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Destination guide: Whitby

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Tucked high up on the North Yorkshire coast and isolated from the region's major towns and cities by acres of desolate moorland, Whitby is a seaside destination that, perhaps by rights, should not be thriving. Yet, as many British seaside towns fall heartbreakingly into decline, this historic fishing port continues to attract year-round visitors.

Whitby's rich history certainly helps secure its place on tourist wish lists, but even the town that inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula and taught Captain Cook his trade benefits from constant investment to attract holidaymakers - especially during the brutally cold winter months. A recent tourist coup to boost its out-of-season economy is a £30 million luxury spa hotel in Sandsend, a fishing village a few miles down the road.

Where to stay

Boasting sea and countryside combined, Sandsend is a sweeping stretch of beach surrounded by impressive green-topped cliffs and the lush landscape of North Yorkshire Moors National Park. It offers a more stripped-back seaside experience than bustling Whitby yet still gives easy access to the town's livelier attractions.

Appetite for accommodation in this secluded coastal haven led the prodigious Raithwaite Estate to open its doors in 2011. Sprawled across a picturesque 80-acre estate are the main spa hotel, 28-room Keep, luxury self-catering stone cottages, an iPad-controlled Lakehouse and - as of this month - a £10 million doggy day spa and luxury kennels.

The Raithwaite Estate's hotel grounds (top left), the Keep, the Lakehouse and a hotel bedroom

The hotel is built on the former site of a shipping magnate's 19th century country mansion, but don't expect any nostalgic references or carefully restored original features. From the reception area through to the spacious bedrooms, everything is streamlined, stylish and pristine - without an ornate lamp or oak dresser in sight.

Aesthetics are clearly placed high on the hotel's agenda. Our friendly porter let slip that all bedrooms are "refreshed" every three months with a lick of paint. And that's not just because of regular visits from Yorkshire's rugby and cricket teams.

Take a dip and enjoy the view of the countryside

This is an ‘experience’ hotel - even if that experience revolves around eating and relaxing. As well as plenty of dining delights there’s the option to spa, swim and Jacuzzi the day away in sleek, pampering surroundings.

A customer showing off a blow dry at Raithwaite Estate's doggy day spa

Sandsend is perfectly placed for country pursuits and the hotel offers the option to take part in fishing and organised shoots, hire mountain bikes to explore the magnificent countryside, or borrow wellies to brave the coastal route from Raithwaite Estate to Whitby.

Food and drink

At Raithwaite Estate breakfast alone is potentially hours of fun if you arrive hungry and aren’t daunted by choice.

Best enjoyed in the conservatory area overlooking the gardens, traditional Yorkshire fry-ups, smoked fish and buffet options cover all bases.

Some of the items on offer at the buffet breakfast at the Raithwaite Estate

The hotel prides itself on serving produce that is grown, reared and caught by local farmers and anglers.

Lunch and dinner in the Poachers Bar is a relaxed, yet polished affair, while high tea with all the trimmings is popular with guests and day-trippers alike.

Afternoon tea in the Poacher's Bar and the Brace Restaurant

For formal dining, head to the welcoming Brace Restaurant, where Whitby residents and out-of-towners book to sample speciality steaks, beautifully cooked game and fresh fish dishes.

Five of the region's must-try fish dishes

  • Crab
  • Mussels
  • Fish and chips
  • Oysters
  • Scallops

Beyond the hotel, Sandsend is a small place with a thoroughly decent range of gourmet offerings. On the sea front, the Hart Inn pub serves huge portions of delicious pub grub, which naturally features local delicacies of fish and crab.

Next door, Estbek House is an award-winning fine-dining restaurant serving a seasonal three-course menu in a beautiful Georgian building.

A stone’s throw away from both lies the super-stylish Woodlands Bistro, where more lobster, crab and fish and chips can be found, alongside homemade scones and cakes. It’s worth booking ahead for all.

Whitby is filled with foodie attractions and one of its most famous is the Magpie Cafe, where fish and chip fans don’t mind queuing well out of the door, all year round, for a seat.

Standing on the quayside for 75 years, it serves 20 types of fish that it buys in fresh every day. Reminiscent of a cosy wartime tearoom, it’s the perfect setting to enjoy a plateful of the region’s finest fish and chips and a steaming pot of tea. Whitby's Quayside is another place to pop on your hit list, having just been named the UK's best independent fish and chip shop.

