WHITSTABLE, thinly disguised as Blackstable in Somerset Maugham's novel of his childhood, Cakes and Ale, looks unpromising from the approach along the A2. The fields of dwarf apple trees, now pretty in blossom, give way to the Sunset caravan site and rows of Sixties semis.

But as the road tilts like a roller- coaster past the Four Horseshoes, a Shepherd Neame pub, you catch your first glimpse of the sea beyond the red-tiled rooftops of the town.

The fishing town, on the north Kent coast overlooking the Thames estuary, is a disorderly maze of narrow streets and alleys by the beach, with names echoing its seafaring life: Middle Wall, Sea Wall, Island Wall.

'Visitors come in here asking for directions to the seaside, because there isn't a promenade,' said the woman in the information office, a spit away from the beach. Not that spitting would be permitted in the Heritage Town of Whitstable.

The windswept mudflats, which inspired the opening for Dickens's Great Expectations, attract waders at low tide, including orange-beaked oystercatchers, and the human variety in crotch-high green wellies, looking for cockles.

The locals, who resisted the temptation to turn it into a golden mile of glittering amusement arcades like neighbouring Margate, have tidied up the beach area, and provided a small but smart car park with fishy motifs in the pebbles at Kean's Yard, where they used to build wooden boats, and a walk with lots of information about the town's history.

Although I had come for the flat waters which make it a mecca for windsurfers, it is for oysters that Whitstable is famous. The old oyster beds lie across the shingle beaches towards the Isle of Sheppey. They were stocked with the faster-growing Pacific oyster but the native oyster has been reintroduced and is said to be making a comeback. Large hauls have been dredged up in recent seasons, and the town has an oyster festival from 24 July to 1 August.

The Royal Native Oyster Stores, overlooking the bay, boasts the Royal Coat of Arms, above the words 'By appointment to Queen Victoria.' Outside, blackboards reassure the timorous: 'All our shellfish is kept live in our tidal tanks.' The blackboard menu says: 'Half a dozen Whitstable native oysters with brown bread and butter pounds 5.40; Clams Provencial (sic) pounds 3.50; three scallops with bacon pounds 4.50.' Next door to the Stores is Pearson's Crab and Oyster House. Around the corner, on the High Street, is the splendidly modest Wheeler's Oyster Bar (nothing to do with the London establishments).

Oyster-lovers have been known to drop by helicopter on to the beach at Whitstable for lunch, which is one way of avoiding the roadworks in the High Street.

At weekends, the town can seem like Peckham-on-Sea. Little seems to have changed since Maugham chronicled the snobberies of the small town. 'We get the crims (the criminal classes) and the roofers (cockneys who make a living in the building trade) at the weekends,' said one of the locals.

The Whitstable weekenders have bought holiday homes with their 'wads' in places like Joy Lane, and come down to the coast with power boats for a spot of water-skiing, so they can dream of being in Malaga with Ron and the lads.

'The power boats are a bit of a nuisance, but they keep out round the other side of the harbour. One thing we're not going to allow are those dratted Jet bikes,' said an ex-colonel type out for his daily tour of inspection with his dog. Windsurfers are more welcome. 'We don't mind your sort. My wife calls you the butterflies.'

The windsurfers arrive in flocks when the wind is right. They gather at the surf shop run by Karen Tuckwood and her brother Mark. 'We started windsurfing in France on holidays and brought it back with us,' said Karen. Whitstable is hardly Baywatch but there is a camaraderie among the windsurfers of all ages who turn up to replace old kit or chat about the latest boards. There is also a healthy trade in second-hand gear.

It is 'the street', a finger of shingle jutting into the sea for half a mile from the beach at the back of Karen's shop, that makes Whitstable ideal for windsurfing. It creates perfect flat- water conditions when the wind is blowing 'a hooligan'.

Before venturing out on the sea for the first time, it is important to learn the basic safety procedures with a qualified instructor. (A safe way to try out windsurfing is on a lake or reservoir - see Factfile.) I had been introduced to Whitstable by Alan Horton, a professional windsurfing instructor who normally operates out of Folkestone on the southern coast of Kent. Today there was no wind on the south coast, but a telephone call to the surfing shop told us there was a force three cross-shore wind at Whitstable. Alan and I were on the water in an hour.

Alan, a weatherbeaten former deep- sea diver who came to the sport late, had already taken me through parts 1 and 2 of the Royal Yachting Association course. This time he was to push me to the limits, teaching me gybing. This is the turning manoeuvre, performed like a bow-legged ballet dancer by the experts.

The idea is that you sink the tail and spin the board around, as if on a turntable, completing the pirouette by flicking the rig - the sail - with one hand to start back in the direction from which you just sailed. Invariably, I completed it with a ducking in the sea, which, although it is the disconcerting colour of Colombian coffee, comes within the EC guidelines on water quality.

Alan and I went on a run down to 'the street', turned about, and as I bobbed in the water, Alan hammered back up-wind, before turning again. I persevered, riding the bucking waves, and began to get the hang of it. We did not notice the time pass. When we beat up-wind for the last run to the beach, we sailed home by moonlight.

Getting there: BR rail services to Whitstable.

Information: Tourist Information Office, Horsebridge, Whitstable (0227 275482). Oyster Festival: Whitstable Improvement Trust, 47 Harbour Street, Kent, CT5 1AH (0227 770060).

Oysters: Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company (O227 276856); Wheeler's Oyster Bar (0227 273311).

Windsurfing: Whitstable Windsurfing (0227 276566). They will have an instructor on site this summer. RYA instructor: Alan Horton Windsurfing, Folkestone (0303 253341). Wind conditions recorded details: Windtalker, Whitstable (0839 800873). Bewl Water reservoir near Lamberhurst, Kent, has a 'have-a-go' session today (0892 890930). Windsurfing courses: Royal Yachting Association, Eastleigh, Hampshire (0703 629962).

(Photograph omitted)