The Complete Guide To: England's coastal highlights

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Oh, we do like to be beside the seaside – and there's lots that's new and improved to visit. Laura Lindsay and Cathy Packe enjoy life on the edge

Rotting from the ground up?

That was how the former tourism minister, Kim Howells, described some English resorts a decade ago. But the modern reality is different.

For a 21st-century take on an English beach holiday, start where the seaside tradition (initially based on the perceived benefits of sea water) took root in the 18th century: Brighton. After his first trip there in 1783, the Prince Regent continued to visit the town regularly for 40 years. The fishing port's proximity to London helped to turn it into an attractive seaside resort.

Modern Brighton has a cosmopolitan atmosphere, an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants and a rich cultural scene. One of its newest hotels is also an art gallery: the Artist Residence at 33 Regency Square (01273 324302; artistresidence. co.uk). An elegant 18th-century townhouse, its ground floor is a display space managed by local artist Jamie Shaw, with frequently changing exhibitions that showcase Brighton's freshest creative talents. Upstairs, double rooms are available from £60, singles from £40. Gradually these rooms are being decorated by different artists: the Mel Sheppard room is already available and renovation is under way on a room that will be the work of street artist Hutch.

Last month, Jamie Oliver opened Jamie's Italian, part of the Black Lion Street regeneration project in Brighton. At the other end of the coast, he also owns Fifteen Cornwall at Watergate Bay (01637 861000; fifteencornwall.co.uk).

The highlight of Brighton's artistic calendar is the annual Brighton Festival (01273 709709; brightonfestival.org), which this year runs from 2-24 May. The guest artistic director is the sculptor Anish Kapoor; two of his new works will be part of the festival. During the final weekend (22-24 May), Brighton Frocks ( brightonfrocks.com), a fashion show featuring the works of local designers, will take place at the Hilton Hotel.

Along the coast, the latest development at Butlins (0845 070 4734; butlins.com) in Bognor Regis is going to miss the main summer season. The Ocean Hotel, due to open on 31 August, will contain 200 luxuriously appointed rooms, each with a children's den area. The hotel will also have its own spa. Rooms are currently available from £37 per person. During opening weekend, a limited number of family rooms are available at £146.

Surf's up

The traditional surfing industry in Cornwall will soon face competition from Dorset. An artificial surf reef – one of four in the world, and the only one in the northern hemisphere – is being constructed in Boscombe, near Bournemouth, and it's due to be completed in September, just before the surf season starts.

The reef pushes waves upwards, improving their size and quality and doubling the number of good surfing days. It will be part of Boscombe Spa Village (thesurfreef.co.uk), an £11m regeneration scheme for the area that will also incorporate the latest in beach hut design. This popular form of seaside shelter originated in Bournemouth in 1908; a century later, the design has been modified for hi-tech holidaymakers by the designers Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway into what they call "surf pods" – which they modestly describe as "the best beach huts in the world" – supplied with mains electricity and running water. The first of these are due go on sale in May; others will be available for weekly rental during the summer.

Looks like rain

These days, there are plenty of indoor activities to enjoy on the coast of England. Among the newest attractions is Greenway (01803 842382; nationaltrust.org.uk), Agatha Christie's holiday home at Galmpton, near Brixham. It is open to the public for the first time this year, thanks to a £5.4m restoration project funded by the National Trust. The work will be completed later this year, but the property is now open for viewing so that the guests can share in the restoration process.

Agatha Christie wrote some of her Hercule Poirot mysteries here, and devoted much of her holiday time to working in the garden. Opening hours are 10.30am-5pm, Wednesday to Sunday. Admission to the house is by timed ticket, and visits cost £7.45. Visitors are encouraged to arrive by ferry from Dartmouth, Brixham or Torquay.

Natural highs?

A theme running through the hospitality industry in England is sustainability. Close to Land's End – Porth, near Newquay, to be exact – an environmentally aspirational place to stay is to open soon. The Scarlet Hotel (01637 861800; scarlethotel.co.uk), opening on 4 August, is the last word in ecological luxury. Rainwater will be harvested for washing cars and wetsuits, while water will be heated in a biomass boiler that uses locally recycled wood-chips.

