Blessed with one of the few west-facing beaches on England’s east coast, Hunstanton is a picture perfect Victorian seaside resort built from nothing in the middle of the 19th century.
The sand and pebble beaches in Hunstanton face the Wash, an immense estuary where four rivers enter the North Sea.
This is a crucial coastal environment, inhabited by what could be the largest colony of common seals in the world, and a favourite stopover for migrating birds in spring and autumn.
You can check out these creatures in the wild on an amphibian boat safari, or get up close to pups and healing seals at Hunstanton’s Sea Life Sanctuary.
Hunstanton’s cliffs deserve special mention for their vivid stripes of sandstone and chalk.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Hunstanton:
1. Sea Life Sanctuary
The Hunstanton branch of the well-known Sea Life chain is more than just an aquarium because it does vital work taking care of the many seals in the Wash.
The sanctuary is based around the Seal Rescue Centre and Hospital that takes in injured or orphaned common and grey seals, rescuing around 50 a year and rehabilitating almost 1,000 since 1989. You’ll be given an inside look at the seal hospital and see the cute “new arrivals” in the nursery.
In 2018 the attraction also unveiled a new Penguin Beach for its Humboldt penguins, while there are Asian short-clawed otters in the Otter River, and at the Rainforest Basecamp kids can handle safe snakes, lizards and tarantulas.
2. Hunstanton Cliffs
A band of red and white chalk on an orange-brown sandstone base (also known as carrstone), Hunstanton’s cliffs are a beguiling natural sight.
The pigment in the lower sandstone rock is caused by iron oxide that also stains some of the chalk above.
The cliffs begin just north of the town, and you can get down to the beach close to the ruined chapel and lighthouse (now a private residence) St Edmund’s Point.
Time your walk for low tide when you can go out a bit further to explore the rockpools and appreciate the full beauty of the cliff’s colours.
The cliffs expose a 100 million-year-old Late Cretaceous sequence and are fossil-hunting heaven after storms for their ammonites, prehistoric fish, brachiopods, sponges and belemnites.
On this beach you can also locate the hull of the Sheraton, a trawler launched in 1907 and abandoned here in 1947 after serving as a target ship in the war.
3. Hunstanton Beach
There are lots of benefits to Hunstanton’s west-facing beach.
First the sea breezes aren’t as feisty on the Wash, while in the evening you can amble down to the shore to see the sun setting over the estuary.
The main beach in Hunstanton is long and pebbly, and the sea is calm and rather shallow.
When the tide goes out a big swathe of sand is exposed, and this can be fun to explore as long as you’re aware of the tide times.
Kids can also go for donkey rides, while on the beachfront there’s a promenade, crazy golf, ice cream stands and the fairground fun of Rainbow Park.
4. Boat Trips
There are two great reasons to take to the water at Hunstanton.
The first is to get a fresh look at those multi-tone cliffs, and the other is to spot seals in their natural habitats.
Since these creatures spend a lot of their time resting on sandbanks you need a special vessel to view them safely.
Operating on Hunstanton’s south promenade, Searles Sea Tours has a pair of amphibian vessels nicknamed the “Wash Monsters”. May through September, the company offers a choice of six coastal tours, as well as an hour-long for a front-row view of the largest colony of common seals in the UK, and maybe the world.
5. Norfolk Coast Path
Hunstanton is at the point where the 93-mile Peddars Way/Norfolk Coast Path doubles back on itself on the way east towards Cromer, or south to Swaffham.
The path is one of the lightest of the National Trails thanks to Norfolk’s low-lying terrain, but there’s a wonderful variety to the journey.
If, say, you head towards Cromer you’ll hike along beaches of all kinds, cliffs, marshes, dune systems, barrier islands reachable at low tide, mudflats and numerous little harbours . Keep your phone or camera at the ready because you should see plenty of seals.
The entire path is close to a bus route between the two towns, with services every half hour in summer.
6. Norfolk Lavender
Moments out of Hunstanton is England’s top lavender farm, growing almost 100 acres of this beautiful crop.
The time to come is in July and August when the lavender is in bloom.
Up to mid-August there are four tours a day out into the fields for photographs and into the distillery that produces the oil for the farm’s range of products.
The farm shop has dried lavender and an assortment of oils, soaps, scents and cosmetics, while there’s also a magical garden with the National Collection of lavenders, comprising 100 varieties.
The farm’s Animal Gardens feature domestic breeds and more exotic species like rheas, tortoises and Parma wallabies.
7. Holme Dunes
A couple of miles up from Hunstanton, at Norfolk’s northwest corner there’s a vital coastal environment of sand dunes, salt marsh, pools and pasture.
This is safeguarded by a 470-acre nature reserve maintained by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.
Jutting out into the Wash, the Holme Dunes are a rest stop for lots of migrating birds.
In spring you’ll see warblers and wheatears, while autumn visitors include thrushes and finches.
The reserve is also a breeding site for the pied avocet, a wader easy to tell by its black and white plumage and upturned bill.
