10 top UK coastal holidays

It's not all knotted handkerchiefs and deckchairs on Britain's coastline – Blue Flag beaches and hip hotels abound. Written by Lesley Gillilan, Rhiannon Batten, Dixe Wills, Clare Gogerty, Teri Grenert, Ian Belcher, Laura Burgess and David Atkinson

Hip up north

Back in the 70s, long before the invention of the majestic Hyacinth Bucket, there arrived on our prim, pre-Wimpey housing estate a new neighbour, Mrs. Maricarmé. It took a few weeks to rumble her; she was really called Mrs Morecambe, but preferred to distance herself from both the popular comedian and the tacky northern holiday town from which he took his name. But Morecambe has been leading a quiet renaissance of late, with the north-west coastal towns of Southport and Blackpool similarly expressing a new found brio in the form of recently opened luxury hotels.

It was with Mrs M in mind that I crossed the Lancaster bridge into Morecambe. Much has been made of the born-again resort and its majestic, expensively restored art deco gem the Midland Hotel. But what would the reality be? In light of a growing aversion to air travel specifically, could Morecambe really offer itself as a sophisticated alternative? Or is there still a frumpy middle-aged lady lurking behind her newly glamorous alter ego.

On first glance it's still more Ethel Austin than Stella McCartney. Turning on to the main seafront road there's the wild Irish Sea and miles of virgin coastland left and right - but the resort still feels stuck in the 70s. Even its pride and joy, the goldrush-themed amusement park Frontierland is abandoned, awaiting the loving eye of a developer's re-imagining. Across the way, the twin peaks of Aldi and Morrison's dominate the retail park that is every council's answer to every economic downturn.

Morecambe's re-invention as the Brighton of the North seems fanciful. But from Manchester's Hacienda to Birmingham's bejewelled Selfridges fantasy store, all regeneration stems from the ripple effect of one signature building. Perhaps The Midland can kickstart Morecambe . . .

With its curving staircases, pewter handrails and Eric Gill sculptures adorning walls and floors, there is still a sense of between-wars decadence about The Midland - a time when Wallis Simpson and Coco Chanel graced its ballroom. The walls display grainy black and white photographs of heyday Morecambe - teeming promenades and lidos studded with bathing beauties, with steam trains pulling into three different stations.

The Midland's £11 million restoration has also seen the creation of a brand new upper floor whose six penthouses have staggering views across Morecambe Bay and out towards the Lake District. The two executive suites are huge, featuring their own timber-decked playgrounds and external hot tubs.

If you can live with the work-in-progress feel of the town, Morecambe and The Midland make an excellent base for a traditional British holiday. There's a six-mile stretch of promenade leading all the way from the hotel lobby down to Heysham, perfect for joggers, cyclists, roller-bladers or perambulators alike. The hunched shoulder of the jetty juts out half a mile into the Irish Sea, offering a bracing stroll and views to rival the Lyme Regis Cobb. Long-established family businesses like Brucciani's ice-cream parlour and The Artisan Café are Morecambe institutions, while the train ride from Morecambe to Ulverston in the Lake District takes less than half an hour and its route across squat bridges and through hillside, wetlands, coast, and muddy rivulets has to be among the prettiest in the country.

The chug into Blackpool is as bizarre as Funland, the darkly hilarious telly drama set among its mauve nylon sheets and tawdry B&Bs. Youths dressed in hot-pants stagger in front of cars, puckering up to show they mean no harm - and that's just the boys. The girls in pink cowboy hats are even scarier. As you head past Yates's gigantic Wine Lodge, and the legendary madhouse that is The Manchester, there's a tangible joie de vivre about the place. Not for nothing is its greatest attraction called Pleasureland. Blackpool is devoted to the pursuit of pleasure. Bold, brash and ballsy as you like, Funland has long played host to hen-nights, randy brass bands and the entire population of Glasgow. At its pinnacle in the late 60s, the multitudes flocked to Blackpool's priapic tower, with its fabled ballroom hosting 5,000 revellers every Saturday night. Permissive in the best possible sense, even Blackpool's symbolic, gap-toothed minstrel George Formby was as saucy as a dirty postcard.

But Blackpool has always been savvy to its market. An influx of more affluent visitors over the past decade - older clubbers and the gay crowd in particular - led to the opening of Big Blue and St Luke's, the first of a clutch of smaller hotels to set up in the South Beach area. The newest addition, No 1 South Beach provides a welcome tranquillity, but turn right at its entrance and you're right in the thick of the wonders of Blackpool - tipsy pensioners, superbly inaccurate fortune tellers and Pleasureland itself.

Southernmost of the Lancashire resorts is Southport. Entering the town through the grand Edwardian boulevard of Lord Street, it's easy to picture the opulent Southport of yesteryear. The bandstand and gardens are still pristine, and nestled just behind them is the spanking new Vincent Hotel. The place is buzzing as I set foot in the lobby. Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has just had breakfast with wife Alex, and there's a whisper that Tiger Woods has hired the Penthouse Suite for the duration of the Open Golf Championship - just down the road at Birkdale.

