Politicians and entrepreneurs, pirates and outlaws, Falmouth’s founding family, the Killigrews, lurched over the centuries between respectability and infamy. And though they’re long gone, Falmouth retains something of the Killigrews’ dual nature. From the town’s three beautiful beaches the dirty smudge of tankers can be seen on the horizon. Commercial ships in the harbour tower over the sails of picturesque Falmouth working boats.
The best views are from the water, and there are plenty of opportunities to explore the sheltered Carrick Roads (the Fal estuary) by kayak, paddleboard, dinghy or on the small ferry that links Falmouth with St Mawes. Landlubbers can watch the boats from the back windows of the Star and Garter on the High Street and enjoy excellent nose-to-tail dishes from the kitchen’s wood-fired oven.
The town has an fiercely independent streak and is home to some exceptional food and drink enthusiasts. Dolly’s Tea Room and Wine Bar stocks more than 200 gins; Espressini (two branches) takes its coffee more seriously than most; and tucked away in a small courtyard, Beerwolf combines dark wood and pale ale with an excellent selection of books.
You may have to search for it but the Killigrews’ maverick spirit persists. Falmouth is lively, rough round the edges in all the right ways and still not quite respectable, and for those reasons alone, I love it.
Rothesay, Isle of Bute
What you must do, straight off the boat, is go to Zavaroni’s on Argyle Street and buy a Top Hat – an ice-cream cone topped by a marshmallow snowball. Rothesay is not a place where pleasure ought to be deferred, and in any case, it will give you something to walk off. While eating, wander over to Fraser Gillies, the gents’ outfitters at 30 Montague Street, and admire the window display with its Ivor Cutler-ish signs: “Socks for feet”, “Cavalry twill trousers – must supply own horse”, and so on.
Rothesay, the main settlement on the Isle of Bute, is the archetypal Scottish seaside town from the days when Glaswegians went “doon the watter” for their summer holiday, and some of that gaudy atmosphere persists. It’s beautiful, though. The view across the bay to the Cowal hills is the best seaside panorama in Scotland.
You get there by ferry, a 35-minute crossing from the terminal at Wemyss Bay railway station. This a wee marvel in itself, its Edwardian canopy a swirl of steel and glass. Make sure and leave enough time to pick up something to read from the secondhand bookshop in the former first-class waiting room.
That’s a trip to Rothesay: a day of Top Hats and tales.
Stay Chandlers Hotel in nearby Ascog Bay has views over the Clyde to the Ayrshire coast, and doubles from £110.
Peter Ross, author of The Passion of Harry Bingo: Further Dispatches from Unreported Scotland
Herne Bay, Kent
I fell in love with beach huts at Herne Bay. Watching their pointed shadows march along the shingle back in 1998 inspired me to pursue a career as a seaside historian. Though Herne Bay has long played second fiddle to neighbouring Whitstable, on a recent visit I see it has undergone some impressive improvements.
The Georgian clock tower that dominates the promenade is looking spruce, and the playground next to the beach is a hit with my children. Stepping into the enclosed bandstand felt like stepping back into the 1930s and amid the art-deco details, Makcari’s ice-cream parlour is the perfect place to stop for refreshment.
The pier was once the third-longest in the country but these days its seaward end is an island of iron marooned in the Thames estuary. Its landward end, however, has been revived, with beach hut-style retail and craft units, and its railings yarn-bombed with a joyful parade of nautical knits. The Oyster and Chop House on the High Street specialises in locally caught lobster, or for a touch of London-on-sea, try the Herne Bay Traditional Pie and Mash (72 Central Parade).
Stay: Evening Tide Guesthouse on the seafront, opposite the bandstand, has doubles from £79 B&B.
Kathryn Ferry, author of Sheds on the Seashore: A Tour through Beach Hut History
Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire
Saltburn cliff lift Photograph: daverhead/Getty Images
I have bittersweet memories of Saltburn. Yes, it’s a charming seaside town, designed by a Victorian philanthropist, on a sandy stretch of coast. Yes, it has a genuine 16th-century smugglers’ tavern, the Ship Inn, which still echoes with the ghosts of the past. And yes, it has a pretty pier, untroubled by tourist tat, where I surfed by moonlight one clear November night, in head-high waves that shimmered as they broke.
But my memories are clouded by the 17-day flat spell I sat through as I attempted to surf every beach in Britain. That’s 17 days staring out to sea from Saltburn’s brief-but-charming promenade; 17 days sitting in various delightful tea houses (until I was ejected for vagrancy). Living in a van, I used the Sitting Room, a cosy cafe by the station, as, well, my sitting room. It does a good line in mismatched 1970s furniture, delicious cakes and interesting cocktails.
