We’re sidestepping Whitstable, Dover and other headline destinations on the Kent coast in favour of a drive along the roads less travelled. Join us for a ride in the low-emission Volvo XC40 Recharge plug-in hybrid SUV, as we wild swim in hidden bays and beaches, cycle through under-radar villages and eat seafood at family-run shacks.
Think of the unspoiled spots on the UK coast and your mind flicks to rugged Cornish beaches or the Hebrides’ wild shores. The Kentish Riviera? That’s all bucket-and-spade holidays in which fish, chips and sticks of rock fuel days flitting between donkey rides, amusement arcades and lounging on a striped deck chair with a knotted hanky on your head, right? Wrong. Sometimes the best gems are hidden in plain sight.
We’re letting the ocean breeze blow out the cobwebs of lockdown on a coastal road trip in the low-emission Volvo XC40 Recharge plug-in hybrid SUV that’s as striking as the White Cliffs of Dover and as eco-conscious as Kent’s many nature reserves. Forget queuing for oysters in Whitstable or knocking elbows with ‘down from London’; folk, we’re making the most of the twin engine’s maximum efficiency and low environmental impact as we navigate the steep and winding roads less travelled – no need to worry how far your battery will take you.
Expect sweeping shingle fronts, medieval castles, untamed nature and seaside sites soaked with culture – all within 90 minutes’ drive from London, perfect for a long-weekend break. We’ll be tracing sections of the newly finished English Coastal Path by car, foot and bike, so bring a set of pedals on the towbar-mounted bike rack. The world is your oyster.
Day One: A different side of Thanet
This round-route hops between the small seaside towns, Blue Flag-winning beaches and natural beauty spots often overshadowed by Thanet’s headline destinations (we’re looking at you Broadstairs).
The twin towers of Reculver mark a dramatic start to your trip. Leave the marshland for Minnis Bay, where windsurfers and sailors ride the waves. Join them for watersports or jump on your bike to follow an almost traffic-free stretch punctuated by hidden coves, chalk cliffs and under-radar villages to Margate.
Skip Turner Contemporary, Dreamland, et al. and continue east to Cliftonville where Walpole Bay Tidal Pool juts out toward the horizon. Lap up the health benefits of the ocean with thalassotherapy and sustainable, seaweed-based skincare at Haeckels. No worries if you work up a sweat cycling back; simply use the Volvo On Call app to pre-cool the car.
It can get busy around Broadstairs’ Viking Bay (though lit lovers may want a snap outside Dickens’ turreted Bleak House). Instead, drive to Ramsgate and give your car a boost at one of several charging hook-ups while you trace the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh on Pegwell Bay or make a splash on a canoe trail.
Loop back to Herne Bay, passing through Monkton Nature Reserve safe in the knowledge that your emissions will be low – not forgetting to crank open the panoramic sunroof to spot rare birds overhead. Perched on an isolated cliff, the self-catered Lighthouse lets you soak up sea views from every window. Nearby A Casa Mia is an unassuming restaurant in the little black book of the UK’s toughest food critics. Order a leopard-spotted, Neapolitan-style pizza before a post-dinner walk on The Downs.
Insider tip: The Pig at Bridge Place is a rural alternative to staying at different places along the coast. With this bucolic yet bon-vivant manor as your base, you’ll reach all spots on this itinerary in 30 minutes to an hours’ drive – often through the Kent Downs – and have Potting Shed spa treatments and garden-to-plate grub waiting upon your return.
Day Two: Where coast meets culture
Sling towels and clothes into the Volvo XC40’s spacious boot for a morning swim in Sandwich Bay. Let your hair sun-dry as you saunter along shingle shores to Deal’s brutalist pier, picking up breakfast fodder from the local-favourite Saturday Market or No Name Shop deli. Nosey at Henry VIII’s Walmer Castle before heading back to the car to trace the coast’s curve to St Margaret’s Bay (of James Bond fame). Near Ian Flemming’s holiday home, The Coastguard has a licence to thrill with views across the Channel – this is the nearest pub to France.
Stay-on-the-road technology makes sure you always feel in control in your Volvo XC40 as you navigate the White Cliffs of Dover and Samphire Hoe to Folkestone, where a thriving creative scene is breathing life into the salty sea-dog town. Don’t miss The Harbour Screen, a drive-in cinema where culture, the coast and the comfort of your spacious car combine. Grab nibbles from the Harbour Arm’s indie food and drink vendors – just try not to get greasy fingers on the cutting-edge aluminium inlays.
For dessert? Descend through the flora and fauna of Lower Leas Coastal Park and promenade (designed by the guy behind Kew Gardens’ Palm House) and head west, away from the popular Mermaid Beach, past ice-cream-coloured huts to Sandgate and order a 99 at The Boathouse. A Flake is non-negotiable.
When you’ve had taste enough of Folkestone, use the integrated touch screen to set your sat nav to the Romney Marsh, stopping to gawp at Hythe Lighthouse along the way. Sprinkled across the vast wetlands, Cabü by the Sea hideaways include a writer’s cabin and a Boat House ideal for families. Pack up a picnic from the natty Cabü House for dinner on the beach and while away the evening dipping between the sea, sauna and hot tub.
Day Three: Dipping into East Sussex
The drive around the elbow of Dungeness into Sussex is the most ethereal of the trip – curate a mellow playlist; the Harman Kardon surround-sound will amp up the mood. Pull up on the barren headland to weave between ships’ skeletons to Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. Like the vibe? The architect-designed Shingle House chimes with the poetic landscape.
Alternatively, refuel with crab rolls at the family-run Snack Shack before driving west – inhaling briny sea air through the tilted panoramic sunroof – to check in at The Gallivant, a pebble’s toss from the tufted dunes of Camber Sands. This California-style motel is a place for those in pursuit of the good, coastal life. Take a sandy-toed stroll to the Summer House for classes in yoga and wild swimming or join one of the hotel’s beach cleans before a session in the Beach Hut Spa. A former French Laundry chef crafts dinners from the ocean’s bounty.
With driver-assist technology, the compact SUV makes light work of the winding lanes that take you inland for an excursion to chocolate-box Rye, where old meets new in half-timbered buildings housing vintage shops and inns once frequented by 19th-century smugglers.
From here, flick into all-wheel drive and drop down to the salt marshes of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, one of the UK’s most important wildlife conservation sites (the fry-up at no-frills Bosun’s Bite café on the harbour is second to none, FYI), or drive north through the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to Chapel Down wine estate.
No doubt you’ll realise why Kent is dubbed the “garden of England”. Tour the vineyards and use the XC40’s many storage compartments to stock up on sparkling plonk and fruity cider – after all, you’ll want to raise a toast to this soul-satisfying journey.