by Gary Phillips

"Toi Moi Mer", Ostend

“Toi Moi Mer”, Ostend

Before being offered this trip, I hadn’t really given much thought to visiting Ostend, a town often ignored by the hordes of tourists to Bruges, its close neighbour. There had been a few times when I’d travelled through at night after a long train journey from another part of Europe so it came as a very pleasant surprise when Ostend turned out to be the Gastronomic delight that it is.

Just 10miles up the road from the UNESCO listed heritage city of Bruges, Ostend is very much a place that many foreign visitors to Belgium overlook all too easily, yet 10% of the cities’ population are second home owners from other parts of the country who are attracted to the broad beach along the front. It’s pure snobbery that prevents more Britons going to Ostend instead of Le Touquet, which offers more or less the same but at greater cost.

Our gastronomic experience began with a visit to “De Bistronoom” which was part of a themed “Dinner with Ensor” event as part of a city-wide programme to commemorate 150 years of James Ensor, the famed 19th century surrealist artist who lived in Ostend all his life. The “Deadly Sins” was one of his most famous pieces of work, so as a souvenir for customers, each participating restaurant (there are eight in total) provides a flax cotton napkin with a silver plated napkin ring. Each napkin has one of the eight engravings of these deadly sins woven into it. In our case it was “Laziness”. I certainly felt lazy after this mammoth feast of shellfish, after an early morning start. The Oysters here have been ranked in the top three in the world. Judging by their size and taste, I was in no position to argue.

You can visit the James Ensor house in Vlaanderenstraat where he lived for 32 years. Inside you can discover some of his most famous work including “Entrance in Brussels” and items of puppetry which he used as models for his paintings.

I have to say the main attraction in Ostend is undoubtedly the magnificent beach and the leisure opportunities it offers. Very much on a similar scale to that of Le Touquet just down the coast in France, you can see large numbers of people out kite-surfing, kayaking, swimming or just walking, even on a weekday. I guess windsailing could also be a possibility.

After leaving central London that morning, such a broad expanse of clean sand is a very welcome sight. Beach huts are big in Ostend, there are literally hundreds of them lining the back of the beach in the white sand.

If you like to take things a bit slower, then Thalasso treatment is on offer at two large hotels on the promenade. The Thermae Palace is an epoch Art Deco hotel which looks out over the main beach which also has access to a golf course and a race track to the rear. Most of its rooms look out onto the beach, but if you want to stay indoors there is a gym and sauna.

In front of the Thermae Palace I noticed a line of stars set in the pavement, two of which were dedicated to two of our very own, Ben Elton and Rik Mayall. A film festival takes place in Ostend every year where these awards are given out.

Along the promenade the Andromeda Hotel has a full Thalasso treatment programme with massages and therapies according to your needs. It backs on to the Casino Kursaal, which depending on your point of view may be useful for recuperation or even preparation.

It’s a little known fact, but Marvin Gaye wrote “sexual healing” while living in the village of Moere, just outside Ostende to recover from his extensive drug-taking. The title of the song may shed some light on what methods he used to recuperate, but the now famous video was actually shot inside the Casino Kursaal. While in the city we discovered that one of his former band members runs a bar just up from the casino to this day. A few people from our group decided to check it out but couldn’t persuade the main man to do an interview. He apparently mourns the loss of his friend to this day.

After working up an appetite from walking up and down the promenade and around the shopping streets of Ostend, it was time for another spot of lunch. This time the venue was Fort Napoleon which the great man built to defend against a possible invasion from the British. It was actually completed just in time for his downfall, but was used by the Germans in the two World Wars. It fell into disrepair before being revived as a destination restaurant and corporate venue. The rooftop terrace offers a superb view of the sea and of the city. It was being used on the day by a corporate group from Kraft Foods as a teambuilding exercise for its newest intake of young trainee managers.

Whenever I visit a new city I always try and imagine how I would live in it. Ostend has masses of apartments, all modern with balconies, which is great, but some of the older townhouses caught my attention. There was one just a few steps from the hotel which was on five levels with a sunken garage underneath. It just looked so cool, and it had a roof terrace.

That evening brought the second stage of our James Ensor experience with a visit to “Toi, Moi et la Mer”, an immaculately kept restaurant with superb ambiance on the sea-front. The quality of the food here was truly excellent and came in at really good value at EURO 45 per person for a 3 course meal excluding wine. Again the themed napkins, this time it was “Greed” which was beginning to become entirely appropriate, given that I wanted to taste more and more of the utterly delicious fare on offer.

We stayed at a classical 1928 Art Deco styled hotel, the Sandhotel Mondo, just a short walk from the beach, and with rooms starting at EURO 90 per night. It was reasonably priced in my view, with a good breakfast thrown in. Its best feature was its bar / dining area, a large atmospheric room with attractive murals and a supersized reclining teddy bear at one end. The rooms came in many different shapes and sizes because of the age of the building, indeed some complained that the rooms were small. We happened to have a large room, but with a curious kitchen unit and one side of the bedroom with the bed placed right under a window.

You can now reach Ostend by direct ferry from Ramsgate using the newly merged TransEuropa Ferries / LD Lines joint venture. At a similar distance from London Ramsgate is just as convenient as Dover but with a lot less traffic, and a pretty little town to boot. The crossing takes four hours but with some competitively low fares the prospect is attractive when you consider the stress reduction in three hours less driving. You cannot unfortunately travel as a foot passenger, you must take a car.

Short break fares start from £78 return for a car and two passengers and Autumn Break fares from £59 single for a car and up to nine passengers. For more information and to book : www.ldlines.com or call : 0844 576 8836

Ostend can now be reached by rail direct from Lille, but note a Eurostar ticket to Brussels will deliver you to any other onward Belgian station at no extra cost.

For more information about visiting Ostend, contact Tourism Flanders-Brussels on 0207 307 7738 (Live Operator Line, Mon – Fri) or visit www.visitflanders.co.uk for more details.

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