In the usual scheme of things I'd resist the offer of a porter carrying my one modest bag upstairs - but the Vincent's staff are effusive, proud of the place and keen to show it off. Matt, the concierge, describes the hotel's opening as "great for Southport", and the Vincent (I can confirm the mini bar offers caviar at £199 per "small plate"!) is already a talking point. Until recently Southport felt distinctly fusty, its annual flower show and a Red Arrows fly-by being as good as it got. But a programme of regeneration that focused on its own inhabitants rather than potential visitors has brought change. In particular, the town wanted a younger demographic to move in. So with a West Lancashire spin on the "build it and they will come" philosophy, significant funds were invested in Southport's residential and shopping sectors, its arts and its cafe culture.

The vibrant Arts Centre has long illuminated the seafront, and now the prom is studded with newly commissioned marine-themed public art and sculpture. If you follow the coastline along to Crosby there's Anthony Gormley's Another Place, 100 contemplative statues buried knee-deep in the tide, staring out to sea - one of the most-photographed public sites in the country.

Cycle out to Churchtown, a timber-beamed village with two great pubs serving good food, and there's the wonderful throwback that is The Churchtown Chocolate Shop. Even the sweets are made locally - pear drops and rhubarb and custards care of Stockley's of Oswaldwhistle, while sugar canes come from Blackpool and mint balls from nearby Wigan. There are regular organic and farmer's markets, the International Food & Drink Festival attracts 15,000 visitors every May. There is still work to be done before the resort can confidently show itself off - but the makeover has started.

Can the north-west coastline pull off the great reinvention? Thirty years ago I ran away to a Brighton that was more Pinky from Brighton Rock than the pink playground of today. There was nothing in its seedy alleys and backstreet spielers to suggest the fashionable town it was destined to grow into, so who knows what lies ahead for Morecambe and Southport? The signs are all good. In a few years' time there might even be a fussily dressed lady of a certain age changing her name back to Mrs Morecambe.
Kevin Sampson

· The Midland Hotel, Morecambe (01524 424000, midlandmorecambe.co.uk), doubles from £109 room-only. No1 South Beach, Blackpool (01253 343900, numberoneblackpool.com/southbeach), doubles from £135 B&B. The Vincent, Southport (01704 534400, thevincenthotel.com), doubles from £140 room-only. Further information: enw.co.uk/visit.

Elvis festival, Carmarthenshire

Rhinestone-studded white leather one-pieces, sculpted facial hair and more Elvises (or should that be Elvi?) than you can shake a hip at appear on the streets of the normally subdued south Wales town of Porthcawl every September for the Elvis festival. The competition for the best Welsh Elvis is fiercely contested as Brentwood Hotel morphs into Heartbreak Hotel during the festivities. If the irony gets too much you can always hot tail it up the coast to stay at 200-year old (yet modern) Ceredwyn Cottage in Llantwit Major.

· September 26-28, elvies.co.uk. 01656 782725, thebrentwoodhotel.co.uk, B&B from £19. Or 02920 193 598, ceredwyncottage.co.uk from £150 for three nights, sleeping four.

Camp on the beach, Hebrides

Learn to forage, build a fire and make a shelter on a 24-hour "Wilderness Taster" course on the remote Scottish island of Islay. "It's about reconnecting with nature," says guide Jeremy Hastings. "Often we will spend an hour just lying back and looking at the huge skies." The accommodation is equally simple; you bring a sleeping bag to camp in a cave on a beach, sleeping on a mattress of bracken and heather collected during the day.

· A five-day trip with Islay Bushcraft (01496 850010, islaybushcraft.co.uk) costs £575; family trips also available.

Dune roaming, Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's beaches are cleaner than ever, thanks to a £240m investment in sewage treatment infrastructure. Seven beaches won a Blue Flag this year, including Tyrella, a flat sandy 2km stretch backed by dunes in a conservation area within Dundrum Bay, Downpatrick. The beach is part of Delamont Country Park, where there's a 10m high megalith, Strangford Stone, and boat trips on Strangford Lough. Stella Maris country house hotel in Ballycastle has battered leather chairs and coal fires.

· delamontcountrypark.com. Rooms from €155 per night, 00 353 9643 322, stellamrisireland.com.

John Malkovich's new pad, Eastbourne

Hollywood big-wig (that's not a joke about his baldness) John Malkovich and Fry's Chocolate entrepreneur Cosmo Fry, launch their latest "designer budget" Big Sleep hotel in Eastbourne this weekend. To confirm the resort's transition towards hipness, this autumn the Towner Art Gallery (01323 415 470) reopens in a new Gehry-esque £8m building.

· Doubles from £70 per night (029 2063 6363, thebigsleephotel.com).

