Fine cuisine in the marina, sea views,long,sandy beaches and a warm North-East welcome await you in Hartlepool, host port for the final leg of the Tall Ships Races in 2010.
Hartlepool is a small town with a long maritime tradition. Shipbuilding started here in 1836, but in the 1960s the industry went into decline, and Hartlepool right along with it. Down,but not out! Finally we're making a comeback. Transforming the former docklands area into a marina was the crucial first step - and what a success story it's been! Today there's hardly a spare berth, and on a sunny day there's a constant ebb and flow of visitors, admiring the boats as they pass through the lock gates. The tinkle of masts and glint of sunlight on water are a winning combination.
Boats are only a part of the story - people love to eat and the marina has rapidly acquired a reputation for good food. In prime position, by the lock, sits Krimo's restaurant (01429 266120; www.krimos.co.uk ) with its Michelin guide listing. The Bellini and Paesano sauces are old favourites of mine and the lamb tagine is perfection. Deservedly a town favourite, Krimo Bouadba has been a fixture here since 1985, and now has three highly successful restaurants around the marina. Portofino (01429 266166) looks down on the Historic Quay. Casa del Mar(01429 222223), on Navigation Point, has the tastiest tapas and features regular salsa nights to dance off those calories. Navigation Point bustles with bars and restaurants - everything from tiny Cafe Rappor and its delicious paninis, to Japanese hot plate cooking and sushi in the Fujiyama (24c Navigation Point, 01429 866988).
Alongside the marina on the Historic Quay sits the award winning Hartlepools Maritime Experience (www.hartlepoolsmaritimeexperience.com)- a museum recreation of an 18th century seaport, with period shops including chandlery, gunsmith, swordsmith and naval tailor. Centre stage is held by Britain's oldest fighting ship, HMS Trincomalee, built in India in 1817 and brought to Hartlepool for a 10 year restoration. With masts towering majestically over the scene and cannon at the ready, her mighty scale is best appreciated in an onboard tour. Close by lies the paddle steamship PSS Wingfield Castle, built by local shipbuilder William Gray in 1934. Originally a passenger and vehicle ferry down at Hull, it's a great children's favourite - pirate parties are all the rage here, and it's a good spot for an inexpensive cuppa with a view. The adjoining Museum of Hartlepool is popular with adults and children alike and is entry free.
The town holds a yearly Maritime Festival and it's to this setting that The Tall Ships were lured. When the Tall Ships Races were hosted at Newcastle in 2005, a number of the ships and crew came into port here and were so impressed with the hospitality that they promised to return. The promise was kept and what a buzz there was in the town when the ships began to arrive from Kristiansand in Norway, after completing the 432 mile second leg of the races. From 7-10th August 2010 around 70 of these magnificent vessels welcomed people from far and wide on board ship and the party began. There was street theatre, fairgrounds, music stages and food and drink from all round the world. A truly international flavour had come to Hartlepool and she lived up to and exceeded all expectations. We had a ball, and a weekend few who took part will ever forget. Nightly fireworks lit the skies and even the sudden downpour during the farewell Parade of Sail failed to dampen Hartlepool spirits. My video includes the endlessly entertaining hardworking crew of the Dewaruci. They were last to leave the port, behind Alexander von Humbolt, and entertained the crowd to the very end.
Sunshine can be a scarce commodity in this part of the world, but there's a lovely stretch of coast if we do get good weather. From the marina there's a promenade all the way to the neighbouring seaside village of Seaton Carew, with its Blue flag beach and dunes. To the north lies the Headland with its picturesque town walls, and an equally long promenade and swathe of sand, with rock pools for the youngsters to explore. Even on a cool day it's exhilerating to walk beside the waves as they crash against the harbour wall. Verrils chip shop, facing the town wall, is the locals favourite- get there early to avoid a queue. If it rains, hop inside the Heugh Gun Battery (Moor Terrace; 01429 270746; www.heughbattery.com). It tells the story of the defence of Hartlepool through the First and Second World Wars, and also holds Ghost tours for those with strong nerves.
Back in the town centre, beautifully restored Christ Church - now an art gallery - is another good place for a cuppa, and you can climb the church tower for the definitive bird's eye view. Flix Movie Cafe (Church Square; 01429 863300) is an interesting venture - finger foods to eat while watching a range of films, varied to suit the audience, on a big screen TV. Sunday brunch sounds very tempting- pancakes with blueberries and creme fraiche are just one of many options at £4.95. If you're looking for a good pub away from the busy marina, The White Hart, (Front St, Hart Village; 01429 265468) aims at being the cosiest most welcoming pub in Hartlepool and doesn't disappoint with its open fire and good food. The Three Horseshoes (Cowpen Bewley; 01642 561541 www.thethreehorseshoescowpen.co.uk ) is a little off the beaten track but is regularly full at teatimes when canny locals like to take advantage of the reduced rate menu, £8.95 for 2 courses including Green Thai chicken curry and a substantial roast dinner. Be sure to book ahead.
Hartlepool caters well for the active - there are a choice of three golf courses locally (two of them in lovely situations beside the sea). Rock-climbing in the Boulder Park along with extensive mountain-biking trails and adventure playground are to be found at Summerhill on Catcote Rd. Salthome RSPB (www.rspb.org.uk ) just south of Seaton Carew is a popular state-of-the-art wildlife reserve, whose marshy wetlands attract a variety of birds year round. There's plenty of walking opportunities in the area too, both coastal and country, while canoeists and walkers alike will be impressed with the facilities at the Tees Barrage. Teesside White Water Centre claims to have a world class watersports facility,with flat water for novices and white water for experts. The riverside walk takes in both the barrage (and its frequent seal visitors) and the distinctive Infinity Bridge.
The Premier Inn Hartlepool Marina sits at the centre of the marina and is a great social spot to stay, and very reasonably priced.
The Staincliffe Hotel has been fully refurbished to take advantage of the antics of a certain local couples disappearance to Panama. We now have the Darwin Restaurant and Canoe Bar, with its stylish boat design. Both it and The Marine Hotel have grandstand views out to sea and easy access to the beach.
The Ship Inn in the village of High Hesledon has 6 nautically themed deluxe rooms and a large self-contained flat- "The Crow's Nest". It has sea views,a quiet location and prides itself on award-winning healthy eating.
For a luxurious "to the manor born" experience Wynyard Hall Country House Hotel fits the bill to perfection. The estate is huge, the house imposing and grey. Inside a wealth of colour and splendour awaits, on a scale rarely seen in these parts. The balconied ceiling of the main hall is a vision, adorned by panels of stained glass. The Wellington Restaurant has a good a la carte menu or you can eat more cheaply in the lounge areas from a range of specials (£8). The Hall is a regular venue for weddings, trade fairs and the like. To stay will cost you upwards of £67.50 per person, but you can have a sample of the high life at Afternoon Tea, served 2.30- 4.30 daily (£15) www.wynyardhall.co.uk Wynyard Hall, Tees Valley TS22 5NF tel 01740 644811.
Finally just 20 minutes away by car, in historic Durham, the smart new Radisson SAS Hotel Durham (Framwellgate, Waterside; 0191 372 7200) will give you beautiful river and castle views,and the opportunity to see a completely different side to the area, in this bustling university city .
Hartlepool is working hard to put itself on the tourist map. In addition to the marina and beaches, it is a good base from which to visit the North Yorkshire Moors and the Durham coast. If we can attract an event such as The Tall Ships then we surely must have something going for us. Why not come and see for yourself?