Family Fun on the Flanders Coast
Flanders in Belgium is just a short drive from the ferry ports at Calais, Dunkirk and Zeebrugge. The regions around Channel ports are easily overlooked in the mad dash to central Europe, yet they have much to offer those who bother to stop and explore. We spent a few days exploring a thirty mile stretch of coastal Flanders and found plenty to keep an active family entertained, including a robot that could dance Gangnam style. What more could you want?
The little Flanders coast of delights
The six seater go-kart bikes on the promenade at Ostend come with few instructions. Surprising really as both bikes and prom are a bit of a challenge, with plenty of interesting obstacles. But once you’ve learnt how to negotiate the sculptures, people and slipways, you can go for miles; twenty miles we are told. Mind you, these family sized contraptions are only one way of getting around the Flanders coast . You can open up your options and cover a wide range of attractions in a short break or long weekend by using the coastal tram or bringing your own car. Here’s some of the family fun we discovered in three days exploring a thirty mile stretch of this Belgian coast.
A seaside base in pretty little Nieuwpoort
For our stay in Flanders we base ourselves in Nieuwpoort, a coastal town halfway between Dunkirk and Ostend and just an hours drive (75km) from Calais. It is a pretty little town with a harbour full of yachts, a long beach and promenade and some rather neat stripey lighthouses, one of them not just situated on land but on a roundabout! It’s got everything you need to keep the family happy – a range of hotels, some enticing bakeries and coffee shops, and plenty of places you can get the fries with mayo and Belgian waffles needed to fuel your adventures.
Walking and wildlife by the Ijzer
Nieuwpoort sits on the River Ijzer, where it meets the North Sea. As Belgium’s only large river estuary it’s both historically and ecologically important. The ebb and flow of the tide mixes salt and fresh water twice daily giving rise to unique saltings and mud flats that attract oystercatchers, coloured sandpipers and curlew. There’s a great board walk along the riverside, popular with local runners and cyclists and great for a stroll. At low tide we find it a good place to spot birds and even seals. An early morning stroll has us watching fishermen and local trawlers head down the river and off to work in the mist.
Explore by boat and boot
You can get boat trips around the harbour and river estuary, and ferries also run across the river to the Izjermonding, a nature reserve with flora and fauna you won’t find almost anywhere else in Belgium. If you want to walk further you can access the West Coast Walking Network, more than 130km of trails connecting up beaches, dunes, polders, woods and other seaside resorts along the Flanders coast. You can buy maps at the local tourist office.
Hands on history
We head four kilometres inland following the riverside boardwalk and reach De Ganzepoot, the Goose’s Foot, a complex of locks where the River Ijzer, plus several shipping and drainage canals all flow together. We look at the lock system from the Langebrug (Long Bridge), an area famous for being flooded at the end of 1914 when locals made ingenious use of the lock system to drive back the German invasion. You can learn more about this and play an interactive computer game that lets you control the locks, just like in 1914 in the Westfront Visitors Centre.
A family friendly place to stay
We stay at the smart Hotel Cosmopolite. It’s comfortable, modern and central with an unusually themed Carousel restaurant. If you’ve never had breakfast or dinner with a merry go round horse then here’s the opportunity to put that right. The hotel has 20 spacious family rooms, each with two bedrooms and shared bathroom, like mini apartments. The kids love the fact each room has its own TV and free internet access and I love the ability to let them chill out and connect in their room while we relax and watch what we want next door.
Pedal power Flanders style
We head out to explore the Flanders coast on a family sized biking go kart. You can hire one bike for the whole family to ride –ranging from four person to eight person, or octopus style bikes for extra large families. Most of the towns have rental shops (we used Ginocarts in Ostend), and in summer you can also hire more conventional two wheeled bikes. Belgium is very cycle friendly and you will see a lot of people venturing out on two wheels. This year the Tour of Flanders will celebrate its 100th race on hilly cobbled streets. In a normal year it attracts more than 1 million spectators so they’re expecting a good turnout. We stick to the coast and promenade around Ostend.
After the fun, the funfair
The bike carts are harder work than they look. There’s no power steering, only one gear and it’s not long before the bickering over who is going to steer and who’s not pedalling begins. You can cycle for twenty miles or more along the prom here but we decide five is enough to justify waffles. After all the pedalling, when the winter sun sets, we wander around Ostend and find a funfair with carousel horses you can actually ride. And waffles. Lots of waffles. With lots of toppings to experiment with.
