Essex: England’s southeasterly county with a dubious reputation for big hair, loud mouths, and gauche behavior. The stereotype is a tad unfair, as Essex is also full of history, excellent eats, and plenty of down-to-earth people who take pride in their country-and-seaside county. If you’re pondering a London side trip this summer (most Essex towns can be reached in 90 minutes or fewer from the capital), here’s a suggested 48-hour itinerary sure to reveal Essex’s more charming, underrated side.
If you prefer to begin your Essex getaway somewhere quaint and historical, Harwich Town is a great starting point. The tiny peninsular village is the home of Mayflower captain Christopher Jones. In fact, it hosts the Mayflower Project, for which volunteers are building a full replica of the iconic ship that’s set to sail to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 2020 to commemorate the journey’s 400th anniversary. Today, visitors can witness the exciting progress of the ship’s construction during the tours that take place every weekday.
Take a stroll around the Ha’Penny Pier, located at the tip of the Harwich Town peninsula (it gets its name from its original toll charge amount at “half a penny”). There you’ll find the Visitor’s Center, a café in wraparound glass, and several outdoor benches where you can admire the estuary views and the busy industrial port activity in the waters. The pier is also the starting point for the Harwich Society’s free guided walking tours, a recommended way to learn about the town while speaking with passionate local volunteers (available May through September on Saturdays). Other places worth a look include the Redoubt Fort, which has an impressive collection of heavy-duty weaponry from wars of yesteryear, and the Maritime Museum, which resides in a restored mid-sized lighthouse on the harbor (open daily from May 1 through August 31).
Have a stay at the Pier Hotel, which, as the name suggests, sits conveniently along the harbor overlooking the Ha’Penny Pier. With a traditional maritime build on the outside and surprisingly contemporary interior decor, the hotel boasts great views of the pier and the Stour and Orwell rivers. If you don’t plan to stay in the Pier Hotel’s rooms, their upmarket Harbourside Restaurant is undoubtedly worth a visit. Seafood is the main attraction at this occasion-ready restaurant, with dishes such as lobster served grilled, poached, and thermidor-style, and the excellent grilled Dover sole with steamed clams and samphire. Additionally, both Harbourside and the ground-floor Ha’Penny Bistro serve full-on afternoon tea, offering a tower of scones, petit fours, and finger sandwiches to accompany your pot of Earl Grey.
Southend-on-Sea is the unofficial capital of “full-on” Essex, where all-ages seaside attractions are plenty and spirited nightlife abounds. No visit is complete without a visit to the Southend Pier, the world’s largest amusement pier, which runs one and a third miles into the Thames Estuary. Visitors can either walk its staggering length or board the train, which takes passengers from end-to-end at a leisurely pace. If you want coffee or tea with first-rate views, get on top of Southend-on-Sea’s action at RBG Restaurant at the Park Inn Palace, which towers, Acropolis-style, directly above Adventure Island and Southend Pier.
Southend-on-Sea’s crown jewel of stays is the Roslin Beach Hotel, a posh (and affordable) four-star mini-resort yards away from the shore. The 62-room sea-chic hotel is about a mile away from the town’s lively epicenter… perfect for those who’d rather take shelter in more peaceful environs. It includes a gym, full-service spa (the Roslin Retreat), and their eponymous AA Rosette-winning restaurant. Its dining room, with a dramatic solarium revealing idyllic coastal views, gives way to a first-class experience. The seafood is expectedly fresh and fulfilling, such as the pan-seared scallops with white pudding, pear, and coriander; and pan-fried sea bass with sautéed new potatoes, red onion, and chorizo compote. Steak lovers are also in for a treat as the Roslin sources its beef from quality Speyside, Scotland, suppliers and their private English farm, resulting in cuts (accompanied with grilled tomato, mushroom, and hand-cut fries) you’re likely to remember fondly long after your meal’s finished. You can walk your dinner off along Thorpe Bay, the quieter section of beach, with splendid sights of the mega-pier and nearby towns twinkling across the water. Indeed, it is possible to experience a night in Southend-on-Sea without the bum-rush of spirited partygoers.
While Essex certainly isn’t “the only way,” it is indeed worth a detour for tasty food, history, and great coastal culture during your next U.K. trip.