It was a blissfully warm late summer’s day and we were exploring Zwin Nature Park, close to Belgium’s border with the Netherlands. Great cormorants and a solitary stork were feeding in the salty lagoon in front of us when I spotted something familiar. “Is that samphire?” I asked park guide, Hugo Boden. “It is,” he confirmed. “And that is sea purslane,” Hugo added, pointing to clumps of green coastal herb next to the sprigs of samphire. Both thrive in Zwin’s network of dunes, salt marsh and mud flats.
Zwin sits on the eastern edge of Knokke, an exceptional North Sea resort that’s one of five towns within the Knokke-Heist municipality in West Flanders and is easily accessed by ferries to Calais, Dunkirk or Hook of Holland; LeShuttle from Folkestone to Calais; or the train from St Pancras to Bruges via Brussels.
I arrived in Knokke on the Kusttram (“coast tram”), the world’s longest tram route, which traces most of Belgium’s 65km coastline from De Panne, close to the French border. There are 67 stops along the two-and-a-half-hour route, which runs year-round, with fares costing just €2.50 for an hour’s pass or €7.50 per day.
Knokke goes under-the-radar among international travellers, with visitors typically seeking out the romance of nearby Bruges. This upmarket town has, however, long lured Belgians for its miles of soft sand, seafood brasseries and art galleries. Most holidaymakers here are affluent Belgians, with a few from the Netherlands and Luxembourg. There are 24,000 second homes, used by their owners as a weekend hamlet and summer base.
Consequently, Knokke has the exclusive air of the Hamptons, though the architecture is far more diverse than rarified beach hideaways. Immaculate, white-painted houses with pitched red roofs sit next to extravagant thatched-roof villas. The Brussels Times reported that the average cost of living space in Knokke is more than double that of the Belgian average. There is also a mix of mid-century and modern buildings, framed by the wild Flemish coastline.
Then there’s the cinematic Royal Casino, an Art Deco landmark decorated with frescos by 20th-century Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte and the world’s largest Venetian crystal chandelier. Sadly, both Magritte’s paintings and the chandelier, inside two conference rooms, are usually off-limits to casino guests.
If you don’t cycle in Knokke, you’re doing it all wrong – hire two wheels from Rubens Bikes (€20 full day/€45 for an electric bike) to cycle the six-mile round trip to Zwin.
Before setting off, we stopped at De Traiteur by Vandycke, a delicatessen on Lippenslaan, cobbling together a picnic of cheese, charcuterie and smoked fish that we later enjoyed in the nature reserve. Vandycke also has an upmarket vending machine on the outskirts of town where you can pick up freshly-prepared Flemish classics and butchered meat on the go.
Securing our bikes near the entrance, we set off to explore Zwin on foot. There are four easy hiking trails, each dotted with bird observation hides and information points, highlighting the variety of species you might throughout the year, including starlings, great ringed plovers and waders. Little egrets and skeins of Canadian geese put on a wonderful display for us. The visitor centre also has an immersive “flight” experience that took us on the path of a migratory bird.
On our return cycle we savoured heart-shaped waffles with lashings of whipped cream at Marie Siska, a charming tearoom on the main artery, Zoutelaan. Later, we joined families gathering on the sandy seashore for wine and cheese at sunset among rows of sugar-cube beach huts.
The concentration of high-end boutiques in Knokke is testament to the spending power of its visitors and home-owners, including the Belgian royal family who once owned a villa here and fashion designer Edouard Vermeulen, a couturier to Queen Mathilde of Belgium. On Kustlaan, the town’s most exclusive shopping street, there’s a Hermes and Louis Vuitton, while the pedestrianised seafront promenade, Zeedijk, is lined with a string of galleries and antique specialists.
Zeedijk is one of Europe’s glorious seafront stretches, with public art, beach clubs, ice cream parlours and brasseries. Among the public art is Veiligheidspost (“safety post”), a bright-yellow beach facility, designed by Ghent-based architect firm Compagnie-O and Dutch artist and designer John Körmeling, which bears a striking resemblance to a round of Edam cheese, as well as Aurora Cañero’s “Socorristas de Biarritz X-X”, a 4-metre high bronze of two figures sitting on a lifeguard chair near the Duinbergen seafront. There’s also an Antony Gormley installation on the breakwater at Surfer’s Paradise and more public art on Rubensplein, a lively seafront square where the echo of seagulls, lively chatter and the clatter of cutlery from Brasserie Rubens drifts through air.
At Rubens, sharply dressed waiters in white shirts and black bowties channel the restaurant’s history. It opened in 1926 and doesn’t take reservations for tables outside, but it’s worth queueing for the shrimp croquettes and moules-frites, washed down with the house rosé.
There are plenty more restaurants, most offering variations of the local speciality, Zeebrugge brown shrimp. The sleekly contemporary Pinot on Lippenslaan has a razor-sharp wine list with a focus on natural wines, though for seriously sophisticated cooking, book a table at La Rigue, where celebrated Belgian chef Peter Goossens recently took the helm. Surrounded by well-heeled diners and plates of Belgian caviar, langoustine, lobster and turbot, you only need to look around – then out of the windows at the supercars stationed outside – to see that this is a North Sea resort apart.
How to get there
Eurostar trains from London St Pancras to Brussels connect with trains to the Belgian coast; tickets include train travel to intercity stations within Belgium.
Ferries to Dunkirk, Calais and Hook of Holland also offer close access to the Belgian coast.
Where to stay
Hotel Les Arcades has doubles starting at €195 per night.
The Britannia is another popular mid-priced option with doubles from €163.
Knokke’s grand dame, Le Reserve, opposite the Royal Casino, has doubles from €299.