Exploring the world at Explorado
The next day the boys volunteer Hannah for another experiment. This time she is standing with a balloon full of water over her head and a naked flame burning onto it. I’m not sure this can end in a good way. But it does. That’s the magic of the Explorado science lab in Ostend. After the science lesson Hannah finds herself in a meeting with Zora, a robot that can sing and dance, before experiencing a hurricane in a darkened shelter.
Explorado is what it says on the tin, a science park made for independent exploring, full of interactive exhibits, roaming guides and scheduled shows. You need to allow at least a couple of hours for this attraction which engage and immerses kids and may leave you feeling redundant unless you are prepared to get stuck in and fly drones, shoot hoops or feel slightly sick riding the Apollo 3000 anti gravity space simulator. Once our kids discover the robots and drones we found it hard to drag them away, until I threatened to dance Gangnam style with Zora.
The world’s longest tram ride
I’ve never recommended tram lines as a tourist attraction before but the Belgian version is notable for being the world’s longest. De Kusttram or the Belgian Coast Tram runs the entire length of the Flanders coast, from De Panne, to Knokke-Heist. If you buy a pass you can ride the whole 68km, hopping on and off at coastal resorts along the way. It’s much quicker than cycling a six person go kart. You can buy 1, 3, 5 and 7 day passes. Don’t forget to validate them in the machines when you get on. It’s a stress free way of travelling from city to town to attraction.
Theme park thrills at Plopsaland De Panne
Plopsaland De Panne is a theme park based on Belgian TV characters and run by a TV studio but you don’t need to know the characters to have fun. It’s in De Panne, about 20km from Nieuwpoort (heading towards Dunkirk) or a relaxing 30 minute ride on the Kusttram. Don’t expect high tech thrill rides, its predominantly old fashioned fun with wooden water rides, pirate boats and swings but there are a few big thrill rides and rollercoasters too. It’s best suited to younger kids although our teens hugely enjoyed the Anubis rollercoaster and the splash rides. Plopsaland is a lot smaller than parks like Disney and you can do the whole thing in a day without feeling too exhausted. We went early, spent the day and then combined it with an evening visit to the indoor waterpark nextdoor, Aqua Plopsaland.
Splashing about at Aqua Plopsaland
It may be a mouthful to pronounce but this new waterpark, Plopsaqua, is atmospheric and colourful, and polar bears would feel right at home with its décor. But the main highlight becomes apparent only after you’ve been in the pool for a while. The lights dim, the music stops and a storm brews. Waves gather and start to push you around the main pool.
“Wouldn’t it be great if it actually rained,” said Cameron.
And then it did. Real rain, falling from the sky. In all our years of waterparks, we’ve never seen that before! Once you’ve had your fill of stormy weather, head off down the Wild River which actually is quite busy with slides and whirlpools and sudden drops. For relaxation, try the outdoor pool with a view of the Plopsaland fairy lights or the little sauna hut which makes you feel like you are in a ski resort. It’s open into the early evening and makes for a great way to end the day.
We travelled to Belgium by car, with by P&O Ferries on their cross channel service from Dover to Calais. Crossings take just 90 minutes and with more than 20 crossings a day, you can pick a time to suit your schedule. Nieuwpoort and the Flanders coast is about 80km or an hours drive from Calais. We used P&Os Priority Boarding to speed up our boarding and disembarkation which made our journey a little bit slicker. We also checked out the Club Lounge which proved a good way to get away from the crowds while enjoying a complimentary glass of champagne, free soft drinks, tea, coffee and snacks and a leisurely read of a free newspaper. It’s amazing how much you can do and kids can eat and drink in 90 minutes!
If you live further North P&O also offer an overnight service from Hull to Zeebrugge which is a more direct way to access Belgium and Flanders directly. Overnight crossings are more expensive but they do add to the excitement. You sleep aboard in a cabin, arrive refreshed, having had breakfast on board if you want and ready for a full day of action. It means you have two nights accommodation sorted while you travel and so can help reduce your accommodation bill on the continent.
There is a good network of tourist information offices and websites providing information on things to do around Flanders, the Belgian coast and in specific towns. English is widely spoken and most websites have an English Language option. Visit Flanders has lots of information on the region and the Flanders coast. Visit Ostend is useful for attractions in the Ostend area. Nieuwpoort even has its own site. For detailed information on opening hours and prices of the attractions mentioned, follow links to the attractions websites, embedded in the article above. For more ideas for family fun on a short break in Flanders, check out this post on our UnSchool trip, learning about art, architecture, history and enough Belgian to order waffles.
Disclosure Note: We travelled to the Belgian Coast with Visit Flanders and P&O Ferries who organised cross channel ferries, accommodation and entry to some of the attractions listed here. All the pedalling, pottering and splashing on wild rivers and splash rides was, as ever, our own.