Why old-fashioned charm and a bit of sand is enough to make a resort into a family favourite. By Anne Spackman
We were heading north up the Cape Cod peninsular - ocean to the right, bay to the left - when our four-year-old suddenly piped up, "I wish we were in Frinton."

"Why's that?" I asked through gritted teeth, thinking how much money we had spent on the children's first foreign holiday. "Because the beach is bigger," he said. "You get more sand."

We have not bothered taking them abroad since, but we have returned to Frinton every faintly sunny Saturday that we have free. The ritual is always the same: cook sausages, pack a vast picnic plus the full British beach kit (windbreak, rug, spare jerseys etc), ring the coastguard to check high tide and off we go, one hour and 40 minutes in the car from north London. There is a competition to be the first person to spot the stationmaster's house by the level crossing, which signifies entry to Frinton-on-Sea proper.

Proper is a word that suits Frinton. A small town on the Essex coast, it is best known to outsiders for the row that once grew to epic proportions over whether to allow a fish and chip shop to open. Some townsfolk feared it was a first step on the slippery slope to candy floss and amusement arcades, which are a feature of its better known neighbour, Clacton.

Frinton does not approve of that sort of thing. It barely approves of commerce at all. There are no pubs or fast-food joints, no shops or cafes on the front. There is no ice-cream van by the beach.

Which is partly why we like it so much. There is no litter; you can always park; you are not under any pressure to buy things: it is a real escape from modern city living.

Arriving at the front, the beach stretches right towards the golf course and left towards the pier at Walton-on-the-Naze. What was once a row of seafront hotels is now principally blocks of flats and retirement homes. There are still a couple of small, privately owned places. We once stayed for a weekend at The Rock, where mine host and his wife are depicted in oils on the walls, as are their dogs. The children loved it.

Across the road is the esplanade, a thick slice of greensward where children play ball, teenagers flirt and grandparents walk dogs or sit on benches, looking out to sea. Some steps lead down to two rows of beach huts, fronting the promenade, and some more steps lead down to the beach.

Our son was right. You do get a lot of sand at Frinton, particularly at low tide when the shallow beach is fully exposed. In fact, that is all you get. There are no coves or rockpools, no dunes or craggy cliffs, just a safe, sandy beach and the sea.

So you make your own amusements - something urban children rarely have the chance to do. You build, dig and sculpt in the sand, play cricket, football and Frisbee, fly kites, run races and even swim in the sea. The water is brown and cloudy, but from sand rather than anything more sinister. The temperature last month seemed to be somewhere around freezing.

Visitors who stay for a week normally take a house with a beach hut, furnished in the time-honoured style with a Baby Belling, formica table and deck chairs. Every time we go to Frinton we talk about buying or renting a beach hut. They cost between pounds 1,200 and pounds 3,500 de- pending on the exact location: the most expensive are the tall ones on stilts, overlooking the golf course. Owners living outside Frinton must pay a hefty pounds 200 a year for a licence, which for us works out at about pounds 30 a visit.

So, for the moment, we just look at the cards in the sweet shop window, on our way to buy an ice-cream from the health food shop or to get tea at Anne's Restaurant. Here, sixth-form girls dressed in black and white serve poached eggs on toast with milk and buns. All very wholesome. Sometimes we call in at the aptly named Nice Fish and Chip Shop, whose controversial arrival is recorded in newspaper cuttings on the wall.

Frinton has a feel of the Fifties about it. There are plenty of ladies in cardigans and old gentlemen in ties. Almost every shop on the high street is still locally owned, with the exception of a branch of Boots and one of Wine Rack. It looks like the kind of place John Major had in mind when he spoke of spinsters on bicycles and cricket on the village green.

But Frinton is not as stuffy as all that. There are as many Essex accents as cut-glass ones down on the sand. The boy racers show off in their speedboats towing girls on inflatable bananas.

And then there are the jet-skis. I am with the colonels on those. Banning is too good for them.

Accommodation: The Rock Hotel, The Esplanade, Frinton-on-Sea (01255 677194) charges from pounds 74 for a double room, with breakfast included. For information about holiday lets contact the tourist office at Clacton 01255 423400.

Six of the best things to do when it rains at Frinton

1/ Stop for tea at Anne's Restaurant - which serves old-fashioned favourites such as home-made scones, as well as sandwiches and all sorts of delicious savoury things on toast - at 36 Connaught Avenue, Frinton-on-Sea (01255 673 997).

2/ Walk out to sea at Walton-on-the-Naze, a few miles from Frinton. Even in the drizzle a stroll along the pier here can be fun.

3/ Watch the daily penguin parade at Colchester zoo. Among the other animals in residence are snow leopards, Siberian tigers and white rhinos. The zoo is off the A12 on Maldon Road, south of Colchester (01206 330253). Open daily 9.30am-5pm, adults pounds 6, senior citizens pounds 5, children (aged three to 13) pounds 4, under-threes free.

4/ Head for the "hands-on" section of the Castle Museum in Colchester. This is a haven for children, who can try on togas and tunics of chain mail. The more conventional part of the museum displays Colchester's unearthed treasures - Roman coins, statuary and the like. Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 2-5pm, adults pounds 2.80, concessions pounds 1.80 (01206 282931).

5/ Take a ride on a steam train. On Sunday afternoons and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during the school summer holidays, the Colne Valley Railway runs short steam rides from Castle Hedingham between Colchester and Cambridge. You can chat to the engine driver, gossip with the guard and explore the signal box. Adults pounds 4, senior citizens pounds 3, children (3- 16) pounds 2 (01787 461174). Exhibits are also open on non-steam days.

6/ See the fully furnished Victorian dolls' house at Hollytrees Museum, High Street, Colchester. Other displays include a section on the Arts and Crafts movement. Open Tues-Sat 10am-noon and 1-5pm. Free (01206 282940).