Most of the time, Saltburn feels like a proper surf town, where you can fall out of bed, pad through the streets, grab a board at the surf shack and dive straight in to its beginner-friendly waves. Add this to its charm and friendliness, and the great fish and chips at the Seaview Restaurant, and Saltburn could almost claim to be the Biarritz of Britain.
Stay If you can’t sleep in your van, Brockley Hall Hotel, a neo-gothic mansion overlooking Skelton Beck, is a short walk from the station and has doubles from £95 B&B.
Jonathan Bennett, author of Around the Coast in Eighty Waves
Portstewart, County Derry
Portstewart harbour and promenade. Photograph: Alamy
Whenever there’s a blink of summer sun in these parts, Portstewart Strand, the two-mile Blue Flag stretch of sand west of town, is transformed into a pleasure ground, jam-packed with daytrippers. My preferred route (the dog’s, too) takes us off the beach, up one of the “sand ladders” into the dunes, where the wind immediately drops and the Atlantic roar softens to a purr. I can spend hours in there over a carpet of pansies and wild thyme, hunting for fritillaries and bee orchids or watching at the Barmouth, where the Bann river empties into the sea, as the sanderlings do their comic dance at the water’s edge. The more energetic carry in their boogie boards and surf down the tallest dune. (I’m told that in the 1950s, locals used to do the same on tea trays.)
There’s fresh seafood on offer at Harry’s Shack at the head of the beach, from where you can take the coastal path up into town. For a lighter bite, stop off at the Paper Fig, just before the Fisherman’s Cottage at The Berrins on Berne Road. By the time you reach the prom you’ll be ready for a “poke” (ice-cream cone). Try the salted caramel from Morelli’s, which also does dairy- and gluten-free versions, or, closer to the harbour, Roughan’s does a delicious mango and passion fruit ice-cream. Further along the prom, stock up on Young Buck blue cheese and Corndale Farm chorizo to bring a taste of the local fare home at Warke’s Deli .
Stay Saltwater House has doubles from £110 B&B, is within easy reach of the coastal path and has views along the coast to Mussenden Temple and the hills of Donegal.
• The National Trust’s next Orchid Walk on Portstewart beach is on 18 June, and its next Butterfly Safari is on 14 July (adult £2, child £1, booking essential, nationaltrust.org.uk)
Bernie McGill’s latest novel, The Watch House, is set on nearby Rathlin Island
At the end of a short peninsula on the north coast of a long one lies a village on the road to nowhere – and for that I love it.
My first sight of Appledore, three miles north of Bideford, was eight years ago when the Beaver Inn emerged from the swirling December mist like the world’s last hostelry. Inside, most customers seemed to be playing a strange local card game. Observing from the bar, I had no idea this would soon be my local – at least for the duration of every visit.
Mist rolling up the Torridge estuary to Appledore Quay is a regular feature, but when the sun comes out, the village looks a different place. With views of dunes and the open sea, it’s a time capsule from a 1950s summer: children rock-pooling, parents sampling Mr Hocking’s local ice-creams.
Other pubs include The Champ, for local real ales and The Beaver for live music. You’re spoilt for choice of cafes: both the Market Street Kitchen and the award-winning Coffee Cabin do excellent cappuccinos. The nearest sandy coastal beach is a couple of miles away but what keeps bringing me back is the ever-changing river scene.
At first glance, Barmouth is a shabby fairground arcade, a candyfloss-and-Carling type of town. It can feel tacky, inflated dinghies bobbing on shop walls above stacked displays of plastic paraphernalia. But it’s also the seaside town of my childhood, and layers of repeated visits have distilled down into memories of a pure and perfect sunny beach holiday – running past the rock shop and over the railway line down to the sand, the elation of sunshine on bare legs, digging sand near a cluster of folding chairs carefully set out behind striped windbreakers. The beach has wide flat sand at the estuary mouth, then turns to half a mile of dunes before splitting into short stretches between groynes. The hills and edges of the mysterious Llŷn peninsula lie far away across the water.
Look inland and you see mountains: both Cadair Idris and the Rhinogs are easy to reach for days out in wilder land. South of town, the wooden planked railway viaduct offers a wonderful view over the Mawddach estuary. From the bridge you can bike the 16-mile loop of the spectacular Mawddach Trail between Barmouth and to Dolgellau.
