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Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The Pearl of Kent: Whitstable


There’s something about the sea that has an instant attraction for me. I’m not sure why, but it has a positive effect on my well-being.
Lately, we’ve both been suffering the strains of modern life, so a long weekend away was in order. Actually my husband likes the sea too so a break by the coast, somewhere, just anywhere was an absolute must.
We decided on Whitstable as it’s not too far to travel but is significantly different to where we live. Neither of us has ever been there before either, although a long time ago, I went on a school field trip to Broadstairs, which is further up the Kent coast.
Whitstable has everything I like about a costal town. It has a working fishing harbour, bringing in some of the finest seafood in the country, oysters in particular, for which it is famed. It isn’t commercialised in the sense that it has those awful amusement arcades and trashy pier attractions. There’s something left of the old days that gives it a true soul and character. I suppose it is so undeniably steeped in history.

Food and Lodging 
It is worth mentioning that we stayed in a bed and breakfast, as we wouldn’t normally choose to do so. Up until recently British B&Bs have had a notorious reputation that has, I confess, put us off in the past. We stayed at The Pearl Fisher, which thankfully blew away all those stereotypical images of old. Our hosts for the weekend, Gary and Jan Hartley-Trigg are a really lovely couple. They were always friendly and attentive but never intrusive.
Our room was tastefully decorated, complete with en-suite, and we were even able to choose a time slot for breakfast. Yes, the breakfast; absolutely fantastic. What a spread; our ‘first course’ consisted of a choice of cereal, fresh fruit and yogurt. Then the ‘second course’, cooked to order. There certainly wasn’t any skimping on the quality here, the bacon was thick and most certainly dry-cured, the sausages were of a high meat content and very tasty and the eggs were expertly scrambled to a beautiful creamy soft texture. Fried mushrooms accompanied this, with fresh grilled tomatoes and some slices of toast. There definitely wasn’t any sign of cutting corners and dashing to the cash and carry, these ingredients had been carefully selected, locally.
Replete with the fabulous Full English, we were then offered toast. We couldn’t refuse as we were itching to try some of the locally made preserves.
Well, that breakfast certainly set us up for the day!
The weather wasn’t particularly kind to us on one day; we were caught in a most torrential downpour of rain. Rivers ran down the streets and trying to shelter in shop doorways did little to keep us dry as the passing traffic sent up great splashes and soaked us even more.
We couldn’t really go anywhere now, as we were too wet! I don’t think sitting in a restaurant would have been good either for us or the proprietor! So it was back to our room via a Chinese takeaway to get changed. By a stroke of luck, our hosts offered to tumble-dry our clothes for us. Like I said, they were very thoughtful and attentive. I would highly recommend the Pearl Fisher to anyone.

Taste of the Sea 
Whitstable has become known as a foodie destination, and justly so, the seafood is first class, but it wasn’t my actual reason for going. Initially, I actually had no idea of its culinary claims, it was only the draw of the coast and it’s quaintness that attracted me. However we did sample some good food, but as I’m not really in the habit of doing restaurant reviews I’ll just say that it was all very good.
Oysters are Whitstable’s famous speciality. Everyday the boats go out to dredge for them, from the beds that are situated about a mile off shore. The catch may also comprise of other shellfish, such as winkles, whelks and cockles, which are sold fresh-caught and cooked at the quayside. It was refreshing to see children eating them, especially these days, when most kids are fussy and won’t touch anything unless it comes with fries from a certain burger chain.
Oysters, or any fish and seafood for that matter, can be rather expensive if bought in any of the restaurants, but if you're not too fussy about enjoying them outside from a plastic plate/cup, then do buy them from the Fish Market or West Whelks on the harbour. This is a sure way of saving some money and sampling top quality sea fare, plus sitting out in the open air with the smell of the sea always seems to improve the taste, I think.

Simple Pleasures
I found Whitstable to be a good place to relax. With no particular agenda to adhere to we spent our time wandering around the harbour and along the shingle beach or browsing the shops and galleries.
The town is an attractive place to artists, and I can see why, as I found it inspiring too. Occasionally, I like to paint and the quality of light and colour and quirkiness of the place has reignited my creative spark. I must get out those paintbrushes.
I get an enormous feeling of satisfaction having walked along the coast. Fresh sea air is so uplifting – you sort of feel exhausted and invigorated at the same time – so that must be a sign of it doing you some good.
Little rest stops here and there allowed us to stare out to sea, watching the windsurfers and fishing boats. Far on the horizon vast container ships, carrying cargo between Dover and Europe, moved slowly past a backdrop of wind turbines sticking out of the Kentish Flats. There’s been much controversy concerning off shore wind farms, but I happen to feel that they are not a blot on the landscape, but rather they’re an interesting feature, besides, this one is sufficiently far away so as not to be intrusive.

Shopping
The High Street has many shops for those looking for something arty or designer orientated. There are a couple of 'junk' shops for the collector, bookshops and clothes boutiques. Whitstable has pretty much everything on a small scale – there are no chain stores that I could see – Canterbury, about seven miles away, is your best option if you want those.
I am fiercely jealous of this town, for such a small place it is well furnished with several decent butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers and bakers. It does have two small supermarkets in the centre, but I could have easily given them a miss.
There’s also the Harbour Village, a kind of market, selling crafts and local produce. I had the impression it was larger from what I’d read, so was a little disappointed. There was, however, a stall selling Kent strawberries and plums, and one of those will be used in a crumble featuring in a future post.

Is it Worth Going Back?
To put it this way, I didn’t want to go home. Three days just didn’t seem long enough.
Now that I’ve seen what Whitstable has to offer, I’d love to return for a longer period of time and maybe stay in self-catering accommodation. I have no qualms about cooking whilst on holiday and would welcome the idea of preparing a meal made from the freshly caught local seafood.
I noticed that there is a “Hands Off Our Harbour” campaign in operation. It would appear that certain developers want to regenerate the harbour into some kind of yuppie haven. Obviously the locals do not want this to happen, and neither do I for that matter, even if I am just a tourist. So just as long as it remains as it did when I last visited, I shall continue to return.

Further Information
Don’t be satisfied with the few pictures in this post, have a look at all of them on my Flickr page here

I highly recommend The Pearl Fisher Bed & Breakfast; it has a list of consistently good reviews on Trip Advisor
You can book online:
www.thepearlfisher.com

For those looking for art and crafts and local produce try:
www.whitstableharbourvillage.co.uk

More information about Whitstable, on what to do, where to eat etc:
www.whitstableonline.com 
www.seewhitstable.com

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