Each of the 37 rooms will have its own outdoor space; prices start at £180 for a double including à la carte breakfast. The hotel's facilities will include a spa and an outdoor hot tub. Food will be seasonal, locally sourced and cooked by the Michelin-starred chef Ben Tunnicliffe.

Newquay is also the home of English surfing; the most popular surfing beaches are Fistral, Watergate and Towan. The British National Surfing Championships will be held at Fistral from 25-26 October, but you don't need to be an expert to enjoy the Atlantic rollers; the resort has plenty of places where you can learn, such as the Escape Surf School (07967 497117; escapesurfschool.co.uk), where taster sessions start at £25 for a half day, including hire of a wetsuit and board.

Other popular Cornish surfing resorts include Polzeath, St Ives and Bude, which is one of a number of venues that will be offering free lessons to children with special needs, under a scheme called "Breaking the Barrier". Full details from Lifeworks (01803 840744; lifeworks-uk.org/comesurfing.html).

For a cheerful place to stay providing purely organic food, Bangors House (01288 361297; bangorsorganic.co.uk) in Poundstock – just outside Bude – offers bed and breakfast accommodation with a restaurant attached.

The end of the pier?

Piers were once the hubs of England's seaside resorts, but they have lost some ground to more modern attractions, or – as in the case of Hunstanton, Southend, Brighton and Weston-super-Mare – been severely damaged by fire.

While the pier at Weston is being rebuilt following the blaze last year, a new seafront attraction has just been installed: a kind of Somerset Eye. The Wheel of Weston (01934 888800; n-somerset.gov.uk/leisure/ tourism) is a big wheel with 30 pods that will carry visitors 40 metres above the town to enjoy spectacular views across to Wales, Exmoor and the Mendips. The 13-minute journey costs £5 for adults and £3 for children.

The town is also promoting some traditional seaside attractions. A two-day sandcastle-building workshop, run by professional sand sculptors, will be held on 2-3 May. Booking is essential (01934 888800; westonsandsculpture.co.uk), and places on the workshop cost £35. And the donkeys that plod obligingly up and down the beach are still as popular as ever: Coast magazine has just awarded them the title of Best Seaside Attraction 2009. Rides along the beach have been offered by the Mager family since 1886; they currently cost £1.50.

Seaside sophistication?

Head for Southport on the coast north-west of Liverpool to stay in the Vincent, a contemporary establishment that opened last June at 98 Lord Street (01704 883800; thevincenthotel.com). It is part of a new breed of chic accommodation in traditional seaside resorts, which also includes Number One, Blackpool – an award-winning B&B (01253 343901; numberoneblackpool.com). Double rooms at Number One start at £60 per person, while a single will cost you £70 per night, including breakfast. Double rooms at The Vincent start at £115, including breakfast.

Fish and chips is becoming more sophisticated on the Fylde Peninsula. Blackpool has recently introduced an accreditation scheme for its fish-and-chip shops: Thornton Fisheries at 11 Victoria Road East in Thornton Cleveleys (01253 858668) is an award-winning purveyor. In the same town, Seniors on Fleetwood Road North has 13 varieties of locally caught fish on its menu.

Cutting-edge cool?

Head south. Tate St Ives (01736 796226; tate.org.uk/stives; open daily 10am-5pm; £5.65) kick-started a coastal architectural renaissance in 1993 with its circular entrance hall including a Patrick Heron stained-glass window. It has been quietly followed by several more buildings along the south coast.

While the much-talked-about plans for Frank Gehry's two asymmetrical towers in Hove have been scrapped, you don't have to go far to find striking coastal architecture. In Bexhill-on-Sea, the fluid curves of the Modernist De La Warr Pavilion (01424 229111; dlwp.com; open daily 10am-6pm; free) were spruced up in 2005 and the building now houses an arts centre. A brand new art gallery opened in Eastbourne last weekend: the Towner (01323 415470; u

otownereastbourne.org.uk; open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm, 8pm on Thursdays; free) is another white Modernist structure of concrete and glass that houses a collection of contemporary art.

If natural views are more your thing, then the East Beach Café (01903 731903; eastbeachcafe.co.uk) in Littlehampton is perfectly placed. The standalone building's organic, flinty structure sits directly on the beach, with the café serving fresh seafood and more in its white, cavernous interior.

A sense of history?

Cross to Whitby on the Yorkshire coast and book into Abbey House, one of the flagship properties of the Youth Hostels Association (0845 371 9049; yha.org.uk; adult membership £14.35, including children, if you pay by direct debit). This recently renovated medieval property (with some of the original frescoes still on display) stands on the headland looking over this pretty port, adjacent to the ghostly ruins of the abbey.

Whitby Folk Week runs from 22-28 August and promises seven days of dancing in the streets and singing in the pubs. There will be more than 600 events. Day and season tickets are already available (01274 833669; whitbyfolk.co.uk).

Just down the coast, the local newspaper in Scarborough runs a Fish and Chip Shop of the Year Award. This year's winner will be announced shortly; last year's champion was North Bay Fisheries at 179 Columbus Ravine (01723 500073).

Eastern promise?

Skegness is bracing itself for a busy summer. Apart from the first Butlins, which recently celebrated its 70th anniversary, there is a wide range of accommodation here, including the award-winning Sandgate Hotel (44 Drummond Road; 01754 762667; sandgate-hotel@tiscali.co.uk). Its proprietors, Chris and Pauline Thornley, pride themselves on locally sourced Lincolnshire food.

Next month, a new extension to the Lowestoft and East Suffolk Maritime Heritage Museum (01502 561963; maritimeheritageeast.org.uk) is due to open. The museum, in Sparrows Nest, Lowestoft, is a private one run by volunteers and is dedicated to the history of the Lowestoft fishing fleet. The volunteers include former seamen who are able to answer questions about life at sea. Admission to the museum costs £1 for adults and 75p for children, and it opens 10am-5pm daily from 1 May-31 October.

The shore of the Garden of England

In celebration of the artist JMW Turner, building has begun in Margate on the Turner Contemporary Gallery; the artist went to school in the town and was a frequent visitor throughout his life. The new premises will be completed in 2011, but the existing display space on the High Street (01843 280261; turnercontemporary.org) has an interesting programme of temporary displays. The current exhibition, Sound of Music, explores the relationship between art and music and includes the Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller's blackboard drawing, History of the World, and music by John Cage. The exhibition continues to 14 June (open 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission free).

Just south along the coast is Burrow House on Granville Road in Broadstairs (01843 601817; burrowhouse.com), a small guesthouse run by ex-London chef Gavin Cox. It currently offers gourmet weekends for £155 per person including a champagne reception, five-course dinner with vintage wines and a gourmet breakfast complete with a glass of buck's fizz; from late summer, cookery weekends with a difference will also be on offer. Guests will have the opportunity to accompany Cox to the local markets and farm shops where they will select ingredients for an evening meal. They can then watch this being prepared, before everyone at the guesthouse shares the meal.

Some seaside summer festivals

Beach Break Live festival for students will take place in North Cornwall from 16-19 June. The festival has been nominated for three categories in the UK Festival Awards following last year's success; this year's line-up includes Dizzee Rascal and The Zutons (0845 017 0987; beachbreaklive.com).

Among the attractions at this year's Latitude Festival, taking place in Southwold from 16-19 July, are productions from the Royal Opera House. Other performers will include Doves, Editors and The Pet Shop Boys (020-7009 3001; latitudefestival.co.uk).

Torbay Pride, the first event of its kind in the south-coast resort, takes place the same weekend (16-19 July). The event celebrates diversity with a street party, pool party, boat trip and live musical entertainment ( pridetorbay.org).

Now in its second year, Bournemouth Air Festival, which takes place from 20-23 August, will include a night-time laser show with hot-air balloons. Other new attractions at the festival include Royal Marines beach assaults and commando display teams. (0845 051 1701; bournemouthair.co.uk).

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