Belgium’s charms are myriad – cobbled streets, quaint canals and world-famous beer, but there’s another side to this country that visitors may not know about.
Knokke-Heist is the collective name for five villages which have become one long development stretching over 12 kilometres along the sea front to the Dutch border. It includes white sandy beaches, which are unexpectedly comparable to those in more tropical countries. This exclusive coastal city has previously been referred to as the Belgian Riviera and even the Monaco of the North Sea, and is admired by many in the know as an enclave of style and enjoyment.
Members of the jet set have long beaten a path to Knokke. Stars such as Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf have performed and taken holidays here. British photographer Martin Parr compiled Life’s a Beach, a series of images which included shots of people in Knokke, and the seashore was chosen as one of the settings for fashion brand Theory’s striking spring/summer 2013 campaign produced by Belgian creatives Willy Vanderperre and Olivier Rizzo.
It’s easy to see why so many people hold this elegant area in high regard. Leafy avenues are lined with expensive holiday homes and thatched cottages are discreetly tucked away on the eastern side of the resort. Meander these avenues and side streets and you will also find hidden treasures in the form of galleries, cafés and boutiques. The beaches are a hive of activity in the summer, with children and adults cycling, rollerblading and strolling at leisure along the promenade, or relaxing with a refreshing ice cream or a beer. For the energetic, bicycles and tandem go-karts are available to hire, as well as sunloungers for those who want to relax.
There are thirteen beaches in the whole of Belgium, all offering a unique experience and linked by the world’s longest working tramline; it takes two hours to travel from De Panne, near the French border, to Knokke. The best way to explore Knokke is on bicycle – pedalling along the promenade as the waves lap, you feel a million miles away from day-to-day stresses. Countryside lovers are advised to take the cycle route along the Belgian-Dutch border which winds through the Zwin nature reserve, home to thousands of birds and plants, some of which are unique to the area thanks to the rich coastal ecosystem.
As well as the refreshing sea aroma, the smell of freshly baked bread and ground coffee is evident, emitting from the many eateries. A relatively new restaurant in Knokke is Cuines,33. Aiming to be ‘cosmopolitan, contemporary and conceptual’ the chefs work with seasonal produce and the tapas-style menu should have something to please all palates. De Snippe, located on De Wielingen, is an understated Michelin-starred restaurant offering a variety of fish and meat dishes, and the owners, Luc and Francine Huysentruyt, have created a laidback atmosphere.
The shopping here is excellent too as Knokke is an established destination for big brands: there are more than 1,500 boutiques in the area including Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Tag Heuer and Porsche Design. Head to Avenue Lippens where a range of casual and chic clothing is available in Jack Russell. Belgian label Bellerose has a standalone store offering clothing which is perfect for the holidaymaker who is looking for smart-yet-comfortable attire. Hidden behind a deceptively small store front on the same street is the large menswear store Dodds, which stocks items from well-known designers such as Paul Smith, Dolce & Gabbana and Boss. Louis has been on Antoine Bréartstraat for over 20 years and stocks pieces by fashion’s high conceptualists – Lanvin, Balenciaga, Ann Demeulemeester and Rick Owens. Shopping here is a serious pastime.
As any enthusiast of Flemish aesthetics will attest, Belgium has an astonishing art history and there are many galleries exhibiting local and international artists in Knokke, such as the contemporary Absolute Art Gallery on Kustlaan with some stunning sculptures.
Although summer sun is usually guaranteed here, if the weather happens to take a turn, there are plenty of other places to visit for shelter – and there’s often a complimentary glass of Champagne waiting to welcome you too.