ranging from a gallery of fishing folk photos depicting the men who risked their lives sailing to Iceland on a regular basis, and an accessible restored fishing vessel to huge aquariums containing deep sea fish and an email enabled morse code machine. Close by is an excellent restaurant – the Estiminet de Paardevischer – but get there early – the locals fill it up come lunchtime.
For travellers from the UK the Hull/Zeebrugge P&O ferry offers a relaxed start to the journey and a welcome respite at the end. Accommodation must be pre-booked and includes en-suite facilities. Langan’s Brasserie has waiter service a la carte dining, with main courses from £14, but more popular and with a huge variety of dishes is the Four Seasons all-you-can-eat restaurant which has something for everyone – breakfast is about £10 a head. Failing that there is a snack bar and a café.
Shopping is the same for all with the usual array of special offers. There is also an on- board Casino, cinema, games area and money exchange desk.
The alternative, shorter route from the south coast of England, is via Dover to Calais by P&0. If you are travelling from elsewhere, take a flight to Brussels or Antwerp and Knokke-Heist is an hour away on the train.
If you are traveling from the UK the P&O North Sea Ferries prices start at £110 for a car and two passengers – expect to pay more as the year progresses, especially in high season. Foot passenger prices on request.