Shangri-La of Flanders
There are two things everyone knows about the Flemish. One, they are very family oriented. Two, it doesn’t matter how cold it is, if the sun is shining, they head outside. These two passions come together in the wealth of family recreation parks you find from just outside cities to far out in the countryside, from little parks with a few caged animals to humongous forests with canoeing, restaurants and hectares of play structures.
Family recreation parks abound in Flanders, as you’ll see in our latest monthly series. This April, check in on the provincial parks of Flemish Brabant
We don’t have to tell you that it’s been a long, cold winter. Now that spring has finally sprung, parents are not hesitating to pack up the kids for a hearty dose of fresh air and vitamin D at the nearest rec park. The parks are run by the provinces, and every province has several to choose from. This week we begin a five-part series on these family recreation parks in Flanders, and our first is in Flemish Brabant, specifically, Provinciedomein Kessel-Lo. From pretty, winding pond paths to endearing barnyard animals, this is a quintessential recreation spot.
Kessel-Lo is a suburb of Leuven, and the Provinciedomein is only about a 20-minute walk from Leuven’s train station. The provincial park has a sprawling 45 hectares of surface area as well as a number of ponds. This remarkable public area was carefully planned in the 1970s as a merger of three private parks.
Walkers and runners who are tired of pounding the pavement will enjoy the wide and gentle paths. In the park’s centre, you can circle around two adjacent, picturesque ponds, complete with waterfowl, like ducks, geese and swans.
For those who like water sports, the park offers fantastic options. The large pond has just opened for boating, and visitors can rent both paddle and row boats for a cheap €3.50 an hour. A smaller pond in the southwest portion of the domain rents electric boats for €2 per hour. The heated pool, which caters to kids under 12 with its wide slide and shallow depth, opens in May.
A number of imaginatively designed play areas in the park cater to children of all ages. The biggest playground has a steep slide and a ropes course to challenge older kids. Some ingenious tire swings that both swing and bounce induced a steady stream of giggles from my 18-month-old companion.
Visiting the park’s resident animals also proves a fun activity for small children. A barn and grazing area in the southwest portion of the domain includes donkeys, goats, chicken and a small, white bunny.
The park’s visitor centre, Het Ecocentrum Kessel-Lo, hosts hands-on activities for kids that encourage environmental literacy. They can learn about climate and the important role that bees play in the environment. The Ecocentrum also works to promote the domain’s new management plan to the public. The plan includes special measures to protect and support native wildlife. Every month, an experienced guide leads a walk through the Lovenarenbroek, a wetland reserve and portion of the park that is typically closed to visitors in order to protect its fragile ecosystem.
Another unique educational opportunity for children from six to 12 is learning about traffic regulations. Kids can then put their knowledge to the test in the verkeerspark (traffic park) with bikes and go-carts.
Bikes can also be rented at the Provinciedomein. Within the park there is only one kilometre of bike path, but the park can serve as a starting or resting point for longer routes. One popular biking route, the 34-kilometre Horstroute, takes cyclers by the park as well as the 12th-century Vlierbeek Abbey and the beautiful Horst Castle in Sint-Pieters-Rode.
After an active day in the domain, there are two fine options for eating and drinking. The Groene Lotus and Stille Waters are located in the park and both have lovely outdoor seating areas. The first is a bistro, the second more of a cafeteria that features the usual snacks. They both have a good selection of beer.
Provinciedomein Kessel-Lo is open all year during daylight hours, and access is free.
Gemeenteplein 5, Leuven
You can walk from the Leuven train station in about 20 minutes or take bus 2 from the station towards Kessel- Lo to the Provinciedomein stop
More rec parks in Flemish Brabant
Provinciedomein Haalve Maan ➟ in Diest features a huge outdoor pool that is surrounded by a white-sand beach, as well as a rowing pond, petting zoo, walking paths, mini golf and more. (The pool doesn’t open until 1 May.) Hikers and bikers who want to spend more than a day exploring the area can find two budget-friendly cabins on site. Omer Vanaudenhovelaan 48, Diest
Provinciedomein Huizingen ➟ in Beersel hosts a 55-hectare arboretum with walking trails, a large pool, mini golf, playgrounds and boating on the Huizingen castle lake. Torleylaan 100, Beersel
Provinciedomein Het Vinne ➟ in Zoutleeuw features the largest natural lake in Flanders as well as playgrounds, farm animals and plenty of opportunities for nature walks and bird watching. Ossenwegstraat 70, Zoutleeuw