Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, with Host Unusual

Back in January, I had the opportunity to review a property operated through a new holiday accommodation website called Host Unusual. It's a pretty cool concept: rather than your usual country cottages – which are perfectly fine, of course – this site is all about quirky, different, interesting, or to borrow their word, unusual properties that you can hire for your break. There's everything from windmills to lighthouses to castles to follies, boats, planes, buses, hobbit-style homes, eco domes, caravans... Well, you get the idea and it's fun just to take a look around at what's on offer.
As I only had a weekend, which meant I rather wanted to arrive on the Friday evening so there'd be all of Saturday to be there, we went for a quirky, retro apartment by the sea a mere two hours from London in Westgate-on-Sea, which is just along from the more hyped Margate on the Kent coast.
Westgate has clearly been overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, but this means it's hung on to its old-school charm without shouting about it. The downtown area – really just two streets – have lovely Victorian glass-covered awnings over the pavements; the Carlton family-run vintage cinema, where you can see first-run films for the princely sum of just £3.50 on a Saturday night (£2.50 if you go midweek) – compare that to the usual London price of £14 per ticket and you'll see why I'm flagging this up – and the usual British take-aways: Chinese, Indian and fish and chips.

We stayed in The Lookout, a 'quirky' (Host Unusual's word) flat that has been decorated in the colours, style and even some authentic pieces from the 1950s and 60s. Think aquamarine, pink, brown and olive for the colour palette, with 21st century touches like wifi, a DVD player and reliable heating and hot water. It's best to know it's on the top floor of a terraced house, so a couple of flights up (tip: don't overload yourself with too much luggage), but once you're in there is a lovely view out the back windows over the garden to the sea. 

The flat sleeps four: two on a pull-out sofa bed in the living room, two in the bedroom, where the beds can be configured as two singles or a big king. There's a big bathroom with shower over the bath, well-equipped kitchen and dining alcove. Nice as it is, you're unlikely to spend too much time indoors though, because that wonderful seafront will be calling...

Where the road meets the 13-mile long promenade is Pav's café, which doesn't look as if it's changed so much as a tablecloth since the 1960s. There are some wonderful signs (check out the ice-cream cone clock with the motto 'You can't buy happiness but you can buy ice cream') but otherwise a jolly disregard for what you might call decor. Order a full English (veggie option available) or just a sausage in a roll and a builder's tea and you're ready for the day.

The beach in these parts is either wonderfully wide and sandy or nonexistent if the tide is in. We were lucky with the weather, especially as it was January. Full blazing sun that was even warming and a perfect two-mile walk to Margate, admiring the low white cliffs that accompanied us most of the way, the many dogs being taken for walks and the ever-changing seascape.

Unfortunately for us, Dreamland, the recently rejuvenated but also retro amusement park, was closed for the winter, but the Turner Contemporary gallery was open and had a temporary exhibit on with the theme of string. At least, I think it was string. We managed to arrive just as the director, Victoria Pomery, OBE, was giving some sort of opening speech, but I'm afraid we didn't pay any attention and just wandered upstairs. It's free and is a nice open space with drop-in family activities going on, so a good one if you've kids in tow. Or, of course, like art.

Next door is the pretty white stucco tourist office and further out along the harbour arm are cafés, shops and, at the tip, the statuesque shell lady.

Back in town, everyone seems to be making the most of the retro English seaside vibe, with plenty of shops selling what look like the contents of local attics and cellars (old badges, tea services, chests, rocking horses, carriage clocks...). There are also a couple of indoor spaces that have been turned into shopping arcades. One has a double-decker bus inside, in which you can take tea or sandwiches on the upper deck, and where we saw a corner booth with the words 'Tracey Emin exclusive' on a card at the back of a table strewn with various personal effects. My first thought was that the table was one of the artist's pieces, in the same vein as her 'Unmade Bed'. But when the sales lady saw me taking a picture, she apologised and cleared her things away. Just going to prove I'm never going to get that YBA stuff...

Of course, we had to eat at GB Pizza, which has been reviewed and praised by everyone from Jay Raynor to Zoe Williams, and if you want to try 'the best pizzas' she's ever tasted, I recommend making a booking as it's that popular. Personally, it's OK, but as far as I'm concerned, nothing's ever going to knock a slice of New York pizza off its perch.

As you're here, you should visit the Tudor House, which is staffed by enthusiastic history buffs happy to share their knowledge, and the Shell Grotto, which also has a gift shop and café, along with a jolly shell-covered dinosaur head to admire. 

By then, you'll probably be ready to head back to The Lookout. Meander along inland and buy dinner supplies on the walk back, then take yourselves to the Carlton for your Saturday night at the pictures. By Sunday, you'll feel you've had a proper seaside break, even if it wasn't warm enough for sunbathing. Never mind, you can always come back in summer and have a totally beachy time of it.
St Mildred's Bay, Westgate-on-Sea, Kent

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