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Seven of the best coastal family adventures in the British Isles

From simple seaside escapes to thrill-packed adventures, we pick seven of the best coastal activities for families.

Published 22 May 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 09:23 BST
A collaboration between the Turner Contemporary art gallery and Visit Kent, England’s new Creative Coast project ...

A collaboration between the Turner Contemporary art gallery and Visit Kent, England’s new Creative Coast project has finally launched.

Photograph by Getty Images

From simple seaside escapes to thrill-packed adventures, our coasts offer all kinds of family-friendly experiences. How we appreciate and interact with these delicate ecosystems can often frame our entire trip, with the unique wildlife, geology, history and culture providing a wealth of education for adults and children alike — without it having to feel like a lesson. As summer edges closer, why not pick an alternative seaside spot this year and choose a coastal adventure with a difference? We pick seven of the best family activities close to home.

1. Best for climbing: County Donegal

The inky waters that pound Donegal’s coast have shaped the region’s distinctive sea stacks over thousands of years, and you can conquer the dramatic formations for yourself on a trip with Unique Ascent. Led by climber and mountain instructor Iain Miller, steely seafarers will be guided to the summit of one of these rugged, rocky outcrops after kayaking from the coast; keep your eyes peeled for seals and basking sharks. The team welcomes kids, too, having climbed with children as young as five. 
Alternative: Scaling the cliffs on the Isle of Portland, Dorset — suitable for climber of all abilities.

2. Best for culture: Kent

The result of a collaboration between the Turner Contemporary art gallery and Visit Kent, England’s Creative Coast has finally landed after a Covid-induced delay. Tying together 870 miles of coastline across Essex, Kent and Sussex, the programme incorporates seven new site-specific artworks by seven international artists. Adding an element of discovery for kids, there’s an associated GeoTour, where participants set out on a treasure-hunting-type mission to find hidden ‘caches’ at sites marked on the Creative Coast app. 
Alternative: Try geocaching along the South West Coast Path, with trails in both North and South Devon.

3. Best for camping: Outer Hebrides

For swashbuckling adventures, head to Lewis and Harris for white sands and seas as clear as the Caribbean. As for where to stay, the Wildlife Trust-affiliated Big Wild camp-out is taking place on 19 June. This initiative aims to encourage more of us to sleep out beneath the stars. This year, the focus is on camping in your back garden, but the good thing about Scotland is that wild camping is legal, and you can pitch a tent almost anywhere. Just remember to pack the hot chocolate for when darkness falls. 
Alternative: There’s very little scope to go wild camping legally in England and Wales. Head instead to a beachside campsite, such as Beryl’s Campsite, a secluded spot in Kingsbridge, Devon, where winding paths lead to Start Bay in Salcombe.

4. Best for beaches: Formby

If you have little ones to entertain, the sweeping sands of Formby, on Merseyside, are perfect for bucket-and-spade family escapes. Given this beauty spot falls under the care of the National Trust, it’s a very natural beach experience on offer here. Instead of souvenir shops, expect climbing and sliding down milky-white dunes and games of hide and seek in the marram grass. You might even spot red squirrels scuttling through the woods that unfold beyond the sands.
Alternative: Camber Sands, just south of Rye in East Sussex, for its dreamy dunes.

5. Best for surfing: Abersoch

This lively seaside resort on the southern tip of North Wales’ Llŷn Peninsula draws the crowds with its thriving water sports scene, which has salty-haired surfers and families alike revelling in its balmy climate. If you’re visiting in high summer, grab a board and cool off with a surf at the wild beach of Porth Neigwl (Hell’s Mouth) — a vast stretch of coastline with churning waves that are perfect for surfers and kayakers. If the pounding waves put you off, try a spot of body boarding in the shallows.
Alternative: Look to Saltburn, in Yorkshire, dubbed the ‘surf capital of the North’, where wave-seekers round off a day on the water with fish and chips.

6. Best for standup paddleboarding: Isle of Man

A short hop across the Irish Sea, this bucolic island has quietly established itself as a hub of outdoorsy action. That’s in no small part due to its rugged coastline, marked with hidden coves, caves and towering cliffs where seabirds come to nest. To capture the entire scene from the water, try standup paddleboarding (SUP) along the shoreline. Saltworks SUP offers a range of sessions for adults and children aged 11 and over. It even provides SUP Glo paddles after nightfall and SUP safaris, allowing you to glide close to seals in the flinty swells. 
Alternative: For a more strenuous workout, try surf SUP on the waves at Polzeath in Cornwall. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a dolphin breezing past.

7. Best for coasteering: Northumberland

The unspoilt beaches and rugged coastline of England’s North East rarely see the same heaving crowds as the South West, yet the scenery is just as beautiful. For action-packed thrills, try coasteering — a blend of cliff jumping, rock climbing and cave exploration — with local outfit Adventure Northumberland. Suitable for anyone over the age of eight, each two-hour stint will have you staggering over rocks and throwing yourself into the foamy swells. The team also runs more sedate kayaking trips around Coquet Island, an RSPB seabird sanctuary a mile from the mainland. 
Alternative: Head to St David’s in Pembrokeshire, where coasteering was invented in 1986.

Four coastal rules for safe family adventures

1. While shell-spotting is par for the course on a coastal trip, don’t be tempted to take your finds home with you. Removing shells, sand or pebbles can affect delicate marine ecosystems. And never pick up live creatures, such as crabs or starfish. Avoid the social media trend of stone stacking, too — a practice that also disturbs the wild balance.

2. Pick a beach with Blue Flag status and you’ll know it's affiliated with a region committed to sustainability. It’s also a guarantee you’ll be swimming in relatively clean water.

3. It’s crucial to leave no rubbish behind at the beach; stick to reusable water bottles and airtight containers for your picnic, and use heavyweight bags or hampers rather than plastic bags that could fly away in the breeze.

4. If it’s a scorcher, use an ocean-friendly mineral sunscreen that reflects the sun’s rays away from the surface of the skin like a mirror. Some ingredients in standard sunscreens are known to have devastating effects on marine life. If you didn’t think the UK had reefs, think again — ancient cold-water corals can be found off Scotland’s west coast. 

Published in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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