The crowds, at last, have gone. Places that hummed with activity in summer are more peaceful now, more relaxed and easygoing – you can get a table in that lovely harbourside cafe and a seat in that seafront pub.
Rooms are cheaper, so you can stay for longer, or go for something a bit nicer. There’s more choice if you fancy a last-minute break. And you can take a refreshing dip, safe in the knowledge that sea temperatures in September often compare to July’s.
Of course, there are good reasons why so many of us holiday in peak season – school holidays being the main one. And it goes without saying that it tends to be cooler in September and October.
Yet many people with the luxury to choose prefer off-season breaks, to avoid the crowds and enjoy the quietude. So with that in mind, here is our selection of gorgeous coastal places to escape to during that stolen time between summer and autumn.
A string of beautiful fishing villages lies along the East Neuk of Fife, where the Firth of Forth opens into the North Sea. The last of them – a mere 90 minutes’ drive from Edinburgh – is Crail. In its achingly lovely harbour, creel boats bob behind a curved stone wall. Beyond lie rows of handsome houses faced with stone or render and topped with crow-stepped gables and red clay pan tiles. There are lots of quirky details to spot, such as the tollbooth tower with Dutch-style roof on the long village’s Marketgate, while the 13th-century parish church has a reputation of being one of Scotland’s most beautiful buildings. Get your fix of seaside on the small sandy beach by the harbour, or at Roome bay, by the village’s northern edge, a peaceful cove with a bit of sand, where you can spend happy hours scouring rockpools or searching for fossils.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, once described this Northumberland village as “a small seaport town famous for its wickedness”. The smugglers who drank in the Schooner Hotel in Wesley’s day have long since departed, but you can see why the village’s seclusion appealed to them. For Alnmouth feels very much like the end of the road. It’s a town built defiantly in stone; lean and gaunt, as befits its exposed location. Terraced cottages, some converted from old granaries, line the centre of the village; sturdy Victorian villas comprise its fringes. Press on past the few shops on Northumberland Street – gallery, gift shop, tea room – and you find yourself in an open, sweeping landscape of estuary and beach. The North Sea is cold and brown; in autumn you come here not to swim but to wander along the epic beach of Alnmouth Bay, which stretches for four miles to the south.
This Pembrokeshire village is handsome, comfortable and pleasantly sleepy off-season. With a handful of pubs, a gallery, cafés and gift shop, there are pottering options for wet days.
What distinguishes Solva, though, is not its buildings but its position on the River Solva – a perfect base for forays on to the Pembrokeshire Coast path. Set between steep slopes, the river occupies a deep ria, or flooded valley, in the sheltered centre of which myriad yachts float on a sheet of bright water. Follow the river’s shoreline seaward to Gwadn Bay, a small cove with stony bank and sandy beach at low tide. From there you can wander eastwards past the sprawling green headlands of Dinas Fawr and Dinas Fach, flung like sleepy arms into St Bride’s Bay, to the surfing beach of Newgale Sands. Westwards, swim from the soft sand of idyllic Cwmbdy Bay; explore the lovely valley leading up from it; or press on to delightful St David’s – Britain’s smallest city.
Built from scratch as a fishing port in late 18th century and laid out to the designs of the great engineer Thomas Telford, Mull’s principal town is famous for its ribbon of brightly painted seafront houses. Add the clock tower, parish church, the views over the sea to the purple hills of Morvern and Ardnamurchan, and Tobermory seems picture perfect. But there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s an arts centre and small theatre; a distillery and brewery. Not to mention independent shops – Tackle and Books on the harbour sells everything from gouache and easels to thrillers and fishing rods.
Then, of course, there’s that spectacular landscape to explore. On your doorstep there’s Aros Park – a pretty woodland with small loch. Rubha Nan Gall lighthouse makes a pleasant stroll, a mile to the north. Ramble over Forestry Commission tracks to Ardmore Bay, where you may spot golden and white-tailed eagles. And for a sterner challenge, there’s Ben More (966m).
Classic Cornwall. Clustered on the slopes above the River Fowey, the old town is a warren of medieval, Georgian and Victorian buildings in stone and white render. Off-season, you can lose yourself in quiet, narrow lanes that in summer teem with visitors. Fowey attracts a prosperous bunch, and many small, independent shops here cater to them, offering tempting impulse buys for your home – or yacht. Cafes and restaurants serve cream teas, Cornish ice cream and mussels grown on ropes in the clear waters of the river.
