Recently voted Europe’s best family destination, now’s the time to visit Kent, says Ben West
With a new art museum, towns with thriving artists’ quarters and the emergence of revamped new hotels, cafes and restaurants, the Kent coast has seen so much revitalisation in recent years that it is currently considered one of the UK’s very best places to holiday.
Whitstable, on the northern Kent coast, has long attracted second-homers to its charming seaside setting; now the county’s eastern coast is the place to watch – not least because of the long-awaited reopening of Dreamland Margate, the world’s first heritage amusement park.
On top of all this, you can simply enjoy Kent’s many miles of glorious coastline, the famous white cliffs, vast, sandy beaches and safe, family-friendly bays.
This region is comparatively easy to visit – excellent road and rail links from London mean that onward travel is quick and easy, and even the continent is just a short hop across the Channel.
A major catalyst for the Kent coast’s regeneration was the opening of Margate’s £17.5m Turner Contemporary gallery in 2011.
A proliferation of vintage clothes shops, cosy cafes, designer and craftspersons’ shops swiftly set up across the road in the attractive streets of the Old Town, and now modern Margate is a lively combination of dilapidated seaside tradition and charm plus cutting-edge culture.
Indeed, the renaissance has been so great that Rough Guides ranked Margate seventh in the world’s top 10 ‘must-see’ destinations in 2013.
If you’re still in any doubt that this long-time tatty town is now most definitely on the up, it’s seeing increasing celebrity interest, too.
When I dropped in recently at Lady Tesla’s Loose Leaves & Mud teashop in King Street, iconic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood had also stopped by, sipping a cup of tea at the next table.
It’s striking, walking around the Old Town, how friendly Margate is. In almost every shop I visited, such as impressive vintage furniture store Danish Collectables (Broad Street) or Maxine Sutton Textiles (Market Place), it was easy to strike up interesting conversations with the owners.
The newly injected artistic bent continues in Folkestone’s Creative Quarter, home to a thriving collection of artists’ studios and creative businesses among quaint cobbled streets in the historic heart of town. Pastel-painted studio-galleries, quirky stores, cafes and colourful bars all vie for your attention.
Folkestone’s harbourside has seen major improvements, including the installation of a popular interactive fountain (it’s possible to run through the jets, which are bewitchingly illuminated by night), new restaurants, regular events and the introduction of facilities for sea sports. You’ll also find some modern artworks adorning the harbour and old town areas.
Deal has also seen an uplift in recent years, with cute cafes, delis, and the revitalisation of the town’s lovely little theatre, The Astor. It’s also home to a charming, recently opened micropub, The Just Reproach. Indeed, the Kent coast has become the centre of the current micropub boom (one-room, back-to-basics hostelries shunning jukeboxes and TVs), and now boasts 32 around the county out of a total of 105 in the whole of the UK.
Deal has a particularly attractive quarter with Georgian terraced houses and Victorian villas centred around the roads off Middle Street. Walk to the end of the pier, invariably past a line of ever-hopeful hobby anglers, and if you look back you are rewarded with an attractive panorama of the town.
More and more people are flocking to Ramsgate, with its wealth of pretty Victorian and Georgian houses, strong maritime history and, of course, a beach on its doorstep.
It still has a way to go – most of the town is still pretty run-down, and the high street is rather uninspiring – but an increasing number of colourful little shops, art galleries like the Updown (with past shows including works by Picasso and Matisse), a real ale pub, the Ravensgate Arms, and the bustling Royal Harbour Brasserie, with an express £10 daily menu and daily fish specials fresh from the harbour, are now appearing.
Kent is well known for its Dickens connections (the £62 million themed attraction Dickens World at Chatham Maritime opened in 2007, near his childhood home at Ordnance Terrace, Chatham), and Broadstairs contains the Dickens House Museum, once the home of Mary Pearson Strong, on whom the character of Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield was based.
It houses plenty of Dickens memorabilia, including his furniture and letters, illustrations, costumes and a display showing the pretty seaside resort of Broadstairs of old.
Present-day Broadstairs is perfect for a visit: surrounded by white cliffs, the attractive town has no less than seven sandy bays. The high street has a host of charming independent shops and pleasant eateries – a good number of them Dickens-themed.
Great for culture vultures
Margate’s Turner Contemporary gallery (01843 233 000; turner contemporary.org) is architecturally striking and displays both historic and contemporary art – a major exhibition devoted to the work of Grayson Perry is currently running, until 13 September.
Great for food lovers
Head to Broadstairs for wonderful food at all budgets. Try stylish Wyatt & Jones, overlooking Viking Bay, Posillipo in Albion Street for traditional Neapolitan cuisine – which has an £11.95, two-course set lunch – and Morelli’s in Victoria Parade for delicious ice cream.
Great for fun-loving families
Dreamland Margate (dreamland.co.uk), reopened in June this year following an 11-year campaign. Reimagined by renowned designer Wayne Hemingway, it will boast thrilling historic rides dating back to the 1920s, classic sideshows, cafes, restaurants, retail spaces, large-scale events, festivals and visiting attractions will celebrate British culture, music, film and design.
Where to stay along the Kent coast
- Crescent Victoria Hotel, Margate, double from £70, b&b (01843 230 375; crescentvictoria.co.uk).
- Maison Dieu Guest House, Dover, twin from £48, excluding breakfast (01304 204 033; maisondieu.com).
- Royal Harbour Hotel, Ramsgate, double from £85, b&b (01843 591 514; royalharbourhotel.co.uk) is another pleasant option.
- Sea Tower Penthouse, in quieter Westgate, is a super self-catering option, from £350 a week (kentholidaycottages.co.uk). It has two bedrooms, sleeping four, and being right on a Blue Flag beach, boasts glorious coastal views.