And so to the area some call, perhaps unkindly, Costa Del Belgium. The sun is blazing over Blankenberge as we park up by the former fisherman’s harbour, now a marina, boats and ships as far as the eye can see. It’s lunchtime and we snake around the coast to the palisades and along a rickety wooden structure to the famous fish restaurant perched at its tip.
It’s here that Brasserie Oosterstaketsel was built in 1870, this current incarnation dating to the mid-20th century. The interior is something like a movie set: mahogany floor, pristine white tablecloths, deco lamps, and a wood-burner that’s surely magical in winter. On the counter are candlesticks, a gramophone and lemons kept fresh in cakestands. And views abound over the yawning beach, towerblocks on one side, the historic defences on the other.
It’s scorching, so we sit on deck, and gorge on seafood. Too hot for a steaming bowl of the house speciality, soupe de poisons, we try yet more creamy shrimp croquettes, and goujons of plaice with tartare. We realise we’ve not eaten moules yet – in Belgium! – so order two different varieties: the special chef’s sauce, a mild, aromatic curry that’s popular here, wins out over the traditional celery and shallot-based stock. To wash it down? Why, says the waiter, we must try Belgian champagne, a satisfyingly exact replica in all but name.
We’re less impressed with the rest of Blankenberge, its flashy seafront all noisy bars and rather average restaurants (as we discover in the evening). The emphasis here is firmly on mass tourism –families will enjoy the Sea Life Centre and Velodrome – but the 1930s pier is nonetheless a joy as the sun sets, and some fine Belle Epoque architecture is dotted about. As elsewhere, there’s barely another English tourist in evidence.
Ten minutes’ walk down the main shopping street is a recently renovated square, where the station and our hotel Mercure is, with its minimal bedrooms, whopping beds and luxury bathrooms.
The biggest plus? A rooftop pool, where we swim under slate-grey skies next morning, admiring the views over churches and pantile roofs. After that, breakfast is very welcome, with its cured fish, meats and cheeses, as well as bowls of superfood berries. Chuck in a bespoke egg-boiler and we’re so excited we miss the hi-tech looking pancake-making machine. Still, we have one final destination – and the dictum is it’s the smartest one on the coast.
Main image, sunset at Blankenberge: SE