As you venture through the dunes you’ll also come across traces of a railway used for target practice by artillery in the war.
8. Old Hunstanton Beach
Around the coast from the town centre, on the way to the Holme Dunes, the line of cliffs slowly descends to this glorious beach in front of the village of Old Hunstanton.
Where Hunstanton’s main beach has pebbles, this is a beautiful, uncommercialised spread of powdery golden sand.
Behind there’s not much more than beach huts, dunes and a section of those stunning cliffs.
Old Hunstanton Beach is rightfully popular, but there’s room for all, particularly at low tide when you can walk around to Holme Beach.
When the tide is out there are little pools and channels that toddlers will love splashing in.
9. Hunstanton Heritage Gardens
In 2016 this sequence of coastal gardens was awarded more than £1m from the Heritage Lottery Fund for refurbishments.
One part, the Green, slopes down gently towards the sea and has a bandstand with free weekend concerts by soloists and bands all summer long.
In the same season you can watch evening movie screenings on the Green.
Over the stripy cliffs is the Cliff Parade, where you’ll come across the ruins of St Edmund’s Chapel as well as beautifully preserved Victorian shelters.
Prettiest of all are the Esplanade Gardens, woven with flowerbeds and fountains, and traversed by paths that have iron gaslights and benches looking over the Wash.
In summer there’s always something in the Heritage Gardens to keep little ones entertained, like storytelling, puppet shows, pebble painting and treasure hunts.
10. Water Activities
With west-facing beaches and the comparatively calmer seas of the Wash, Hunstanton may be the best place in Norfolk for some outdoor adventure on the water.
This smallish town has two high-rated watersports companies.
Hunstanton Water Sports has the equipment and tuition for paddleboarding, kitesurfing, windsurfing and powerkiting.
If you’re holidaying as a family, paddleboardings is easy to learn and appropriate for almost all ages.
Hunstanton Kayaks, as the name tells you, is all about sea kayaking, providing equipment hire for seasoned paddlers, but also organising lessons and guided excursions next to Hunstanton’s rocky coast for families and groups of friends.
11. Rainbow Park
Set next to the Sea Life Sanctuary Rainbow Park is like a permanent funfair on Hunstanton’s waterfront.
The park belongs to a fairground tradition in the town going back to 1880 and has occupied this plot for more than 50 years.
Rainbow Park is free to enter and after that you pay for each ride.
The arcade has old-time amusements like penny falls and grabbing cranes, alongside newer interactive dancing games.
Rainbow Park has a couple of rides for bigger kids and grown-ups, but it’s the smaller members of the family who will be happiest on carousels and light rollercoasters like the Sea Dragon, which gives you a great view of Hunstanton Beach and the Wash.
12. Princess Theatre
Come the evening you may be in the mood for some light entertainment, and the 472-seater Princess Theatre could have just what you’re looking for.
This is the old Capital Cinema, a combined “cinetheatre” from 1932. Something remarkable about the building is that it has the world’s largest gable wall to be built from Norfolk carrstone (the cliffs’ brown sandstone). The Princess Theatre has a six-week summer season, but is busy all year round with plays (touring and community), live bands, tribute acts and special evenings with sports and television personalities.
In September 2018 there was an audience with former England footballer Paul Gascoigne.
If you need high-brow delights there are regular live broadcasts from the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company.
13. Ringstead Downs
In Hunstanton’s hinterland is one of the last surviving pieces of chalk downland in Norfolk.
The Ringstead Downs Nature Reserve takes up 17 acres of a dry chalk valley moulded by glacial meltwater.
This landscape has never been cultivated, so treasured native plant species like dwarf thistle, rock rose, squincywort, burnet saxifrage and rock rose flourish in this grassland.
Birds increasingly rare in other parts of the country are regularly sighted here, like the linnet and yellowhammer.
On a summer walk you get to see lots of butterflies, including the brown argus, which loves this chalk environment.
14. Hunstanton Golf Club
If you’re a seasoned golfer there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of Hunstanton Golf Club, which often ranks among top 100 in the country.
This already excellent championship coastal links course has been improved in the last few years by the noted course designer, Martin Hawtree, making subtle changes to the bunkering, greens and tees.
The course was first laid out in 1891 and has hosted some of the UK’s top amateur tournaments like the English Amateur and Brabazon Trophy.
Green fees reflect the pedigree of the club and are set at £50 (weekdays) and £60 (weekends) in winter, and £90 and £95 in summer, with a discounted rate of £75 if you tee off after 12:00.
15. Hunstanton Heritage Centre
You can take a quick trip through the Hunstanton’s past at this small museum on the Green.
Open in the afternoons on Wednesdays and Weekends, the Heritage Centre is run by dedicated volunteers.
Exhibitions here tell the story of the landowning le Strange family and Old Hunstanton, the old chapel and lighthouse at St Edmund’s Point, the natural history of Hunstanton’s cliffs and the Hunstanton Esplanade.
There are details of Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, and photographs illustrating the sudden growth of the town after 1900.