If you were last in the Kent town of Folkestone to catch a ferry, you probably wouldn’t think of returning. But the ferries have gone, and with them the tatty B&Bs that catered for ghost-hour arrivals from the port. A regeneration plan has transformed the town into an arty, creative hub; there are brilliant new restaurants, plenty of excitement for the kids and, of course, the beach.
Foodies will enjoy the delicious fresh seafood; culture vultures should time their trips around the regular arts festivals; while, for kids, there’s the biggest free adventure playground in the south east.
For a holiday rental with a difference, No 2 Martello Tower is a guaranteed child-pleaser. Built to ward off invasion by Napolean, it still has the hatch where cannon balls were passed through (though sadly not the original cannon). Set 300m from the beach, it has panoramic views. Sleeps six, from £1,000 a week.
Alternatively, stay in a tented lodge at Port Lympne, overlooking the wild animal enclosures (minimum three nights, from £450); or book an overnight experience including evening safari and a traditional African dinner (from £130 per person in tents, or from £600 per night for a cottage sleeping six). Entry to both Port Lympne and Howletts wildlife parks is included.
That massive playground really lives up to the hype. Built into the undercliff, it’s more like a series of playgrounds, including a sunken pirate ship, wobbly bridges, tube slides, climbing walls, tunnels and sand diggers. From the playground, take the zig-zag path down to the stony beach – originally built in the 1800s to ferry invalids by bath chair, it’s now a buggy-friendly route.
A series of horseshoe-shaped coves provide sheltered swimming and, if you’re lucky, the sense of a beach to yourself. If you’re after sand rather than stones, visit the Sunny Sands beach next to the harbour, which hosts an annual sandcastle contest.
The harbour’s also the spot for lunch. At Rocksalt, perch over the waves in a glass-fronted building, enjoying food from ex-Ramsay chef Mark Sargeant. The kids’ menu eschews chicken nuggets for dishes like mussels and chips. Or there’s The Smokehouse opposite, a more casual fish and chip restaurant with masses of choice. On a balmy day, wander the fish stalls lining the harbour to pick up a picnic (grilled lobster, garlic prawns, oysters…) to eat on the beach.
Work off your lunch with a two-mile sculpture walk through the town and a visit to the Creative Quarter, where artists, sculptors, potters and wood-crafters have set up shop.
And you can get over to France for a two-centre holiday – the Eurotunnel terminal just outside town will take you to Calais in just 35 minutes.
How to get there: If you’re travelling from London, come off the M25 onto the M20 and follow it all the way to Folkestone.
Travel time: The drive from London takes around 1 hour, 25 minutes. Trains from London St Pancras to Folkestone Central take around an hour.
Best time to go: The summer is obviously the best time to appreciate the seaside and playground, but there’s plenty to do at other times of the year. The arts festivals take place once a month, all year round; visit folkestonefestival.org for details. Port Lympne lodges are open March-October, although the wildlife park is open all year round.