A three-day hiking trip along the Flemish Coast proved to be an excellent choice to spend the autumn break with the kids. Although we decided kind of last minute, the presence of the Coastal Walking path made it easy to plot a route for our trip.
The Coastal Walking Path is an excellent network of footpaths connecting De Panne and Knokke-Heist, respectively the most western and eastern coastal towns. The path uses signposted junctions, and with the App for iPhone or Android, it’s almost child’s play to plot your own trail.
Around half past seven Ansje, my better half, brought us to the railway station. After the usual “goodbye and be careful” our adventure started. The train brought us from Kortrijk to Ostend, followed by a 20-minute tram ride to Wenduine, the starting point of the hiking trip.
The first point of interest, the Spioenkop, was only a few hundred meters away from the tram stop. The white shelter with an eye-catching red roof is located on the second highest dune of our coastline. Raising 31 meters above sea level, it offers an excellent panoramic view over the coast.
In the Napoleonic Era, people feared an English invasion and used it as an observation point. Nowadays it has a more peaceful use.
Lennert and Oliver listened carefully to my explanation of this place and were even quieter when I showed them Ostend in the distance, the end-point of the first day. They hesitated for a moment but Lennert quickly responded, “We have all day, no problem …”
Distance: 42km (26mi)
Duration: 3 days
Period: 2 – 4 November
The short visit to the Spioenkop was more or less the perfect opener of our adventure, from now on we continued our route towards Ostend. Not following the longest white sand beach on the Flemish coast, but through the nearby Dune Forests.
152 acres of Dune forests
Several paths run through 152 acres of alternating dunes with forest, scrub, and grasslands, briefly interrupted by the Belle Epoque city centre of De Haan. Shortly before reaching De Haan, we enter the “Zandpanne.” A sensitive Nature Reserve with limited accessibility. In one of this Reserve’s wet dune valleys, Lennert spots some Galloway cows and a calf. Out of curiosity, we went a bit closer to observe the hornless herbivores. This cattle named after the Galloway region of Scotland provide an essential maintenance of the grasslands.
At lunchtime, we arrived in De Haan, not the typical Belgian coastal town, with ugly concrete apartments. No, the buildings here are in the belle époque style, a huge difference with most of our cities along the coastline.
We were supposed to have some sandwiches, but the local weekly market changed our mind. Instead, Lennert and Oliver had a delicious pizza.
Well fed we continued westbound on the GR5A long distance path. Leaving the Dune forests behind us as the trail took us back to the North Sea, into the dune formed landscape of Bredene. We had the option to follow the beach or to continue on the paved footpaths through the dunes. To avoid a physically intenser sandy walk we decided to stay on the easiest trail. After all, Oliver is still a six-year-old. No point in burning the morale of my youngest boy and keep it fun instead. Also, the dunes were really nice to walk in and gave us shelter from the wind.
GR5A WALKING TOUR OF FLANDERS
A long distance trail along the county of Flanders. With its 560 kilometres, it is one of the longest trails in Europe and completely waymarked with the red-white markings.
The northern section of the GR5A is part of the European Hiking Trail E9. This path runs from St. Petersburg (Russia) to Sagres (Portugal). Unfortunately, the route is far from complete.
More info: E-paths
Half an hour’s walk away from Ostend we continue along the windy beach. With great imagination, Oliver and Lennert looked at the overflying seagulls. They compared them with fighter jets. The self-made engine sounds accompanied us as we strolled further towards our destination.
Upon reaching the Port of Ostend, our youngest Oliver was getting a bit nervous. I told him earlier that we were going to use the ferry to get across the harbour channel to the city, and the idea scared him. I even had to convince him and with the help of Lennert we succeeded. Ultimately, it was as I had expected and our little rascal even liked the passage with the small vessel.
Back on shore, the Youth Hostel, where we were staying, was only a stone’s throw away.
We ended up walking 17 kilometres and with great pride I looked back upon a more than successful first stage.
After a good night’s sleep and a filling breakfast, we were ready to start day two. The first kilometres we strolled along the promenade near the beach.
Art and Architecture
Nearby the hostel is the Rock Strangers located, a genuine hotspot by artist Arne Quinze. The metal constructions are a part of Beaufort04, an exhibition of Contemporary Art at the Belgian coast. An excellent start of the day.
