When it comes to iconic stretches of coastline, Dover surely has it covered. Just one glimpse of those chalky cliffs perched over the English Channel and strains of Dame Vera Lynn’s White Cliffs of Dover seem to fill the air.

Here too is Dover Castle, dubbed the ‘Key of England,’ host to the royal visits of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and Winston Churchill’s war-time planning sessions. Thankfully, invading fleets have now been replaced by leisure vessels, and from atop the cliffs you have an unrivalled view of cruise ships pulling in and out of the Port of Dover, the second busiest UK cruise port, with two dedicated terminals.

Terminal One actually started life as a Victorian railway station, and still boasts vaulted ironwork and a glass roof allowing natural light to stream in.Around 240,000 holidaymakers are expected to pass though Dover this year, on their way to destinations such as the Baltic and Mediterranean, on lines including Crystal, Seabourn, Hapag-Lloyd and Princess Cruises. Plus, for the first time this year, Holland America Line is offering transatlantic voyages to New York. Just make sure that before you take a bite out of the Big Apple, you take a couple of days to discover historic Dover and beautiful Kent.

HOW TO GET THERE

Located 76 miles east of London, Dover is easily accessed by road and rail. Dover is within easy reach of the motorway links from London, and doverport.co.uk lists cruise-terminal and long-stay car parks. National Express operates a service to Dover from around the UK, and the Port of Dover is a one-mile shuttle-bus trip from its terminus. Trains run from London Victoria (1 hr 45), London St Pancras (1 hr 10) and Charing Cross (1 hr 50) to Dover Priory Station.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO

Charles Dickens, who often stayed in Dover, once remarked “the sea is very fine and the walks are quite remarkable.” Follow in his footsteps along the White Cliffs to South Foreland Lighthouse, a Victorian lighthouse that was the site of the first international radio transmission. It’s also well worth a wander to Western Heights Nature Reserve, home to a huge fortification begun during the Napoleonic Wars, and completed in the 1860s, to protect Dover from French invasion. Dover Castle gives a glimpse of what life was like in the medieval court of Henry II, and there’s a vivid recreation of the Dunkirk evacuation 200 feet below ground in the Secret Wartime Tunnels.

You can discover more about Dover’s past at Dover Museum & Bronze Age Boat Gallery, where the world’s oldest-known seagoing boat sits alongside Roman glass and pottery. The Dover Transport Museum and East Kent Railway are further temptations for heritage lovers. Equal in old-fashioned charm are the independent shops scattered around the Market Square, and the traditional Saturday stalls on Cannon Street. The Chalk of the Town, located in Athol Terrace, is built into the White Cliffs, and was used to protect locals from air attack during WWII. Today it’s the perfect place for gifts and souvenirs. For high street and designer names, De Bradelei Wharf has bargains on Dover’s waterfront.

WHERE TO STAY

You can’t beat the Best Western Dover Marina Hotel & Spa for location: it’s right on the waterfront. It has recently been refurbished and is just minutes from the Passenger Cruise Terminal. Plus, its Historic Kent package gives you access to Dover Castle, Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey and other nearby attractions. If you’re looking to be pampered before you step on board, try four-star Wallett’s Court Country House Hotel. There are 17 luxuriously appointed bedrooms, three within the 17th-century Jacobean Manor, and a long menu of treatments at the Ren Spa. Good food is on the menu at The Marquis at Alkham a five-star restaurant with chic boutique rooms in the picturesque village of Alkham. For a more independent option try nearby Deal and Hector’s Apartments, where spacious accommodation and a lovely living area is served up in a cool, coastal Victorian villa.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

For light bites try The Ellie Café in the heart of Market Square, or Kearsney Abbey Tea Room, for its amazing all-day breakfast. For afternoon tea, Walmer Castle’s Lord Warden’s Tea Rooms uses fruit and vegetables grown in its organic kitchen garden, and serves homemade lemonade and ginger beer. In the evening, head to The Bay Restaurant at White Cliffs Hotel; Cullins Yard for seafood at the Yachting Marina; or the two AA Rosette restaurant at Wallett’s Court Country House Hotel. After dinner, relax with a drink at The Old Lantern Inn which served its first pint in 1803.

DAY TRIPS FROM THE PORT

White Cliff Country (encompassing Dover, Deal and Sandwich) is well worth exploring, as is the Kent countryside. Golf fans will relish the chance to play a round on Royal St George’s, once a favourite of Bond-creator Ian Fleming. Chartwell is Churchill’s family home; Walmer Castle and Leeds Castle are fairytale fortresses. The splendid gardens at Elizabeth Sissinghurst Castle were created by writers Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. The charming medieval village of Rye – with its boutique shopping, tearooms, museums and galleries – is close enough for a visit, as is the city of Canterbury. Canterbury Cathedral was a place of pilgrimage in medieval times as well as the inspiration for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Finally, over in Rochester, the annual Charles Dickens Festival boasts costumed parades – all the more so next year as 2012 will mark the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth.