WASHINGTON, July 8, 2014 – It is an odd thing to travel to another country when it hasn’t figured into your vacation plans. Even when on business, you can typically generate a bit of a thrill by tacking on a side trip before or after your stay.
If it’s true that every cloud has a silver lining, than it was discovering Whitstable.
Steely gray-green water dragged millions of tiny 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.
At the time it was March, but as the saying goes—good things come to those who wait and I could almost hear the laughter of beach goers who make an annual claim to this shoreline in Whitstable.
Staying in Hertfordshire, a northern suburb of London, we unfurled a map looking for a place that wasn’t too much of a hike but far enough that it would feel like we’d gone away. Our eyes settled on a beach town on the north coast of Kent known for its seafood. Just over an hour by car, Whitstable appeared to be the perfect getaway…so off we went.
The drive south along the M25, to the Dartford Bridge Crossing, to the M2 was a breeze. It was weekday, so I suppose that might have had something to do with it. The sun was blazing, the windows were down and the family car we’d borrowed had a Hollies cd in it. This, it turns out, was his dad’s favorite band and with the fine weather we took it as a good omen.
Horses grazed along the shamrock green hills that roll along either side of the motorway. Manicured rows of apple orchards and other fruit farms made for a pretty journey and before long we turned off towards Whitstable.
Within minutes we were driving along the high street towards the harbor, passing mom and pop stores of flower shops, bakeries, interior design stores, galleries, pharmacies, and all of the traditional necessities needed for everyday living. Before you reach the seaside, there are loads of little hotels, restaurants and cafes. But today wasn’t about exploring local businesses. With only a few hours to spare the ocean was calling.
Crunching along the gravely beach, you’ll find 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 carpet 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. It certainly was bringing a smile to our faces.
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. It was easy to make yourself at home at Jo Jo’s, a café with lots of yummy food. We ordered honey pistachio cake and coffee then parked ourselves on the outdoor patio at a weather-beaten wooden table, smiling at the superb ocean 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 at the end of 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 we’d come here for.
Heading along the harbor, we explored the little lanes that lead 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 along Whitstable Harbor Village with its pop up shops, children’s seaside toys brought happy memories to my travel companion. Towards Crab & Winkle Way we’d spotted a sign for The Lobster Shack and set out to find it. 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, a fisherman prepared oyster beds and wooden picnic tables set on the shingle beach welcomed visitors.
A Whitstable Brewery Pilsner wet my whistle. A half-dozen rock oysters, codfish 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.
Elliott’s Coffee Shop provided the perfect excuse to sample some more local sweets. A pretty café that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, a carrot cupcake was a treat for the ride home. My guy caught sight of a Mr. Whippy ice cream truck, opting to enjoy another sweet childhood memory.
Before hitting the road, we walked once more along the beach where those colorful cabanas sat simmering to welcome beachcombers and sun worshipers. We wouldn’t be there to enjoy them this summer but the balm of Whitstable would last a lifetime.