You’ve probably heard a lot about why it’s better to travel in the off-peak season – fewer crowds, cheaper prices, more parking spaces available. But how about getting a deeper insight into the everyday lives of the locals and the culture of the place that you are visiting?
There are few destinations in the world where there is no off-peak season for leisure travel. Often, it’s the weather or the school holidays which dictate when most tourists would flock to a certain destination. If you’re heading to the mountains for a ski holiday, then naturally peak travel season would be during the winter months. On the other hand, if it’s a beach holiday with the children that you’re looking for, you’ll want to be sure that you’re there while the sun is shining (in Europe and the US, this means during the summer months). But what happens at these destinations when it’s not at the height of the tourist season? Do all the shops and restaurants close and the area becomes deserted? Will you be stuck walking down street after street staring into shop windows?
From years of travel, I’ve realised that visiting a place during the low season means that the locals are more relaxed as they are not as rushed for time, and are more able and willing to have longer conversations with you. In early January, I went to Ostend – a city on the Belgian coast popular with tourists and packed with events during the summer months but mostly deserted in winter, when the temperatures can get very cold and the weather very wet. As experienced on my other off-peak trips previously, I found that the locals were relaxed and happy to chat and share more of their culture.
My husband and I arrived at the Belgian seaside well before lunch time on a Saturday and decided to start the weekend with lunch at De Haan, a coastal village just 15 minutes away from Ostend by car. I’d heard a lot about the Belle Époque style of the buildings there and wanted to see it for myself. We parked in front of the train station and strolled around, where to my surprise, I came across a street with my name (Monica is not a common name in Belgium). I stored away this nugget of information hoping to one day find out more about how the street got its name. But first, lunch!
We came across a small 20-seater restaurant that was open and went in. The chef-owner, Heidi, came out to greet us and having taken our orders, she reappeared with two tiny soup bowls, or amuse bouche as they are known in French and common in many restaurants in Belgium (even in the Dutch-speaking areas). An amuse bouche is not an appetiser and cannot be ordered off a menu – it is of the chef’s selection and does not appear as a cost on your bill. It is, literally, something to “amuse your mouth with” while you wait to savour the dishes that you have ordered. This being a seaside location, the amuse bouche was seafood-based, and Heidi checked that we were not allergic before heading back to prepare our chosen meals.
After our meal, Heidi spent time chatting with us and expressed her surprise that my husband and I, both non-Belgians, could speak fluent Dutch. We discovered that she ran the place together with her husband and they had two children. Unlike most Belgian couples, Heidi’s husband was the primary caregiver for their children and Heidi focused on running the restaurant instead. She had trained as a schoolteacher but had always dreamed of opening a restaurant, and five years ago, they decided to take the leap and open a restaurant.
After this, we drove to Ostend and checked in to the hotel. The hotel receptionist was a young man in his mid-twenties who spoke fluent English, French, Dutch and Spanish, switching smoothly from one language to another when answering phone calls. It was a smallish hotel and nearly every area was within calling distance of the reception. As I usually do, while my husband was looking after the administration and paperwork of checking us in, I walked around snapping pictures of the place. In the dining area, there was a large portrait of a sea captain on the back wall.
I knew that fishing is an important source of livelihood on the coast, and wondered who the man in the frame could possibly be. I must have spent some time standing in front of the portrait for, having checked us in, the receptionist noticed this and called out to me asking if I wanted to know the man’s story. I turned around and nodded yes.
Having told me the tale, he then ended by saying “there’s the annual Christmas tree burning ceremony on the beach this evening. Or rather, there should have been. But the weather is not that great today and so they have cancelled the burning. But you should still go by the beach – there will be many locals there and you can join in the festivities.”
Since we did not have any plan for the evening, we were thankful for this timely advice and eager to explore the local activities at the beach. Follow me in the next blog as I share more about our adventures in Ostend…
Hi, I am Monica Devi Lim, and I am originally from Singapore. I started my career in the television industry where I got to travel to a different country every few months, and then moved on to aviation in search of more of the world. During my free time, I love cooking exotic dishes and also reading for further travel inspiration. I speak several languages and now live between Belgium and Spain with my husband of Danish descent.