A short break by the seaside may not be the obvious option for expats and visitors to Brussels but, actually, a trip to the Belgian coast for a few days can be great fun.
One of the best places to head for is De Panne, well-known for its nature reserves and the widest beach on the coast – as the local tourist guide describes it “a golden yellow paradise”.
Speaking of the beach, it’s without a single break-water and, as such, no coincidence that the first sand yacht was built here, in 1898. Created by the Dumont brothers, it was the beginning of a sport for which De Panne has become renowned. Driven by stiff breezes coming off the North Sea, these sailing cars swoop at extraordinary speed along the edge of the waves.
But there is a lot, lot more to De Panne than the beach - it also offers an all-year-round programme of attractions, including concerts, processions and fireworks.
One place to lay your head for a couple of nights is the Donny Hotel, a very comfortable, four-star hotel in a particularly quiet part of the town. It offers first-class accommodation for all ages, but is especially well-suited for families as it also offers superb indoor recreation, including a steam room, sauna and swimming pool.
A trip to De Panne is also likely to give you unforgettably tasty memories afforded by some of the local restaurants. Some of the local dishes and specialties of local cooks are worth the trip on their own.
One of the very best on the whole coast has to be Le Flore, a Michelin-listed restaurant on the main shopping street, where French chef Ludovic Verlande produces simple but superb food at reasonable prices.
Although he’s lived in De Panne for 40-odd years and run Le Flore for more than 20 of them, Daniel Colonna-Cesari, the owner, hails from Corsica and he and Ludovic successfully combine the very best of French and Italian cuisine at this top-notch eatery.
The menu changes every four weeks but always includes a ‘creative’ offering and most of the ingredients are sourced locally, usually in nearby Bruges. Daniel’s Flemish wife, Jacqueline Gilles, plays a full part in what is guaranteed to be an enjoyable visit.
Another excellent place to eat is La Coupole which is often full of families.
Run by Jean-Paul Bonnez, who has lived in the town all of his life, and his wife Christine, this
64-seat restaurant specialises in seafood but also does great Scottish beef. The resto, open all year, was completely renovated four years ago (only the floor remained unchanged!) and Jean-Paul is already planning other possible changes.
What does not change, though, is the excellence of the menu, including scallops, pheasant and lobsters, and a great wine list, including Californian and Chilean varieties.
For those in search of the strictly informal, try the bistro-style Huyze Armalot, run by Franky Baert and his wife Sandrine. The delightfully decorated interior is surrounded by photos of their children and youngsters will certainly feel at home at this cafe-cum-restaurant.
The food is rather good too, featuring a lovely range of salads and puddings. Franky readily concedes that the choice may be limited but the quality of his offerings more than compensates. High tea is served on the first Saturday of the month, although you will need to book.
After dining, many fancy a brisk walk and, here too, De Panne has a lot to offer. The town is also surrounded by dunes, including those at Westhoek, the Cabour fossile dunes and between Oosthoek dunes and the polders.
There are 12 footpaths, including the 3.2km Blackthorn path, which takes around 75 minutes to complete. It starts at the Centre for Nature Education and winds through the Calmeynwood. The path also leads you to the top of a 22m high dune, where there ‘s a nice view of the reserve and its surroundings.
For cyclists and mountain bikers there are several routes inland while, time permitting, a quick trip to France is highly recommended.
And, of course, the famous Plopsaland, surely one of the best theme parks for children in Belgium, is also nearby. What’s not to like?