OSTEND, Belgium (Reuters) - Belgium’s 72-km (44-mile) stretch of coast is distinguished by the world’s longest unbroken tramway to take beach-lovers from the Dutch border to the edge of France or vice-versa.
Mostly, it’s a very urban experience. High-rise development dominates and the challenge is to winkle out the remnants of graceful art-deco and unspoiled nature.
Correspondents with local knowledge can help.
10 a.m. - To get there, catch a ferry to Ostend. Alternatively, from Brussels, trains to Ostend are cheap and take just over an hour. They also run to Knokke, if you want to start at the Dutch border.
Ostend shot to prominence as a vacation spot after the Belgian King Leopold I had a summer residence built there in 1834. Now it’s better known for its ferry terminal. It also has 9 km of sandy beach, a Napoleonic fort and an art heritage.
Painter James Ensor, an important influence on expressionism and surrealism, was born in Ostend and lived there for almost all his life (1860-1949).
His house and studio in Vlaanderenstraat, near the sea front, is a museum (closed on Tuesdays), preserved as he lived in it to give visitors an insight into the man behind the powerful artistic angst.
Ensor also bequeathed to the city the Dead Rat Ball, a costumed ball, named after a Paris bar. He set up the event with his friends and it is still celebrated every March.
12 noon - Wander from Ensor’s house around the sea front to the area near the station and the port, where lunch options range from simple fish and chips or pots of prawns to full-on gastronomy.
Au Vieux Port on Visserkaai gets mostly glowing reviews.
2 p.m. - Belgium’s famous coastal tram (Kusttram in Dutch) departs every 10 minutes during the summer months, every 15 minutes in the spring and autumn. Depending on how many journeys you plan, there are various ticket prices, starting from two euros. Fares are cheaper if you buy before boarding.
Tram stops (68 in all) are dotted throughout the coastal towns and a journey along the entire route takes around two-and-a-half hours.
The trip from Ostend to De Panne, on the French border, is one of the few stretches from which you can see the sea. For the best view, sit on the right side of the tram heading towards De Panne, or left when heading back to Ostend.
From the Ostend station stop, the tram rattles through the sand-dunes to De Panne in around an hour.
If you get off at the Esplanade tram stop, the first thing you notice is a statue of Leopold I, who in 1831 first stepped on to Belgian soil at De Panne after he was chosen to become king of the newly formed country.
Walk on to the beach and bear left, towards the French border. After 500 metres (546 yards), make for the dunes of the Westhoek nature reserve, an unspoiled landscape, spread over about 340 hectares (840 acres), with 11 km of footpaths, in serene contrast to the bustling tourist towns.
Don’t miss the 400-metre wide Wandelduin (shifting dune), which explains why locals call this area the Flemish Sahara.
5 p.m. - De Panne’s beach is the widest in Belgium (up to 425 metres at low tide). As a result, it has become popular for beach sailing, or land yachting, in which small carts are attached to sails to attain speeds of more than 100 km (62 miles) per hour.
If you feel up to the challenge, classes are on offer in the summer months for 20 euros ($26.01) an hour.
6:30 p.m. - Time for a Belgian beer in a cafe along the beach promenade. Naturally, there is a local Flemish brew to be had: Gouden Pier Kloeffe, an 8.1 percent pale ale named after a local fisherman, also reputed for his brewing nous.
8 p.m. - Dinner spots include French-style Le Flore on Duinkerkelaan, with set menus from 25 euros.
Hotel Maxim in Toeristenlaan, near the beach, has been praised for its restaurant and also its accommodation, if you’re looking for somewhere to stay.
10 a.m - Take the tram to De Haan (Le Coq in French; the cockerel/rooster in English), the one part of the Belgian coastline that has retained low-rise Belle Epoque architecture.
Its tram station, also the tourism office, is suitably picturesque.
De Haan’s most famous resident was Albert Einstein, who lived there for six months in 1933.
Some of the residents still tell stories, passed down by their parents, of how he strolled along the sea front, drank coffee in the Grand Hotel Belle Vue and agonised over his decision to abandon Nazi Germany.
12:30 p.m. - Lunch. Grand Hotel Belle Vue’s restaurant is one option. Less grand, but hearty good value is The Strand Hotel on the sea front.
2 p.m. - Back on the tram, this time to Knokke (pronounced K-nokke). It’s not quite the Cote d’Azur, but a glut of designer shops make it Belgium’s most fashionable resort. To add to the glamour, it has an art deco casino, famed for a Rene Magritte mural The Enchanted Domain.
Away from the slightly surreal experience of gambling away your wages or spending them on designer outfits, a cheaper pastime is hiring one of a vast array of bicycles, ranging from tandems to mountain bikes, available near the station and from hire shops near the sea front.
4 p.m. - If you carry on pedalling towards the Dutch border, you leave behind the wall of high-rise development to reach the dunes and marshland of Zwin nature reserve.
5 p.m. - Make your way gradually back to the urban zone via Surfers Paradise. As the name suggests, it’s a surfers’ club and surfing is on offer. But it’s also a laid-back bar open to the public that serves cold beers and fresh sandwiches on the edge of an unspoiled stretch of soft sand.
7 p.m. - While away a couple of hours as energetically or lazily as you please before heading back along the cycle path to the beach-side restaurants for a seafood supper or even a trip to the casino and Magritte’s Enchanted Domain.
($1 = 0.7689 euros)
Editing by Paul Casciato
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