Belgian Riviera: a charming tram ride along the coast | Travel
IIt’s a magical moment when a railway runs alongside the sea – when passengers gather on one side of a carriage to coo and click the silver celebrity of the ocean, before the train plunges into a tunnel and the cameo is finished. In the UK, trains flirt with salt water in Dawlish and north Berwick-upon-Tweed. Some tease the estuaries along the Welsh and Cumbrian coasts. But as a rule, the practicalities of engineering – steep cliffs, roaring waves – make close encounters between rail and sea fleeting and valuable.
Not in Belgium. Belgium is the only country in Europe where the entire coastline is tightly chartered by rails (except for a few dunes at either end). The Kusttram — the coastal tram — makes 68 stops on its 42-mile journey, chasing and chiming from Knokke-Heist, on the Dutch border, to De Panne, by the French border, always in the company of the sea. It is the longest tram in the world, the only intercity tramway on the continent. For rail fans, this is a rare unicorn example of a surviving transit system in a coastal setting. If you have reached the end of this sentence, there is a good chance that you have also reached the end of the Kusttram.
Even if you’re not part of the tram-loving community like me, a day pass on the Kusttram is an ideal way to dive in and out of Belgium’s invigorating short coastline. My journey begins among the boutiques and parades of Knokke, often considered the most “chic” town on the Belgian Riviera. It’s a claim to be taken with a pinch of sea salt – the Belgian Riviera isn’t particularly chic. It’s a place where socks are traditionally worn with sandals, where you see more mini-golf than pétanque and where Paul Anka performed his greatest hits this month. It’s a kind of unconscious place with the recognizable fantasy of our own shores. The beaches I visit are filled with tan bellies filled with Trappist beers and all the fries the seagulls couldn’t steal. I like it. This is a place I’m beach ready for.
I spend a blissful afternoon wallowing in the sands of Knokke, mesmerized by the events of the container port of Zeebrugge on the coast – the slow waltz of the ship, the crane and Eddie Stobart – a sort of Lego of the gods. Knokke’s hinterland is also oddly alluring, full of Anglo-Norman villas and a small English church, a mirror of the medieval churches built by immigrants from the Netherlands in East Anglia, and a hint of kinship running through formerly the strait.
The next day, I hop on a tram heading west. We cross fields where Friesian cows nibble, hedgerows and back gardens. Sometimes the line struts along the boardwalk. At other times, the sea winks at us behind the hotels. Trams run roughly every ten minutes during the day, so you can disembark on a whim, free from the tyranny of a schedule. In De Haan Aan Zee, I stroll through an old-fashioned seaside resort built for top-heavy tourists. In Ostend, I drink a beer in a square and watch a seal dance on the breakwaters.
Mingle with tourists aboard school trips, a funeral feast and locals waving goodbye to their neighbours. Trams are machines built on a more human scale than trains. Stopping a train means breaking glass, pulling a lever, paying a £500 fine; to stop a tram, you press a ding-dong button like on a bus. The trains announce themselves with resounding fog horns; the trams have bells that ring like those of weddings and Christmas carols. Trams stop for cats on the line.
The Kusttram is associated with a century and a half of bucket and shovel adventures, but it also had a tragic history. Red Cross trams were deployed to evacuate wounded from the First World War front. The Nazis stole the cars for use elsewhere. In the mid-20th century, tram lines were demolished across Europe to make way for cars, but the Kusttram survived.
The beach bar in Ostend
“Maybe it’s because people along the coast aren’t as rushed as people in a city,” explains Patrick Vandenbergh. “A lot of time, anyway.”
Vandenbergh fell in love when he saw the vintage trams of TTO-Noordzee, an organization that preserves the historic trams of Kusttram, of which he is now secretary. He has nothing nice to say about the new Spanish-built rolling stock (noisy, uncomfortable for the buttocks) but his eyes mist as he shows me around the TTO-Noordzee depot in De Panne, full of vintage cars color vanilla ice cream, with rattan seats, antique lampshades and space for a stove in winter. Some were originally ordered by the city of Odessa, but redirected to Belgium due to unrest in Ukraine after World War I. A tram is being restored after having served as a dovecote on a farm.
He takes me for a ride in a beautiful tram that pitches like a Belle Époque dodgem. People greet us as we go. For Patrick, these trams have a deeper meaning: like many, he fears that his divided country will one day split into Flanders and Wallonia.
“Trams are full of nostalgia for better times,” he tells me. “They are a symbol of Belgian unity.”
The Grand Hotel Belle Vue in De Haan Aan Zee
As he leaves, he presses the bell with a bittersweet “ding”. I walk in the afternoon on the beach of De Panne, which is as magnificent as that of Knokke. In some ways it’s the same beach as Knokke – a continuous sweep of sand runs for around 40 miles along the entire Belgian coast, interrupted only by the ports and canals that carried the wealth of the age of gold.
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This humble coast has its allure – mussels, fries, trams – but its most sublime feature is its sand, which swells to the size of a desert at low tide, dotted with oases of tidal pools. I lie down on the beach, at the edge of a sea as flat as a polder, under dunes covered with marram grass. Afternoon sand castles disappear and vapor trails from planes sink into a darkening sky. Seems to me these are probably flights to Stansted, coming from everywhere from Alicante to Zakynthos. The Belgian coast is packed with Dutch, French, German and Belgian tourists, but in three days I haven’t heard a single British accent, even though Essex lurks beyond the offshore wind farms.
Perhaps a passenger on one of these descending planes will look at the shore under the wings and see its perfect strip of sand, hemmed in with silver rails, and an idea will come to mind, with a “ding.”
Oliver Smith was the guest of Visit Flanders. Day passes on the Kusttram cost £6 and three-day passes £13 (dekusttram.be). Hotel Donny offers spacious rooms near the De Panne tram tracks from £85 (hoteldonny.com). Take the train to Ostend via Brussels
Three places to stay on the Belgian coast
1. Hotel Britannia, Knokke-Heist
A fine example of Anglo-Norman architecture on the Belgian Riviera, the Britannia Hotel occupies a beautiful villa with floor-to-ceiling windows in Knokke-Heist, flanked by privet hedges and parasols. Despite the name, there’s not the slightest whiff of Anglophilia – indeed, the interiors have been rebooted to take on a vaguely Nordic feel. Living rooms feature trendy pendant lights, while bedrooms come in a color palette of earthy and woodsy browns. It is a ten minute walk from Knokke’s waterfront and a 15 minute walk from the famous casino.
Details B&B doubles from £230 (hotelbritannia.be)
2. Carpe Diem Manor, De Haan
Anyone in De Haan should take the opportunity to spend a day or two at Manoir Carpe Diem, hidden behind ivy-covered arches just a few blocks from the waterfront. The classically decorated interiors have a theme Nautical: Expect model yachts and maritime artwork among antique furniture and plush sofas. Seventeen guest rooms are spread over the property: a family apartment is hidden in the loft while some suites open directly onto the gardens (where you will find a heated swimming pool).
Details B&B doubles from £165 (manoircarpediem.com)
3. Hotel Donny, De Panne
A far cry from Doncaster, Hotel Donny is a friendly, family-run hotel perched on a hillock by the sea in De Panne (close enough to hear the ringing of Kusttram bells). Inside, spacious rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows, small balconies, and a tangerine color scheme, while the on-site wellness center has saunas, steam rooms, and a pool for those who hesitate to brave the North Sea. The on-site restaurant gives pride of place to seafood. After dinner, take an evening stroll along De Panne’s waterfront to immerse yourself in French territory.
Details B&B doubles from £92 (hoteldonny.com)