The arts centre and coffee shop in the Ebeneezer Chapel on the High Street has nice gifts and cakes but for a good meal head towards the harbour. The Last Inn on Church Street is good for local fish or black beef. And the Mermaid Fish Bar on nearby Jubilee Street does the best chips in town.
Stay Beautiful Wales has luxury self-catering barn conversions with wonderful beach views in Llanaber, a mile or so just up the road from Barmouth, from £290 for two nights (sleeps two).
Ursula Martin, author of One Woman Walks Wales
Pleasureland, Southport. Photograph: Alamy
Visiting every pleasure pier in England and Wales was a fine way to see our coastal resorts, from the grottiest to the greatest. Southport had just the right combination of modern town bustle and buckets and spades to make it one of the best.
The huge beach is great for walks and wildlife, although walking to the sea itself might take a while. Even the second-longest pier in the UK doesn’t, for most of the time, reach the water: Southport has one of the biggest tidal ranges in the world, and the sea is often away in the distance. Even the locals get excited when there’s a high tide.
The pier itself is the hub of seaside activities, a fab retro arcade at the pier head, with love testers, penny falls and a terrifying automaton called Laugh with Jolly Jack. At the land end, there’s a great hall of mirrors, which doesn’t reflect badly on the town at all.
Just along the prom, with views across Marine Lake to the beach, is the Lakeside Inn, once Britain’s smallest pub.
The Bottle Room a short walk away on Lord Street is a cosy craft beer haven with live music every weekend, while A Great Little Place behind the Town Hall combines the warm glow of good food with the warm glow of a social enterprise helping people with autism. A cumberland sausage bap with beer-braised apples and mushrooms is filling for around a fiver.
Tynemouth, Tyne & Wear
Photograph: Rachael Tailford/Picfair
I first heard of Tynemouth when a friend explained why there was a surfboard in his room at Newcastle University: “We’re just down the road from Longsands, the best surfing beach in north-east England.” I was intrigued, so we took the metro out to the coast, where I rented a board from Tynemouth Surf Co and caught my first North Sea wave. I also caught the surfing bug that autumnal afternoon, and it happened in the right place at the right time: as winter draws in, the swells start pumping. Deepest, darkest January is my favourite time in Tynemouth – not just for the waves, or the camaraderie among cold-water surfers, but for the shocked expressions from dog walkers as they watch you dive into the ice -cold water. Little do they know we’re toasty warm in head-to-toe neoprene.
As winter eases into spring the swells calm down and activities in Tynemouth change. Surfing is replaced by swimming in the cove, barbecues in the old tidal pool and beers in the Gibraltar Rock pub overlooking the ancient castle and priory. These immaculately maintained ruins are on a cliff-edge at the end of Front Street, which is packed with places to eat. My favourite dish is scampi from Longsands Fish Kitchen, devoured in our campervan on the hill overlooking the mouth of the Tyne. From there, you’re surrounded by exciting places to explore – from the glittering lights of Newcastle upriver, to the wild expanse of Northumberland up the coast.
Ventnor, Isle of Wight
A freshly grilled bacon sandwich on the top deck of the ferry heralded my childhood holidays to the Isle of Wight. Zipped up in cagoules as the wind gusted around us, my brother and I had tasted nothing finer. Our destination was Ventnor, a seaside town with everything a six-year-old could desire: a huge paddling pool with a 3D map of the island rising from its centre, a muddyish beach to splash about on, and bags of chips to eat as my feet dangled from a deckchair.
They’ve stopped serving bacon sandwiches on the top deck of the Red Funnel, but pretty much everything in Ventnor is reassuringly the same. The hairpin bends of the Cascade Road – actual name Shore Hill, which pitches visitors into the Victorian seaside town – still slaloms past colourful municipal bedding and steadfast granite villas. Much of the architecture survives from Ventnor’s 19th-century heyday as a health resort, and original bathing machines (without wheels) are now available to hire as beach huts.
Chips are still the snack of choice at Haven Fishery on The Esplanade, although these days they are accompanied with inventive crab options (samosas, croquettes). A 20-minute walk along the seafront takes you now, as then, to the subtropical Botanical Gardens, a safe place to get lost in, much like Ventnor itself.
Stay National Trust cottage Little Chert is an annex to a modernist house in St Lawrence, about a mile to the south. It’s furnished in 1970s style – the orange Formica kitchen is a highlight – and sleeps two from £323 for three nights.
Clare Gogerty, author of The National Trust Book of the Coast, and National Trust guides to the Tin Coast, Gower Peninsula and Brownsea Island