See sides
you haven't

A Blackpool resident reveals some of the coastal town's lesser known attractions – and braves the more familiar ones as well

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I rarely miss an opportunity to fly the Blue Flag for Blackpool – my hometown. From a growing arts scene, to unusual history and a powerful protest movement, there is more to the seaside town than the saddening statistics and tabloid-shifting headlines. Those things are there too, though, so it was with trepidation that I ventured into the tourist-trodden corners that I usually try to avoid.

As the pound weakens many families might be looking to spend them closer to home this summer – so read on as I frantically wave my Kiss Me Quick hat and ask you not to write my home off.

So, you’re going to Blackpool, here’s how to deal with it. You’re probably going to want to hit all the tourist destinations so the Blackpool Resort Pass is a good money saver. The original pass includes six attractions for £55: Pleasure Beach, Nickelodeon Land, Tower Eye, Tower Dungeon, Sea Life and Madame Tussauds. It’s worth investing in the Pass Plus (£80 each) however, as it includes entry to the Sandcastle Waterpark, which is £22.25 for a single including all the slides and rides alone. You’ll also get entry to Blackpool Zoo (usually £17.99) and the Model Village – both of which get you away from the bright lights of the front for some well needed recuperation. The passes last for seven days but you can easily cram them into fewer if your holiday days are limited – Sea Life and Madame Tussauds for example can be done in a couple of hours each.

Of course the draw for visiting Blackpool is its seven miles of Golden Sands, which have been cleaned up drastically since my own childhood and which I have no reservations about letting my own children dig around in at every opportunity. Optimistically assuming you get the weather for a day on the beach, head to the least touristy parts. Blackpool is bookended by two great beaches, both with colourful beach huts you can rent for a day and brilliant outdoor paddling pools. St Anne’s also has a pier with arcade games – a more family-friendly option than the major ones in the town centre – and Fleetwood has an outdoor splash park.

It was a relief to see that it’s cleaned up its act with the majority of the shop fronts offering buckets and spades and beach balls over phallic rock and other hen paraphernalia.

At Star Gate – at the end of the tramline to the south – you won’t need to worry about the changing tides. The sea wall wasn’t built out as far here and it’s still fringed by grassy sand dunes. Where the sea wall begins it has rock pools built into it and a couple of hours can be easily spent filling your buckets with crabs, shrimp and tiny fish. The promenade here, heading towards the town, has been completely revamped and is perfect for scooters and bikes. Head down there and you’ll reach the giant disco ball and, on the opposite side of the road, there’s the Art Deco Solaris Centre. Set within four acres of gardens there’s a play park, a decent café and it has a revolving programme of events including a monthly art exhibition.

There’s ample parking around Star Gate if you explore to the surrounding roads, so it’s a good starting point if you’re heading to the Sandcastle Waterpark, which you’ll reach if you keep heading north past the mirror ball. The Sandcastle is set on the site of the former outdoor Art Deco baths – a romantic notion as we headed into the packed foyer on a Tuesday afternoon in the summer holidays. There’s nothing historical about it now: rides include Aztec Falls – featuring a sheer drop into darkness; the Masterblaster – a white-knuckle rollercoaster slide; and the Sidewinder half pipe ride. There’s also around 10 slides appropriate for younger children, a pirate ship, the Caribbean Storm Treehouse, a whirlpool and wave pool. Despite the crowds, the Sandcastle wasn’t too manic once inside. There’s enough to do that the crowds are spread out and queues took no longer than 15 minutes. There’s fast food available poolside but head to Waterfalls Café at the main entrance for a more balanced post-swim snack and a surprisingly good cup of coffee.

From here you’re in convenient proximity to the famous Notarianni’s ice cream parlour on Waterloo Road too. Run by the third and fourth generation of Italian ice cream makers, it’s been a Blackpool institution since the 1930s. They only serve one flavour – vanilla – and plain is best. Locals (ahem, me) have been known to stock their freezers up before the Notariannis shut up shop at the end of each season. While you’re there pop next door into Brooks Collectables. Run by three elderly brothers, this quirky shop and toy museum is an Aladdin’s cave of memorabilia and features an elaborate model railway, vintage Barbies and old arcade games. You’ll be able to look at a scale model of the old outdoor baths too – if seaside history floats your fishing boat as much as it does mine.

