The ‘garden of England’ with its hop gardens and orchards is not just a place you pass through on your way to the ferry to France – Kent is also a wonderful staycation or short-break destination for families, with miles of sandy beaches perfect for paddling and many enchanted castles to discover, among lots of other child-friendly attractions.
Despite being within easy reach of London, Kent also remains low-key compared with more conventionally touristy destinations such as Cornwall, and hence is a top choice for family holidays on a budget.
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Begin family holidays in Kent in the historic city of Canterbury, where you can scoot around Canterbury Cathedral, founded in 597AD, then listen to yarns at The Canterbury Tales, a visitor centre offering children’s commentaries to accompany Chaucer and his characters on their pilgrimage from London to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in the cathedral. If you have more time to spare, take an historic cruise along the River Stour, or venture 5km miles south of Canterbury, to Howletts Wild Animal Park, home to the UK’s largest African elephant herd, apes, tigers and snow leopards, plus a Treetop Challenge for ages 5 and up.
Head due north to the coast at Whitstable, where kids can learn to kite-surf on the flat water known as The Street, and the whole family can explore the town’s shops, galleries and delis. Herne Bay has its pretty, quiet beach, while Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs also offer great beaches and old-fashioned British seaside fun. Ramsgate Harbour is perfect for seal spotting and speedboat trips. See our feature Ten Best Beach Holidays in the South East for more on Whitstable, Broadstairs and Herne Bay.
Move on to Faversham, where Farming World offers tractor rides, adventure playgrounds and soft play, as well as animals including pigs, horses, llamas and alpacas.
Venture southeast of Whitstable, where Wildwood Woodland and Wild Animal Park has more than 50 species of British wildlife, including owls, otters, wild boar and wolves, in 40 acres of woodland.
Around Sandwich, see Britain’s only sun bears at the Rare Species Conservation Centre, as well as exotic birds, monkeys and small carnivores, and also gibbons and wallabies at Wingham Wildlife Park.
Explore the fortifications at Deal Castle or head to Dover to see the famous white cliffs and Dover Castle with a new attraction telling the story of the Dunkirk evacuation.
Don’t leave the south coast without taking a ride on the Hythe and Dymchurch Miniature Railway, the world’s smallest steam railway, from picturesque Hythe out to bleak but atmospheric Dungeness. See our feature A Great Family Journey by Steam Train.
Head inland, to the area around Ashford, where Port Lympne Wild Animal Park offers a 90-minute safari ride to see giraffe, black rhino, wildebeest and zebra, and the Rare Breeds Centre between Hamstreet and Woodchurch offers more traditional pastimes, including trailer rides and seasonal pig racing. Little ones will also love the ride on Thomas the Tank Engine on the Kent and East Sussex Railway.
Enjoy Maidstone's fantastically child-friendly Leeds Castle with its Knights' Realm playground, maze and grotto, and Go Ape! treetop course for ages 10+. At neighbouring Hop Farm Family Park, enjoy themepark-style attractions including a magic factory, giant jumping pillows, a children’s driving school and an outdoor adventure park, and at Kent Life Heritage Farm meet a range of farm animals, as well as discovering the adventure play area, nature trail and tractor rides.
Carry on north of Maidstone, to Chatham with its trio of family-friendly attractions. You might check out the pirate play days and ghost walks at the Historic Dockyard Chatham, take a Great Expectations boat ride through Dickens World, and in nearby Strood, play on the scaled-down JCBs at Diggerland.
Don’t overlook west Kent, where 13th-century Hever Castle has an adventure playground, a splashing water maze and enough armour to keep little gore seekers satisfied, and Scotney Castle in Tunbridge Wells is a romantic medieval ruin that’s fun to roam.
Don’t leave Kent without taking the Spa Valley Steam Railway to Groombridge Place Gardens and the Enchanted Forest, where little ones can play on giant swings and get lost in a mystical forest of animals including deer and giant rabbits.
Kent has some of England’s best food festivals, farm shops and farmers' markets – great if you’re self-catering. The Canterbury Goods Shed is the only farmers' market in England open six days a week year-round. The larger towns have the usual family-friendly chains for those in need but country pubs usually welcome kids, often with their own menu.
Local foodie events worth looking out for during family holidays include the Beer and Hop Festival in Maidstone in mid-Sept and the famous Whitstable Oyster Festival in July.By Zannah Ingraham
Kent is great to visit year-round, although its beaches and plentiful outdoor activities are best appreciated on family holidays in the summer months.
Kent is a convenient destination for family holidays, easily reached from the rest of the UK by car, train and coach, and well as from the Continent due to its ferry ports and its Eurostar station at Ashford. The airport at Manston has links with Edinburgh, Belfast and Jersey, plus Croatia, Italy and Portugal.
On the whole, Kent is a reasonably priced destination for family breaks or holidays – quick and easy to get to for most visitors and good value in terms of accommodation, especially if you choose a self-catering option.
In term of hotels, boutique-style Elvey Farm near Ashford has some family rooms/suites. Child-friendly and very handy for Dover and ferries to France are The White Cliffs Hotel with various set-ups for families including a self-catering apartment in the grounds, and the plusher nearby sister hotel Wallett’s Court with family suites in converted hay barns, stables and cowsheds surrounding a grand old house, plus a spa and small pool.
A live action show this Christmas featuring puppets and music as well as the kids favourite, Charlie and Lola.
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