Neigbourhood watch: Margate, Kent
Airport chaos and carbon footprints have done wonders for Kentish seaside towns such as Margate. Not long ago it was the enfant terrible of the Isle of Thanet, a byword for dilapidated bingo halls and kiss-me-quick postcards. Now the sandy bucket-and-spade resort is the seaside resort du jour. Tourists tired of the nearby trendy town of Whitstable are heading downstream to Margate, where the beaches are sandier and the air saltier, not just from the sea but the old-fashioned chippies that line the promenade.
The town has those sunsets that JMW Turner used to rave about, and Margate's nascent arts scene – with Tracey Emin as mascot – is tipped for success. Kent's first major art gallery, the Turner Contemporary, is set to open here in 2010, and Margate is anticipating its arrival. New galleries and venues are springing up, flanked by the town's retro attractions (an underground shell grotto, curiosity shops, old-school bowling alleys) and those fish-and-chip joints.
A Margate renewal partnership is spearheading the regeneration campaign, working to turn the listed stone pier into an art-and-eating venue with painters' workshops and hi-tech night lighting. A high-speed rail link from London is set for completion in 2009, so you'll be able to go from smoke to sand in less than two hours. But the best thing of all? Margate's house prices are still comparatively low.
Your kind of people?
Margate was once the domain of retired couples and teenagers, but locals are upping the cultural ante. They like their seafood here: not just cod and chips, but mussels, oysters and fine wines too. A successful old-town regeneration scheme has got Londoners all a-fluster: won over by Margate's retro charms, they are opening boutiques, galleries and even a top jazz café that puts on a festival of national acclaim, Big Sky, every summer. You can hardly blame them: a burgeoning arts scene and lack of pretension are an all too rare combination.
Can you shop till you drop?
Despite last year's mass exodus to the excellent shopping centre at Westwood Cross, the local council has done a fine job of encouraging retail in Margate's old town. A farmer's market comes to the hotel-packed suburb of Cliftonville once a month. Great nosh can be found at the newly opened Number Six, which has the best chocolate cake in town. And with no Starbucks in sight, Café G's low-fat cappuccinos won't fatten anyone but the local economy. A new juice bar on the high street gets the youth vote.
When drizzle blows in off the sea, check out the musty antique dealers that line Cliftonville High Street for quirky miscellany and one-off pieces of art. The Old Town Gallery sells original jewellery and vintage-inspired clothing, while Harbour Monkey does a great line in homemade greeting cards. The Flower Lab turns flora into art, while Cuttings Jewellers is the place to go if you're in the market for the other kind of rock. Cream teas at the eccentric Walpole Bay Hotel are a weekend treat.
Green and pleasant?
While green pastures are never far away, Margate is more famous for its beaches than its parks. Gaze up at dramatic rock formations while lying on the sands at Joss Bay, or head to Margate main sands for a spot of sunbathing and bucket-and-spade action, topped off with a Mr Whippy. The swell at Palm Bay occasionally attracts surfers who can't make it to Cornwall. If all that sand gets too much, nearby Grove Ferry is a summer picnic spot flanked by rolling green meadows and farms. Closer still are the olde worlde villages of Minster and Manston, or jump in the car for a 20-minute drive to Marshside. There you will find pubs such as the Gate Inn, serving doorstop sandwiches, flanked by babbling brooks and too many sheep to count.
Do the schools make the grade?
The grammar-school system is alive and kicking in Thanet. The single-sex Chatham (boys) and Clarendon (girls) grammars in nearby Ramsgate both bat well above the national average, while mixed Dane Court Grammar down the road in Broadstairs consistently tops local league tables. The brand new Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate is tipped for success in the performing arts. An excellent independent option is a 40-minute drive away at Kent College in Canterbury.
There are windswept seaside towns dotted all along the Thanet coastline – enjoy a classic peach melba at Morelli's ice-cream parlour on the seafront at Broadstairs – or head west and walk along the shingle beaches of Whitstable. From here, you can arrange a seal-watching boat trip, and knock back world-class oysters. Regular trains and buses will get you to Canterbury in less than an hour. And thanks to the nearby ferry and Channel Tunnel connections, you can even nip over to the French towns of Calais or Boulogne for steak frites if you want a change from battered cod.