SpongeBob Splash Bash

Also within a stone’s throw from Waterloo Road is the Pleasure Beach. We chose to visit on a Monday – changeover day for many of the hotels so a quieter day for most attractions. Queues were 10-15 minutes for most rides. Most of our day was spent in Nickelodeon Land, which has a series of gentle rides appropriate for younger children and opportunities to meet and greet characters including TMNT and Paw Patrol. Highlights included SpongeBob Splash Bash (think water fight waltzers) and Nickelodeon Streak – a wooden-framed family coaster affectionately remembered as the Zipper Dipper.

The Pleasure Beach has various burger and hotdog stands and more upscale fish bars but a pit stop at the Big Pizza Kitchen – offering pizza, pasta and salad buffet – at Nickelodeon Land was a hassle-free, speedy option. Heading into the main park there are, of course, lots of proper coasters for big kids and a handful more rides for little ones. Parts of the 120-year-old park are definitely vintage and I was relieved to see the bone-rattling Wild Mouse was closed on the day we visited. The Rivercaves and Impossible (an illusion-based walk through) are both in need of updating but the Alice in Wonderland ride offers old-world charm and Wallace and Gromit’s Thrill-O-Meter demonstrates how older rides can be given a new lease of life with outside investment.

A full day at the Pleasure Beach can be broken up with the matinee performance of the Hot Ice Show. At an hour long it is half the length of the evening show and perfect for young audiences. With more sequins and feathers than there are light bulbs in the illuminations, the current show Dreams showcases Blackpool at its campest. The children were enthralled and I was wowed by the skater’s abilities.

More glitz and glamour can be found at Viva – on Central Promenade – which offers a programme of cabaret-style entertainment. Downstairs it’s recently added the family-friendly Vegas Diner, with an American-themed menu, and a house band plays each evening. Despite the cheese (and they’ll load it onto anything for you – although they have good options for vegans and veggies too), it’s fun and friendly and serves good quality food. It’s a decent spot to round up a day exploring the nearby attractions such as Sea Life and Madame Tussauds and, sitting in your Cadillac booth looking out to the seafront, you might even catch a glimpse of newlyweds leaving Blackpool’s own wedding chapel, which treads a line between Vegas kitsch and architectural ingenuity.

The Tower, restored to former glory, viewed from the Comedy Carpet

More of that can be found at the nearby Blackpool Tower, which can now be seen in all its restored glory after seven years hidden behind scaffolding. The façade refurbishment is a sight to behold and you’ll get a great view from the Comedy Carpet opposite. As well as braving the glass floor at the top of the tower, inside, the Tower Circus is a highlight. With one of the last remaining water filled rings, the dancing fountain finale is a rare treat.

These kinds of improvements are exactly what Blackpool has been screaming out for for decades and it would be great to see more of the privately owned buildings along the promenade remove their tired “sun” lounges and be restored to their former glory. Trekking that central stretch of promenade was my biggest reservation about being a tourist at home. It’s been marred by stag and hen parties and offensive tat for as long as my memory serves. It was a relief to see that it’s cleaned up its act with the majority of the shop fronts offering buckets and spades and beach balls over phallic rock and other hen paraphernalia.

Still, it is a bigger relief to venture back inland. Stanley Park is where you’ll find many locals on a summer weekend as it offers a line-up of local musicians on the bandstand, a boating lake, a beautiful Art Deco café, a treetop adventure, play park, skatepark and the Model Village. Sandwiched between there and the brilliant Blackpool Zoo you’ll find Salisbury Woods, which evades most tourist guides and so is a great place to unwind and avoid the crowds. For a decent meal from there head to nearby Highfield Road and visit Jamie’s tapas bar or café bar Montagues – where you might find me, propping it up, my Kiss Me Quick hat retired for another 12 months at least.

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