Ostend, also known as the “Queen of Seaside towns,” lives up to its name. Especially the Royal galleries, a 400-meter long covered walkway. It was built for Belgian King Leopold II and offered protection against the sun and rain during the walks off the middle classes. A beautiful piece of architecture based on Venice’s classicist architecture. The pillars formed a great playground for the kids.
We took our time so that Lennert and Oliver could enjoy themselves. But still, I noticed some signs of boredom. Maybe the first kilometres were too urban. While looking at the apartments, Oliver asked me when we would be walking in nature again. It was clearly bothering him.
Fortunately, the tedium was of short duration. Thanks to the Provincial domain of Raversyde, a unique piece of nature which was completely restored in 2014. Some parts were deforested and then replanted with native trees. It hosts a playground, watchtower, and even a bird sanctuary. The perfect location for our lunch break.
The Atlantik Wall
After lunch, it was time to visit one of Ostend’s most popular landmarks, the Raversyde Atlantik Wall Museum. Definitely one of the highlights of this three-day adventure. The open air museum constitutes one of the best-preserved parts of the German defences from both world wars. Numerous bunkers, observation posts, artillery positions and kilometres of subterranean corridors. As a matter of speaking it’s one huge playground for the kids, and above all, it instils something about Europe’s dramatic past.
We did spend most of the afternoon inside the museum, and during the last few kilometres towards Middelkerke, my boys only talked about one thing. In other words, the visit to the Atlantik wall was a nice change. Once we arrived near Middelkerke Casino, the coastal tram took us back to Ostend for a second stay in the Youth Hostel.
Around half past six in the morning there was some noise in our three-person bedroom, half awake I noticed that Oliver and Lennert were already getting dressed. Quite a surprise if you ask me. But that gave us extra time to clean up the room, and enjoy the generous continental breakfast.
After handing the room keys, we headed towards the closest tram stop. The fastest way to reach the point where we left off on the second day of hiking. Twenty minutes later we got off the tram at the Casino. Compared to the previous days the temperature had significantly decreased, and the strong wind made it feel like it was freezing.
No need to explain that the confidence of my boys was a bit more tempered. Also, the first few kilometres on de the Dune Path we had to keep our eyes on the track. Dog poo everywhere!
Being a dog owner this really saddened me, and it didn’t really help to boost the morale of the kids either.
The three of us were more than happy upon arriving at Westende and especially when we reached the Sint-Laureins dunes. These dunes, at the former campsite “Camping Cosmos”, were fully restored. New paths blend in perfectly with the natural environment.
It pleased me to see that Oliver and Lennert had the time of their life. We forgot the earlier inconveniences on the trail as they let themselves roll of the dunes. I was aware that the sand would be getting everywhere but didn’t see a reason to stop them from doing it. After all, they were having fun.
The campsite was known for the remnants of the war, and as soon as the first bunkers appeared, Oliver ran towards them looking for the entrance. It seemed he was still impressed by the visit to the museum.
The Sint-Laureins Dunes are just over 45 acres and located in between the centre of Westende and the military domain Lombardsijde. The dunes are known of the former “Camping Cosmos”. The whole area got a facelift in 2005. In 1996, the campsite reached the big screen in movie theatres, the eponymous comedy included actors Lolo Ferrari and Herman Brusselmans.
The dunes are not completely accessible as they get interrupted by the presence of a military domain. Upon reaching the fence, you either go left towards the Nieuwpoort Marina or keep right and continue along the beach. We picked the latter option. Considering the strong wind, it could have been a bad choice.
But as Oliver and Lennert started making drawings in the wet sand, it obviously was not. They kept drawing and as mum was not around, the drawings had some funny subjects. They were really slacking and this section on the beach took ages, but who cared.
In the distance I noticed some pillars lined up into the sea and I was wondering what its purpose was. I really had no clue, till a warning sign on one of the columns overruled any assumptions. We were still near the military domain, and this stretch of the beach is part of it. When a red flag is suspended between the poles, the beach is not accessible. When this is the case the military has shooting practices, you don’t want to be on the beach when this happens.
Near the lighthouse, we were almost at the end of our journey. Between the two piers, marking the entrance of the Nieuwpoort Marina, we got on a similar looking ferry as in Ostend. The ferry, exclusively for cyclists and pedestrians, saved us from a couple of extra kilometres. Nieuwpoort was our final destination anyway, and the kids were getting cold. The faster we could warm ourselves in one of the tearooms, the better.
No sooner said than done. A few moments later we were having a well-earned dessert, delicious pancakes and Belgian waffles.