The immaculate blond-white sand, deep-blue sea and cloudless sky could have been in Miami. Only the cool North Sea breeze marked it out as South Shields, not South Beach.
It was decades since I had last visited the town, as a penniless student, and while the years haven’t been kind to me, the seafront has bloomed. Town hall chiefs have spent even more on redeveloping it than one local MP spent doing up his garden.
The spectacular results make Shields, as the locals know it, the ideal spot for a bucket-and-spade holiday, especially if you have small children. Shields is Cornwall without the crowds, the Costas without the plane journey and the odds are that despite the distance you’ll get there much faster too.
The expansive beach lets kids run, dig and sand-castle to their hearts’ content while you lend a hand or stretch out with a good book. A caravan park and campsite lets you pitch just yards from the sea and there are plenty of seafront B&Bs on the front as well.
When the children finally tire of playing on the sands there are the promenade, parks and amusement arcades to explore. South Marine Park, which features a miniature steam railway as well as a boating lake, was a big hit with our eldest girl, then aged two and a half. But the train was swiftly forgotten when the she discovered the seafront fairground, which offers thrills and spills for everyone from toddlers up. Ice-cream lovers should ignore the numerous Mr Whippy-style outlets and head instead for Minchella’s, a proper old-fashioned parlour on nearby Ocean Road.
For southern types like me who find the North Sea a little too bracing, there is a swimming pool in town and another being built on the seafront that will be finished next year. On wet days, and there will be a few in even the brightest summer, there is a Catherine Cookson museum where you can take refuge.
From here you can explore other parts of the north east, taking a ferry to North Shields for a stroll along the fish quay, visiting historic Durham or even the bright lights of Newcastle.
There is no point pretending the weather will be as hot as Spain or probably even Sidmouth. We enjoyed a week of almost unbroken sunshine during our stay but the mercury still wasn’t soaring. With two girls who tend to wilt in the heat that was a blessing, and a very warm welcome is on offer from the locals, known as Sanddancers, as long as you don’t make the mistake of calling them Geordies.
South Shields is a seaside gem offering everything that you could want for a traditional family beach break. Just remember to pack a fleece. l
James Lyons is deputy political editor of the Daily Mirror