As we settle back with a coffee and a full cooked breakfast, the English Channel stretching before us, calm as a millpond under a blue sky, we briefly consider the rather more stressful trips we’ve taken that began with a plane or train.
But this time was different.
The ease with which we cleared customs at Dover, drove on to our ferry headed for Dunkirk and waved farewell to the “marshmallow cliffs” had got the holiday off to a very good start, despite the early hour.
It is a two-hour sailing, and once we’ve all eaten, stocked up on duty-free and supervised a run-around in the children’s soft play area, our destination port is in sight, and we’ve not heard a single “are we nearly there yet”.
We hadn’t previously considered Belgium as a holiday destination, but the opportunity to indulge the children’s obsession with bike riding and their appreciation for waffles inspired us to give it a go. We fancied an easy trip abroad with the prospect of mussels, frites and mayonnaise, and of course, it would be rude to visit without sampling the Leffe.
We’re staying at Sunparks De Haan, a family holiday park that’s an easy 45-minute drive up the coast from Dunkirk. It offers cottages with gardens, a lake and safe roads, once everyone has unloaded their luggage and deposited their cars in the separate car park. It’s the perfect base to explore 42 miles of Belgian coastline on foot and by bike, with museums and theme parks thrown in for good measure.
One of the park’s attractions is the Aquafun subtropical pool complex with three water slides, waves every 15 minutes and pools to suit any age. We spend our first afternoon, conscious that the children have been up since 5am, very happily shambling around the waterways before hitting the adjacent restaurants and huge outdoor deck for pizza and beer as the sun sets.
We’re careful not to indulge too much though, because the other main draw card here is the cycling. We strap our youngest into a seat on the back of one bike while our five-year-old quickly comes to terms with a tandem. The evening is still blissfully warm so we set off for a ride around the lake, the children waving to all the other youngsters whose parents are similarly merrily disregarding bedtimes.
Being Belgium, there are dedicated cycle paths criss-crossing the countryside, so we take to the bikes the next morning and set off for De Haan, the coastal town with its beautifully restored Belle Epoque neighbourhood, in search of sea and waffles.
It’s an easy 15-minute cycle – marred only by one in our party throwing up his hands in horror when we come across a car – before we find ourselves amid exquisite homes and gardens and the elegant La Potiniere recreation park surrounded by picture-perfect carousels and ice cream vendors.
High-rise building in the town is forbidden and owners are only allowed to build on one-sixth of their plot. The winding streets guarantee peace and quiet and safety for junior cyclists. Restored approximately five years ago, La Potiniere is the “green heart” of the De Haan and has a network of paths perfect for the go-carts available for hire.
We stroll to the promenade and select a beachside cafe where we order the best waffles we’ll ever eat, before making a leisurely trip back to our cottage via a spot of window-shopping at the boutiques selling designer homewares and children’s clothes and accessories.
De Haan is a 15-minute car journey from Bruges – too tempting a trip to pass up. We wrangle the children away from the pools and bikes with the promise of a canal trip, which we make as the sun sets on the city’s plentiful and beautiful spires and bridges.
The city – for all its world-class history and architecture – is a blast for children. Ours spend the afternoon marvelling at the steady procession of horses trotting around with their carriages full of tourists and street entertainers handing out lollipops to those throwing them a coin.
We eat mussels and frites at a reasonable price – by no means a given in Bruges – and top off our visit with yet another ice cream as we wander through the central market square and its extraordinary buildings.
But the trip home is no stress-filled journey back to reality either.
We set off back down the coast at a leisurely 10am the next morning and stop off at the Plopsaland theme park, named after the popular Belgian children’s television character. It’s all Viking-themed swords and helmets across this lovely park, where queues for the rides for youngest children can be fairly long, but those for older visitors can be practically non-existent if you time it right over lunchtime.
The newest section of the park features the ‘Wickie the Battle’ ride where all but the very youngest children can board pirate ships and fire water guns in fierce fights with passing boats, or at unsuspecting bystanders peacefully eating lunch from the Viking-themed grill. Never was more fun had on the way home, and the day’s activities make for a peaceful car journey for the remaining 15-minute trip to the port, gentle snores coming from the back seats.