Time spent on the water always adds to a seaside trip. Hop on the ferry over deep green waters speckled with yachts to Polruan, the village on the far bank; take a pleasure-boat cruise upriver to Lostwithiel for a few hours’ antique hunting; or hire a kayak. (Beginners can even join an escorted canoe expedition up the river.) Of course, the coast path beckons too; walk west to Gribbin Head, or east for a dip off the gorgeous sandy beaches of Lantic Bay.
Northern Ireland is blessed with many pretty seaside towns; but we think few can match Newcastle’s spectacular location between the Mourne Mountains and sweeping sandy beaches. If you love walking, wildlife and dramatic landscapes, this is for you. Towering over Newcastle is the granite mass of Slieve Donard – at 850m, the highest peak in the province, and a tantalising challenge to serious walkers. On its lower slopes lie the Donard Forest (follow the Glen River for waterfalls and deep pools) and Tollymore Forest Park (and Shimna River’s grottoes, caves and cascades). For a total change of scene, explore the dunes, woodland and heath of Murlough Nature Reserve, home in autumn to Brent geese as well as large flocks of lapwings, oystercatchers, golden plovers, dunlins and godwits. The town itself, meanwhile, has just been spruced up, with millions of pounds’ worth of improvements, including a new promenade. And all this is just an hour’s drive from Belfast.
The tales of smuggling and vagabondry in this small East Sussex town are juicier than most, thanks to the exploits of the Hawkhurst Gang, a bloodthirsty bunch who used to booze at the Mermaid Inn (pictured above). These days Rye is more genteel, with historic buildings, tea rooms, delis and some proper shopping – from traditional butchers to quirky independents.
Ironically, for a maritime town, Rye now lies almost marooned two miles from the open sea. So much the better for lovers of peaceful wild places. The saltmarsh, reedbed and shingle that have gradually established around the town over the last few centuries are excellent places to watch little terns, golden plovers and curlews. And finally there are the wide golden Camber Sands on which to fly your kite, picnic, beach comb… or just be.
Flanked by white limestone cliffs, the beach at Beer cove, on the Jurassic Coast in East Devon, is quintessentially English. There are ranks of bright deckchairs, fishing boats hauled up on the shingle and white beach huts with peeling paint. Perched on the clifftop above is a small beer garden of the Anchor Inn, with fine sea views. The village itself winds uphill along Fore Street, a series of pretty stone and flint cottages, hotels, houses with box bay windows and shops selling hot pies, ice cream, swimsuits, fudge, buckets and spades, and excellent hot battered cod from the Beer Fish and Chip Shop.
After all those treats, work up a fresh appetite by walking the coast path west to Branscombe Beach and explore its pretty village, just inland.
Wells in Norfolk is a seaside village with three distinct faces. The first is what you’d expect: a charming quayside bustling with yachts and fishing boats as well as cockle stalls, ice-cream parlours and fish and chip cafes. But just a short walk inland and you’re in a rural hamlet – a delightful village green lined with lime trees and surrounded by elegant Georgian houses and two fine inns. Known as the The Buttlands, it is linked to the Quay by Staithe Street, Wells’ premier shopping street with art galleries, a bookshop, butcher and fishmonger among its joys. The final face of Wells, following Beach Road from the Quay, is a vast strand of sandy beach backed by a famous row of beach huts nestling among the dunes and overlooked by towering pine trees. You can fit all three faces of Wells into one perfect afternoon stroll.
It’s so ruggedly beautiful – even at first glance – that it’s not surprising to learn that one of Britain’s most famous mariners first fell in love with the sea here. James Cook worked in Staithes as a grocer’s apprentice, back in the 1740s. Smitten, he left for Whitby, the Royal Navy and a life at sea.
The turquoise seas of Hawaii by which Cook eventually met his end were a far cry from the North Sea at Staithes, but a walk along Cowbar Wharf and the breakwater has its own exhilarating charm on a breezy autumn day. Try a little beachcombing on the small beach, or follow the coast path a mile or so to Port Mulgrave and hunt for ammonite fossils.
Back in Staithes, explore the huddle of small fishermen’s cottages clad in red-tiled roofs, or pop up the hill to Whitby Seafish and pick up some fresh crab; or take a little time out at the Cod and Lobster pub on the harbour.
Main image credits: Getty images