Artist haunts are picture perfect
Anthea Gerrie heads for the postcard-friendly Kent coast to follow in the footsteps of Turner and Tracey Emin
Margate: Described by Turner as having ‘the loveliest skies in Europe’
Those of us who remember Margate and Cliftonville from childhood seaside holidays now have a reason to travel back to the East Kent coast on a sentimental journey. It's one which would have brought tears to many eyes just a few years ago, given the sharp decline of a string of resorts once popular with Jewish holidaymakers.
But the towns along this sandy stretch of coast whose luminous light dazzled Turner are slowly being regenerated with the help of a new gallery named for the great British artist.
The Turner Gallery has already exceeded visitor expectations more than three times in its first year, with 500,000 visitors flocking to the big angled box overlooking Margate beach both to see the art and enjoy an upmarket meal on its terrace.
On one side the harbour arm - the closest thing the resort has to a pier - beckons with art galleries, bars and cafes overlooking a broad sweep of beach. On the other side of the main road a prettied-up Old Town is now home to a lively jazz scene.
The modernist theme park Dreamland, which has for so long stood derelict, will take a while to renovate. But meanwhile Margate offers many other entertainments. Mystery-lovers will marvel at the Shell Grotto, an underground mosaic temple whose meaning and maker have remained unknown since the grotto was uncovered in Victorian times. Elsewhere, little boys and their dads are well catered for at the Hornby Visitor Centre, with its great display of old train sets, modern Scalextric, historic Corgi cars and Airfix models.
Ramsgate: a handsome harbour
Even though Margate is an easy day trip by train, it would be a mistake not to bring the car for a proper look at the Isle of Thanet, to which there's so much more than this bucket and spade resort of old. The Turner has merely made Margate the most visible focus of a triangle whose more historic points are equally rewarding in their different ways.
Ramsgate has a handsome harbour, from which seal safaris can be taken, and a wealth of fabulous Georgian and Victorian architecture which speaks of former maritime prosperity. Wellington and Nelson Crescents sweep high above the shoreline and there are many houses associated with the great Gothic Revival architect Pugin, whose own Grade I family home can be visited on a Wednesday afternoon.
There is also some Jewish history, thanks to the presence of Sir Moses Montefiore, who commissioned his cousin, David Mocatta, to build him a synagogue in 1833, and a mausoleum less than 30 years later when his wife died. Overgrown and tucked away in their own secret garden, the buildings have finally generated some signs to help visitors find the elegant and elegiac monument in a town with a reform synagogue which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Completing the trio, and totally different in atmosphere from its neighbours, is Broadstairs, where Charles Dickens spent many summers here.
It's a charming, genteel little resort, with a broad, garden-fringed promenade running high above the beach. Tatters, the boutique of a local jewellery-maker, now has a branch in Margate old town, and is worth visiting for its coloured glass necklaces and earrings, as are the handful of eclectic little art and craft galleries in both resorts. While there's enough in all three towns to entertain for a long weekend, they are not the sum total of what Thanet has to offer.
The scenic drive around the headland leads to beautiful, ammonite-studded beaches; key stops include Botany Bay, Joss Bay, which has a surf school, and Kingsgate. A few miles to the west, the attractive village of Birchington is home to Quex Park, housing a museum commemorating the life of gung-ho Major Powell-Cotton, and now famous for the excellent, independently-owned farm shop and restaurant-cafe, Quex Barn.
It was at Minnis Bay, Birchington's own remotely beautiful beach, that we recently ate the finest meal of several on offer in Thanet. Jewish chef Jason Freedman cures his own salt beef and pastrami, pickles his own herring, onions, cabbage, cucumber and beetroot, but offers something far finer than a deli experience.
The Minnis is both a casual beach cafe and a very good restaurant whose sophisticated but unfussy dishes at very fair prices cannot fail to delight.
While The Minnis is still a well-kept secret, Eddie Gilberts in Ramsgate has received so much publicity it's usually impossible to get in without a booking. Despite its tucked-away location in a Ramsgate back street, this wet fish shop and posh chippy (where else can you buy turbot and chips to take out?) has attracted food critics to its upstairs restaurant, which now exudes a metropolitan buzz. Margate's own claim to culinary fame is The Ambrette, an Indian locals still refer to by its previous name, The Indian Princess.
In Broadstairs, Peens gastro-bar offers everything from a great brunch with pitchers of Bloody Mary through to post-dinner cocktails.
Accommodation choices are pretty quirky, and, alas, do not include Dickens's Bleak House in Broadstairs, which was set to open as a b&b before the recession struck. But thanks to the Turner effect, Margate does have a chic boutiquery for those who don't mind stairs.
The Reading Rooms consists of just three beautifully done-up en suite bedrooms in an elegant Georgian house in a charming square behind the seafront.
For those who relish eccentricity, the Walpole Bay Hotel is a one-off on the Margate/Cliftonville seafront; packed to the gills with memorabilia and with a spectacular 1927 gated lift. It's a favourite of Margate's own wild child, the artist Tracey Emin, and the bedroom with four-poster she favours is comfy with a delightful ocean view.
Also rich in views is the Royal Harbour Hotel in Ramsgate, another converted Georgian house best enjoyed by those who can tackle stairs (though it has one ground floor room with a disabled- access bathroom).
Front rooms are light and bright, with harbour vistas, and the public rooms are particularly delightful. On a wet night in, guests can play records and help themselves to a drink from the honesty bar in the lounge, snack on complimentary cheese and biscuits in the dining-room or settle into the snug to watch a DVD or read a magazine.
A final word on Thanet is its proximity to the likes of Canterbury, with its magnificent cathedral and city walls, and beautiful Sandwich, a historic Cinque Port.
You could spend a full week in East Kent and wonder why your parents never realised there was so much more to it than candy floss and toffee apples.
But it's delightful that these seaside confections and other simple old-fashioned resort pleasures have not been discarded in the rush towards culture and gentrification.