Fields, beaches and chocolates: Why Flanders is the the long-weekend must-visit for 2014

News Shopper: Bruges. Picture: milo-profli.com Bruges. Picture: milo-profli.com

Less than an hour’s drive from the ferry is a haven of sandy beaches, medieval architecture and the world’s best chocolates and beers.

And with the centenary of the First World War, there has never been a better time to visit Flanders. Vibe’s Jim Palmer got on board.

Don’t be fooled, driving on the right is a heinous crime. But credit to the French because, rather than throw you straight in, there is a long stretch of winding road and a deserted roundabouts as you get off the ferry which seem designed for you to practice.

It is perhaps only a large exaggeration to say that this saved my life and my holiday.

Such was my preparation that over the next four days I only attempted one cataclysmic manoeuvre which resulted in my swerving off the wrong carriageway, followed by a frosty silence from my passenger.

Perhaps I should have stuck to cycling.

Unlike London, where getting anywhere by bike is an extreme sport, Belgium is pretty well set up with wide cycle lanes and, from what I saw, drivers don’t see those on two wheels as a Death Race-style target.

That is based on more cycling experience than I would have liked (from where we were staying in De Haan to where we were visiting, Ostend, looked closer on the map).

Still, another bonus is that the coast couldn’t be flatter, so it was a breeze. And getting to see Bredene was not unwelcome either.

We were staying at Sun Parks, De Haan.

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Sunparks De Haan

Anyone familiar with Centre Parcs will understand the set-up. It’s a leafy enclave just outside town that has all you could need.

There’s a fancy pool, kids’ play areas, mini golf, bikes to rent (including the type the Chuckle Brothers drive), restaurants, a bar and a small supermarket.

It couldn’t be much more family-friendly. Indeed, lots of families seem to come for a retreat and plan to never leave the park, and they wouldn’t be disappointed.

But as a young and as-yet-childless couple in a country with plenty to explore, we decided to do just that.

Easiest to get to is the town of De Haan, which is walkable and intensely pretty. Planning rules mean no buildings exceed four floors and every house has to be surrounded by its own green zone.

Among its pretty buildings are a number of lovely-looking restaurants, though many were out of our price range. We settled for a good old-fashioned Belgian Frituur – or chip shop to you and me – and to make it extra European opted for mayo instead of ketchup.

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De Haan

The long coast line (with none-too-shabby beaches) is ripe for exploring, from the city of Ostend to seaside towns like Blankenberge.

The gorgeous medieval city of Bruges, with its chocolate shops and cafes galore is about a 20 minute drive inland so we couldn’t resist a visit.

Half a day wandering its romantic cobbled streets and guzzling cocoa products seemed too little, though we finished off in style with a pot of moules-frite for the surprisingly low price of 14.50 euros.

Being suburban English, we couldn’t resist the chance to visit a hypermarket and there’s a giant Carrefour just outside Bruges. Obviously we stocked up on booze (various fruit flavoured brews and the local, award-winning Brugse Zot, whose brewery is in the city).

Being 2014, we felt it would not have been a complete weekend without at least a flying visit to something that commemorated the First World War, so we swung by Ypres. It wasn’t too long a drive.

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Ypres. Picture milo-profli.com

The town itself is picturesque and is home to the excellent In Flanders Fields museum and the colossal Menin Gate, which is inscribed with the names of thousands of allied soldiers who lost their lives in the war. It’s a sobering way to end any weekend.

Jim’s weekend was organised by Sunparks De Haan, Visit Flanders and DFDS Seaways, which sails up to 24 times a day between Dover and Dunkirk, providing passengers a luxury onboard experience and flexible, convenient and fuss-free travel options. To take advantage of the current offers, book now or to find out more information, visit dfds.co.uk or telephone 0871 574 7235.

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