At first glance – and after the industrial realness of Zeebrugge, which we drive through en route – we’re not especially enamoured with the resort considered the jewel in the coast.
Knokke-Heist is too upscale, lined with pricey art galleries, millionaires’ mansions and designer shops. And an initial beer (8 euros) before a lunch at hip seafront spot Clouds Of Fashion are both overpriced and underwhelming. However, the town slowly seduces us, like so many others before. A tourist resort for 150 years (although its history goes back to the Middle Ages) it’s more mixed demographically than first appears, and its sheer size is awesome.
In the late afternoon we take a stroll three miles west along the seven-mile seafront, with its relentless beach bars, restaurants and bike hire shops, everywhere packed with people enjoying the bright sun. Albertstrand, with its tiled piazza, is an appealing spot, with cafes to suit most budgets, including cheaper streetfood-style pop-ups (Rice and Bowl is recommended).
At Heist we enjoy a sundowner at La Plage, an elegant beach bar (another, further down in Zoute, is called Famouz, with its own red carpet: you get the idea), before dinner at La Guera, a discreet restaurant from upcoming chef Glenn Vandenberghe.
A dimly lit series of rooms, all candles and antlers-on-walls, sets the tone for a Negroni made with dark vermouth and several boards of tapas: bellota ham, crispy nuggets of pork belly, dim sum with curry dip and sweet tomatoes with feta. The mains are simple in execution: sole is served with a parsley butter, chips and salad, a lamb tagine slightly let down by overcooked meat and a paucity of sauce.
As with the other resorts, opening times are an issue: on our August midweek visit, almost every restaurant behind the seafront is shut Tues-Thurs. One that is open at lunch is Bistro L’Echiquier, where we enjoy a four-course set menu, including some rosy rib-eye.
Elsewhere in Knokke, there’s shopping until you drop. If that’s your thing, take a stroll down the length of Lippenslan, stopping for coffee at artisan outlet Brazila. Just off this main drag is our Hotel Britannia, a fine example of Anglo-Norman architecture, with oak staircase, chandeliers, Moroccan rugs, grand piano and salons stuffed with memorabilia (there’s even a birdcage with real-life budgies in it). Our bedroom has a bucolic aspect over palm trees and sugarcube white houses, the shriek of gulls never far away. Breakfast is a rarefied affair of yet more hams, breads and cheeses.
Thankfully, once again, there are hire bikes to work it all off. We circle the public trail of 23 artworks, including Spanish artist Aurora Canero’s haunting lifeguards in bronze, high up on a cliff overlooking Zeedjik-Heist. Nearer Zoute is another figure, Catherine Francois’ hole-ridden Tomorrow Man, bent double against the rising tides.
We head up to the Zwin (see main pic, above), a 370-acre nature reserve of mudflats, lagoons, dunes and woodland, home to a hundred species of birds (as well as modern café and family attraction): its dust routes are a pure joy in the early morning. Spotting a sign for The Netherlands, I realise we’ve finally done it – reached the top tip of the Belgium coast, separated by marshes from Zeeland.
This end-of-the-world kind of place – with its matinal honk of geese, and the heady smell of pine in the breeze – feels like a fitting end to our mini Belgian road-trip. And next time? We’ll damn well take our time.
More info on Knokke-Heist here
Main Image: Zwin (West Flanders)