You can't walk around Whitby for long without being drawn into a delicious smelling bakery or tea room with tempting platters of sweets on display. For a North Yorkshire take on a Parisian café, enjoy an impossibly generous portion of cake at Marie Antoinette's Patisserie on Church Street. Housed in a tiny Victorian building filled with mismatched ornate crafts, it serves a huge variety of delicious home-made cakes and scones.

Things to see and do

Sandsend: Along with sailors and surfers, the unspoilt coast is a popular destination for fossil hunters.

When the tide is low, surrounding cliffs and rockpools are a rich source for ammonites and reptiles that were around when dinosaurs roamed the earth - making a much more impressive souvenir than a stick of rock. Just beware high tides and the steeper, slippy areas.

A snapshot of fishing village Sandsend, near Whitby

The beach has a no-dogs policy in high season, but the village, like Whitby, is still a magnet for holidaymakers who don’t want to leave their pets behind and it’s common to find bowls of water placed outside pubs and cafes for four-legged companions.

Admire the beauty of the East Coast in paintings by talented local artists on display at the small but superb Turnstone Gallery, located on the seafront. Artwork, crafts and sculptures cater to range of tastes and budgets.

Whitby: As well as quaint tea shops, maze of cobbled streets and glorious North Sea beachside, Whitby's fascinating history and strong literary connections make it a must-visit destination for many, and tourists don't fall into one stereotypical bracket. You're as likely to rub shoulders with visiting goths as a busload of OAPs.

Eateries, open air markets and jet jewellery can all be found on the cobbled streets

Standing high on headland overlooking the town are the majestic gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey. The 199 winding steps from the town to the ancient site, as anyone who's ever had the bright idea of taking the stairs at Covent Garden tube station will know, is the equivalent of a 15-storey building. But with 2,000 years worth of activity to its name - from its origins as the home of Hilda, a Saxon princess-turned abbess, through to inspiring Bram Stoker, it's worth the drive (or climb) to explore.

Take the 199 steps to the gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey

As well as an interactive visitor centre, English Heritage regularly hosts events at the Abbey. In February there's Time Travellers go Gruesome, a week-long event taking a look at how crime was dealt with in Georgian times, so plenty of highwaymen and hanging.

Other heritage hotspots

  • Captain Cook Memorial Museum - The 17th century house on the harbour where the James Cook lodged during his training as a seaman
  • St Mary's Church - Home of the Caedmon Memorial, with the first nine lines of the poet's Hymn of the Creation
  • Dracula Experience A hammy homage to Stoker's famous creation using animated scenes, electronic special effects and live actors on a tour through the Dracula story

As the spiritual home of Dracula, Whitby is a mecca for goths - so much so that they bring an additional £1.1 million to the town's economy every year.

Some of the shops, cafes and crafts dedicated to Whitby's gothic connections

This year marks the 20th annual Whitby Goth Weekend, described by organisers as "one of the world's premier Goth events". Held in April, the festival sees hundreds of non-conformists hit the Spa Pavillion for their own brand of moody and mysterious festivities. It's not all cruising cemeteries or hanging out in abandoned buildings though, there's a gothic dog walk (of course), gothic bring-and-buy and a pool game "so gothic even the 8-ball is black" with the prize of a packet of Jaffa cakes for the winner.

The goth community contributes £1.1 million to Whitby's economy

The popularity of WGW naturally spurred other companies to set up their own variations, so goth activities take place all year round, including the Bram Stoker International Film Festival in October.

Whitby has its own semi-precious stone and aptly, it's black. Whitby Jet (the origin of the term "jet-black") is a Jurassic era gemstone that was used to make necklaces in the Bronze Age and became highly fashionable in the Victorian era, when a widowed Queen Victoria incorporated jet jewellery into her mourning dress.

A genuine Victorian jet workshop, in the Whitby Jet Heritage Centre

The opaque black stone is still mined and handcrafted in the town, which has an abundance of jet shops. Head to the Whitby Jet Heritage Centre for a genuine example of a 19th century workshop. The equipment, including a hefty grindstone, was discovered by accident in a sealed-off attic in the town and carefully removed by craftsmen Hal Redvers-Jones and his late father-in-law Alec MacKenzie and set up in the town.

Captain Cook served his seaman's apprenticeship in Whitby

Getting there and away

Head to Whitby Online for detailed instructions on how to best access Whitby by car, train and bike, and for notes on parking in the town.

Bed & Breakfast rates at Raithwaite Hall or The Keep start from £125 per night based on two sharing a club room and including access to the hotel's pool and gym, complimentary parking and free WiFi access in the room. VAT included.

Images: Anna Pollitt, Raithwaite Estate, Rex Features

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