The steely green water dragged millions of small rocks and shells back into the ocean, sounding like a stylus at the end of a record that keeps going around and around. A thin and wispy cloud blanket crossed a cobalt sky and seagulls soared and dipped. Their screeching echoed across the beach. Behind me a row of pretty beach cabanas, each one named and painted a bright and different color sat locked and waiting, like debutantes itching to get to the ball. I was in Whitstable and even though it was March in England, I was happy as a clam to be on a shoreline.
Spring came early to Southern England this year and the counties around London are beaming. Daffodils and their cheerful faces greet you from front walks and along the motorways. Here on family business, I had a free day before flying home and as much as I’d have liked to roam around London, I wasn’t up for being around crowds. Staying in Hertfordshire, a northern suburb of London, I was looking for a place that wasn’t too much of hike but far enough that it would feel like I’d gone away. I stumbled upon Whitstable, a beach town on the north coast of Kent known for its seafood. Just over an hour by car, it was the perfect getaway so off I went.
The drive south along the M25, to the Dartford Bridge Crossing, to the M2 was a breeze. I suppose it being late morning on a Thursday might have had something to do with it. The sun was blazing, the windows were down and the borrowed car had a Hollies cd in it, so, really, what more could you ask?
Horses grazed along the shamrock green hills that rolled along either side of the motorway and cherry blossom trees stood out like cotton candy amongst gloomier neighbors. Manicured rows of apple orchards and other fruit farms made for a pretty journey and before long I was turning off towards Whitstable.
Within minutes I was driving along the high street towards the harbor, passing flower shops, bakeries, interior design stores, galleries, pharmacies, and all of the traditional goods needed for everyday living. It was a relief to be in a town that hasn’t been malled by big box stores. Before you reach the seaside, there are loads of little hotels, restaurants and cafes. It’s a bustling street and with its proximity to London once the summer season opens it must be jammed. As much as I’d have liked to stroll around, with only a few hours to spare the ocean was calling.
Crunching along the gravely beach, I picked through oyster shells bleached white by the sun and the tides. Tiny nautilus, other baby seashells, and smooth rocks in hues of blue to pale gray carpeted the beach like confetti. Heading west along the paved shore promenade, locals walked their dogs, and bicyclists and joggers did their thing. Inspiration to get off the couch just might be easier in this stretch of paradise.
Low slung hotels and “rooms to let” with ocean views are sprinkled all along this coastline and even though it wasn’t high season, this part of Whitstable seemed quieter. I found Jo Jo’s, a café with lots of yummy food, ordered a honey pistachio cake and coffee, then made myself at home on the patio at a weather-beaten wooden table, smiling at the superb view. It was a slice of heaven, this Whitstable. Moments later a waitress asked some locals at the next table, “Who ordered the fish finger butty?” All I could think was—I wish I did! This sandwich, a comfort food for Brits of all ages, is traditionally made with cooked frozen fish fingers and placed between two slices of bread but what was being served here was all grown up. Battered pieces of fresh haddock with arugula on a golden roll had me rethinking where I’d eat lunch.
Harvested since the Romans set up shop in England, Whitstable is most famous for its oysters. During the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival, held every July, the town teems with locals and international travelers who come to celebrate this hometown bivalve. This four-day celebration features an oyster blessing, an oyster parade, crabbing and kite-flying competition, and loads of other seaside activities. Grotter building, a local tradition where small mounds of sand are decorated with oyster shells and lit with candles, and a fireworks display wind down the festival. Parking is limited but Whitstable is easily accessed by public transportation and it’s an easy town to walk around. Anyone spending time in London looking for a retreat can hop a train from Victoria Station and within an hour and a half be on the beach. And that’s what I’d come here for.
Walking back past the harbor, I wove in out of little lanes leading to the sea. The scent of vinegar hung in the air where an older couple shared a bag of fish and chips on a bench that faced the ocean. An old, black dog soaked up the sun at the feet of two crusty local men with red and ruddy faces that gave them a look far older than their years. The Forge, a seaside shack has a counter where you can suck and slurp away Whitstable oysters shucked right on the spot for you. It doesn’t get fresher than that.
Passing the harbor boats and fish market, I made my way along Whitstable Harbor Village with its pop up shops and children’s seaside toys, towards Crab & Winkle Way where I’d seen a sign for The Lobster Shack back on the beach. Facing the water, it was a secluded spot, at least for now, and it seemed like the perfect place to test the seafood waters. Outside, fisherman prepared oyster beds and wooden picnic tables set on the shingle beach welcomed visitors. A Whitstable Brewery Pilsner wet my whistle, and while I couldn’t go for a swim, the half-dozen rock oysters, cod-fish soup, and a perfect bowl of mussels, sweet and coral colored, in a broth of white wine, butter, garlic, onion, carrot, with fresh thyme, provided an altogether different immersive experience.
There are lots of options for overnighting in Whitstable but it was the 150-year old converted fishing huts that caught my eye. Located directly on the beachfront, they were once used to store cockle-farming clutter. Today, these cozy cottages have all the comforts necessary for a short or long stay. Next time, I thought.
Elliott’s Coffee Shop provided the perfect excuse to sample some more local sweets. A pretty café that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, I made off with a carrot cupcake and a coffee for the ride home. But before getting in the car I took a walk along the beach where those colorful cabanas sit simmering for that slow boil towards summer when their doors will burst open to welcome swimmers and sun worshipers. Hopefully, I’ll be back.