Best of three
With a rich history as holiday havens, the Isle of Thanet’s three main towns each offer their own distinct atmospheres and attractions. Tristan Parker maps out a seaside adventure
It hasn’t been an island for around 5,000 years (when it was separated from the mainland by 600 metres of sea), but the Isle of Thanet, at Kent’s north-eastern tip, can still feel a world away thanks to the towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs. Each is a destination in its own right but visit all three on one trip for the ultimate Kentish coastal getaway.
Some seaside towns strive for character, while others radiate it without even trying. Margate is definitely one of the latter. The town’s connection with the sea has shaped its identity over centuries, including the opening of what’s believed to be the world’s first sea bathing hospital in 1791 to the Victorian visitors who flocked there for an ocean dip. Despite its transformation from kooky retreat to bohemian, arty hangout, Margate wears its nostalgic colours proudly. To understand Margate, it’s necessary to revel, unashamedly, in the retro chic that hugs the town: visit vintage stores, lose a few coins in the arcades or explore the trendier offerings of galleries and specialty coffee shops.
Opened in 2011, this striking gallery commemorates artist JMW Turner, whose paintings of Margate’s dreamy skies helped immortalise the town he loved. The gallery has an eclectic range of art from 1750 to the present. Expect anything from art created by prisoners to works by Margate’s world-famous daughter, Tracey Emin. And look out for Antony Gormley’s eerily human cast-iron sculpture, Another Time, wading in the sea next to the gallery.
If you think you’re too grown-up for funfairs, you’ve never been to Dreamland. With a history as an amusement park dating back to 1880, the site is packed with retro fun. Like any good funfair, the rides are the headline attraction, including classics such as the Waltzer and dodgems to exhilarating creations like the 39-metre-high Dreamland Drop, and don’t miss the UK’s oldest rollercoaster, the wooden Scenic Railway. Elsewhere there’s a roller disco, live music and a calendar of events to keep you entertained.
WHERE TO STAY
Sands Hotel (sandshotelmargate.co.uk) Ease into Margate’s cool, arty side at this family owned hotel, restored to its 19th century grandeur, with the addition of a roof terrace bar.
In 1821, Ramsgate became the beneficiary of the UK’s only Royal Harbour (an honour it still holds), granted by King George IV after he was taken aback by the town’s hospitality. Perhaps this explains the convivial, upbeat atmosphere that drifts through the town and explains the great restaurants, pubs, bars and cafes. Ramsgate’s history as a fashionable coastal playground resonates in attractions such as the beautifully restored Italiante Glasshouse, a relic of big- spending philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore dating back to 1832. The Royal Harbour is still a big draw, as is the town’s vast sandy beach that appears to offer choice spaces even on busy days.
Discover how an underground town – complete with shops, barbers and a hospital – evolved beneath Ramsgate after a tunnel complex was built to shelter civilians in World War Two. Learn the fascinating story behind the excavation on a guided tour, where dark passageways offer a memorable experience.
Micropubs are a slice of pub life at its best: tiny spots where expertly chosen beers and ciders take pride of place, and conversation is actively encouraged. Thanet has a fine array of micropubs and Ramsgate possesses several excellent examples, including the Hovelling Boat Inn. Set aside time to stroll between micropubs sampling delightful local brews.
WHERE TO STAY
Royal Harbour Hotel (royalharbourhotel.co.uk) Perched over the harbour and perfectly located for exploring Ramsgate. Many rooms have sea views and there’s a smart on-site restaurant, garden and honesty bar.
Broadstairs boasts a mighty seven beaches and bays. It’s a quaint, effortlessly charming place, whose winding streets house a mix of traditional buildings and modern, upmarket establishments. Charles Dickens adored Broadstairs, writing part of David Copperfield while gazing out over Viking Bay. There’s plenty to amuse today’s visitors: surf at Kent Surf School or visit the Food Festival in October.
VIKING COASTAL TRAIL
Great for cycling, running and walking, this 32-mile trail runs through all three towns, but the most scenic stretch can be found as Broadstairs’ northern coast arcs towards Margate. The most impressive sights are the inviting sandy beaches of Joss Bay and Botany Bay, which you can detour into or view from the clifftop. Here you’ll also find a popular pub, The Botany Bay Hotel, from which to enjoy the vistas.
BROADSTAIRS FOLK WEEK
Held every August, folk week has been running for over 50 years and is always a highlight, but you don’t have to be a folk aficionado to enjoy it. The whole town comes alive with varied music and dancing (plus workshops, craft fairs and food stalls), with live performances in venues including pubs, cinemas and museums. Listen out for anything from ceilidhs to sea shanties to Appalachian clog dancing.
WHERE TO STAY
Artfuls (artfuls.co.uk) A quirky, classy B&B in a 19th-century Georgian townhouse overlooking Viking Bay. Its four extravagantly decorated rooms have different themes – Moulin Rouge, Victorian, Oriental and Beach.