Whether watersports or a walk along the shore better suits your fancy, big skies, windswept marshes and plentiful pubs are undeniable in England’s coastal towns.

Big skies, windswept marshes and sandy beaches that go on forever attract wildlife and watersport lovers alike, while plentiful pubs and seafood joints are the biggest draws in England’s coastal towns.

One of England’s premier birdwatching sites, Cley Marshes is made up of shingle beach, saline lagoons and marsh, and attracts over 300 species of birds. There’s a visitors’ centre built on high ground with a remote-controlled wildlife camera and a series of hides amid the golden reed beds (entry to reserve £5).

The pretty village of Blakeney was a busy fishing and trading port before its harbour silted up. These days, the village and its neighbour Morston are good places to jump aboard boat trips (1–1½ hours) out to a 500-strong colony of common and grey seals that bask and breed on nearby Blakeney Point. Visit between June and August to see the common seals pup (Feb–Nov; boat trips £9 from Morston, £12 from Blakeney).

Follow a trail from the visitor centre around Hickling Broad, the largest expanse of open water in the Norfolk Broads, to spot rare plants and animals such as the bittern and the swallowtail butterfly – the largest British butterfly. You can also take a boat trip to spot dragonflies, marsh harriers and water birds in the reed beds and marshes (visitor centre open Easter-Oct, reserve open year round; reserve £4.50, boat trips from £8).

Grab your bucket and spade and head to popular Wells-next-the-Sea. One mile from town by car or on foot is a family-friendly beach lined with colourful beach huts and backed by dunes and pine woodland. This sweep of beach is ideal for kite flying, and if you’re brave enough to put more than a toe in the water, it’s also good for sailing, kayaking and windsurfing.

The pristine three-mile beach at Holkham is regularly voted among England’s best. Despite its popularity, it’s easy to escape the crowds here – the vast expanse of sand gives a sense of isolation, with giant skies stretching overhead. The coastline forms part of a national nature reserve so there’s plenty of wildlife spotting. The only place to park for access to the beach is Lady Anne’s Drive, north of Holkham village (all-day parking £5.50).

Set in an area of outstanding natural beauty, Brancaster beach is backed by sand dunes and a golf course. The tide can be treacherous but the golden sand is ideal for picnics, building sand castles, watching kite surfers and, when the tide goes out, paddling in the lagoons. Brancaster is famous for its mussels, so when hunger strikes, head to The White Horse for the pick of the local produce (lunch mains from £12).

Seaside towns
Once a fashionable Victorian coastal resort, Cromer is now firmly part of the bucket-and-spade brigade, with a wonderful sandy beachfront, entertainment on the pier, a glut of fish and chip shops and amusement arcades. Visit the quaint Cromer Museum, set in an old fisherman’s cottage, to see what life here was like in the 19th century (admission £3.50).

Originally a fishing village specialising in crabs and whelks, Sheringham’s shellfish bars, seafront fish and chip shops and annual Crab and Lobster festival (17–19 May 2013) ensure it remains true to its roots. For top views, take a clifftop walk over the Blue Flag beach and travel by steam train along the coast from Sheringham to Holt (check website for times; return tickets £10.50).

Fashionable Burnham Market, set back from the coast behind salt marshes, has a broad main street with a church at each end and comes complete with village green, post office, butcher, baker and grocer. Wander the Georgian streets and you’ll also find elegant old buildings, flint cottages, delis, independent shops and gastropub-cum-boutique hotel The Hoste Arms (mains from £13).

A car can come in handy along the Norfolk coast – the A149 runs from King’s Lynn to Great Yarmouth via Cromer, connecting many of the seaside towns. Direct trains run from London via Cambridge to King’s Lynn (from £44) from where the Coasthopper bus service runs along the whole coast as far as Cromer (Kings Lynn–Holkham from £8; coasthopper.co.uk). Cromer and Sheringham have local trains to Norwich (from £6.70), where you can connect to long-distance services to London and Manchester.

Where to stay
Burnham Market’s Railway House is a former station house (and annexe to The Hoste Arms) converted into a characterful seven-room hotel. The best ‘room’ is the Railway Carriage that sits on the railway tracks (from £60).

The 18th-century Cley Windmill has great views across the salt marshes to Blakeney Point. Bedrooms take up the windmill itself, plus the attached former stables and boathouse (Cley-next-the-Sea; from £129).

The Victoria at Holkham has 10 plush rooms decorated in mute tones, with exotic fabrics, eclectic bric-a-brac and a relaxed colonial feel. Some rooms have views over Holkham’s salt marshes (Park Road; from £140).

The article 'Mini guide to coastal Norfolk' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.