Lodge with a view, Cornwall

Gwel an Mor holiday village is a cluster of timber lodges furnished in quasi-Marimekko style perched on a hillside overlooking the Atlantic at Portreath (Gwel an Mor is Cornish for "view of the sea"). The lodges have been built to sustainable principles - to a degree. Each is equipped with a not-so-eco-friendly plasma TV; some have hot tubs and a wood-burning stove and all have access to the centrally located spa, pool and restaurant. It's 10 minutes walk from Portreath Beach's golden sands, where there's a surf school.

· 01209 842 354, gwelanmor.com. From £445 per cabin per week, self-catering.

Wildlife walk, East Lothian

The John Muir Way is a coastal walk being developed by the local council, with the aim of linking Edinburgh to the Scottish Borders. Two paths are complete; the first covers 19km between Musselburgh and Aberlady. You'll cover mudflats, salt marshes and sand dunes that are home to wading birds and 550 species of plantlife.

· eastlothian.gov.uk/content/0,,1033 ,00.html. The House on The Beach (cottageguide.co.uk/the-house-at-the-beach) sleeps eight from £725 per week in North Berwick.

Anderby Creek, Lincolnshire

If the local council has its way, the spotless beach at the hamlet of Anderby Creek, a protected preservation area, could soon be home to a giant wind power station, much to the locals' dismay. For now, it remains an unspoilt gem on a generally over-developed coastline. Canoe on the creek or watch the grey seals at Donna Nook - winter, when they come to breed near the dunes, is the best time to spot them.

· Coastguard Cottage sleeps four from £277 per week, but is full until October 11 (hoseasons.co.uk). Camping (from £5 a night) and farmhouse accommodation (from £300 per week for six) at Bluebell Farm Holidays (01507 490 007, bluebell-farm.co.uk).

Blue Flag, Kent

The Isle of Thanet has just been awarded Blue Flag status for 10 beaches fringing Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate. All have soft sand, unlike their shingle neighbours at Whitstable and Deal. Go to Botany Bay for chalk cliffs and fossil hunting, or book one of the Thanet Coast Project's nature walks and rockpool rambles along the shores of Pegwell and Walpole Bays. Hop on a powerboat from Ramsgate Marina to the Goodwin Sands to see seals basking on the sandbank which emerges at low tide.

· thanetcoast.org.uk. Marine Wildlife Boat Tours (07931 744788, horizonseasafaris.co.uk), adults £25, children £15. Tracy Emin's favourite, the Walpole Bay Hotel (01843 221703, walpolebayhotel.co.uk) has family rooms from £90 per night B&B, and a museum-like collection of photos and souvenirs.

No 43 Arnside, Cumbria

I'm in the village of Arnside (population 2,300) on the Lancashire-Cumbria border, in an area of outstanding natural beauty on the estuary of the River Kent just before it flows into Morecambe Bay. It is a blinder of a location and it is here that Lesley Hornsby spotted a Victorian house on the promenade which fitted the bill for conversion into a five-bedroomed B&B.

The sands shimmer in the evening sunlight, and from Number 43's steep terraced garden I can watch the locals fishing, walking the dog, or just sitting on benches listening to the squeaky-toy call of the oystercatchers.

For a southerner with little experience of this part of Cumbria, it is, quite simply, one of the most stunning views I have come across and well worth a lengthy train ride. Talking of which, there is a railway station, right here, linking the village with Manchester airport and Lancaster across a 50-pier viaduct which itself becomes an object of beauty as the sky deepens and the concrete supports are silhouetted against the night sky (just Google "Arnside railway viaduct" and you'll see what I mean).

Whatever the time of day, or season, right here on Lesley's doorstep, is pure theatre, the principal players - water, sky and weather - constantly changing.

"People will drive 15 miles for fish and chips and to watch the sunset," Lesley tells me over tea. Damn, I'll have to settle for the sunset; I'm still stuffed from lunch. (I ate across the estuary, in Cartmel, at Rogan & Co, a new, cheaper alternative to L'Enclume, at which chef Simon Rogan holds a Michelin star.)

What of the B&B itself? Far from relying on the location to do all the work, Lesley has paid meticulous attention to detail and, by the look of things, indulged some of her passions at the same time. My room is modern but not minimal, but what I really like are the details, such as the room number by a Kendal glass designer, bathrobes, noiseless mini fridge and Bath House toiletries. There is sherry at £2.60 a glass and a book by Cedric Robinson, the Queen's Guide to the Sands, who takes guided walks from Arnside.

The teapot is a retro style with built-in chrome cosy. On the landing a glass cabinet displays jewellery, china and handbags, all sourced by Lesley and on sale, as are Caren Threlfall's clever felt landscapes in the sitting room. Oh, and Sunday breakfast includes buck's fizz.

Only the two largest bedrooms face the estuary, so watching sunset or daybreak from your bed or bath will cost extra. But if you're more used to looking out on tower blocks, I'd say this view is priceless.

· 01524 762761, no43.org.uk, B&B doubles £110-£140 per night. Further information and Cedric Robinson's walk schedule at 0845 450 1199, golakes.co.uk. Rogan and Company, 015395 35917, roganandcompany.co.uk.
Sally Shalam

The GuardianTramp

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