I’ll be the first to admit that when you think of exotic and opulent you may not think of Eastbourne. But it’s time to rethink your perception of this dazzling coastal town. After all, it is reported to be the sunniest town in Britain!
OK, so on a recent visit, it was a cloudless blue-sky kind of day and the white seafront buildings and golden dome of the Pier quite literally shimmered in the sun. But that’s not the only reason to schedule Eastbourne into your “Must Visit” list for this year. Eastbourne is home to a smorgasbord of delights and we’ve put together some suggestions for the most wonderfully indulgent ways to enjoy a weekend here.
A trip down memory lane
Although there are remains of a Roman villa under the roadway in front of the pier, the beginnings of Eastbourne as we know it, date back to the 18th century. As the health benefits of time spent by the sea become more widely understood, four of King George III’s children came to stay in the town in 1780 and the town became known as “the Empress of Watering Places”. By the turn of the century, three fortresses had also been built to defend against a possible Napoleonic invasion which in itself added the unique character of the town that still exists.
In the early 19th century, the 7th Duke of Devonshire embarked on a programme of development designed to turn Eastbourne into a resort for the genteel visitor and the first pier was opened in 1870. Entrance was at the cost of 2d (1p) but the original Pier had to be rebuilt having been partially destroyed in a storm in 1877. By the 1880s, Eastbourne was a buzzing destination with singers, performing dogs, fire eaters, Punch and Judy theatres, acrobats, hawkers and 200 or more horse-drawn bathing machines dotting the shores.
A buzzing 21st century town
Arriving early in the season, I was struck by how accessible Eastbourne is. It’s much smaller than Brighton and I drove up to the seafront and parked almost immediately (and for free) although admittedly it was 7 am on a Sunday morning. Royal Parade along the shore was already stretching and yawning into life with beach cafés and walkers and by 9 am the seafront was gently bustling. All respect to the swimmers because it was sunny but fresh!
There’s a great deal to take in for a small town, from the Redoubt Fortress (where they hold live events) and the Wish Tower with its Peace Garden, a big wheel, the Pier, the theatres and the old town (with its 12th century pub, St Mary’s Church and Pilgrims House). The list goes on, but down almost every road and back street that you peep down, you see the soft curve of the South Downs, giving the town a feeling of intimacy and seclusion.
Your recommended weekend of unabashed indulgence
There’s no doubt that foreign travel will remain limited for a while, but that gives you all the more reason to explore what’s on offer here and enjoy the rich pickings of Eastbourne.
The Grand Hotel
Passed the Wish Tower and Western Lawns, The Grand Hotel stands majestic! It describes itself as, “The finest 5-star hotel by the sea in Sussex” and it’s also known as The White Palace. The rooms are more than a nod to the days when the rich and the royal came to Eastbourne. Their deluxe sea view rooms start from £280 but if you can, why not opt for their Penthouse Suite, after all, their best suites are noted for “their stunning interior decoration, luxurious bathrooms with whirlpool baths, and best of all, large balconies with spectacular views of the coastline”. They start at about £500 / night.
Friday evening is for unwinding
Arrive at The Grand on Friday afternoon in time for a quick swim (indoor or out), Afternoon Tea on the Princes Lawn and then a later afternoon stroll along the seafront. If you walk as far as Redoubt Fortress, you’ll see the Azimuth sculptures (made from reclaimed sea defences and designed to look like lost shipwrecks and sea monsters). There’s something slightly haunting about them. Then walk back as the sun sets over the Pier and the cliffs beyond. Enjoy dinner at The Grand’s Mirabelle Restaurant, considered one of the finest restaurants in Eastbourne, and voted by The Independent in the top 50 best restaurants in the UK, to bring your day to a suitably indulgent close.
Saturday in style
You can’t stay at The Grand and not experience their spa and wellness centre and frankly, what better way to start your weekend. My recommendation would be their Turkish salt scrub with Eucalyptus as relaxing but invigorating but you can also choose from massage or reflexology or perhaps even the combination of all three.
For lunch, cross over the lawns in front of the hotel and head to the Bistrot Pierre which sits right on the shoreline. The moment I saw it, it reminded me of a restaurant in La Rochelle so it’s no surprise to find a menu of French-inspired dishes. At the time of writing, they had two little glass bubbles perched over the sea with views of the cliffs. Warm but stunning with a fun French menu to boot! What could be better?
Towner Art Gallery
Founded in 1923, Towner houses one of the best contemporary art galleries in the county with almost 500 works by the likes of Eric Ravilious (1903–1942), Dineo Seshee Bopape, John Akomfrah, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Tacita Dean, Grayson Perry and Wolfgang Tillmans. They host a number of exhibitions and in fact, there is also a combined The Grand / Towner Coastal Cultural Trail which links Towner to De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill and Jerwood Gallery in Hastings – ask at the hotel for details.
In 2019, German artist Lothar Götz, was commissioned to create an artwork to mark the 10th anniversary of the gallery’s move from its original home in Eastbourne’s Old Town. The result is a stunning explosion of colour on the outside of the building which was only supposed to remain in place until the summer of 2020. I really hope they decide to keep it as Towner is now easily one of the most striking buildings in Sussex.
An evening of theatre
As you’ll probably be heading out for the evening, you might want to choose cocktails in the bar at The Grand before a light dinner at The Grand’s award-winning Garden Restaurant on the Chatsworth Terrace with views over the coast. There are three theatres in Eastbourne so be sure to book a show for Saturday evening. Alternatively, check in with the Redoubt to see if they have any open-air performances scheduled to round up your day.
Sunday is for wine
Not far from Eastbourne, you’ll find the Rathfinny Wine Estate at Alfriston in the arms of the South Downs, which although still relatively young, is fast gaining a reputation for producing some of the best, award-winning English sparkling wines. And yes, Rathfinny offers estate tours and tastings. The Summer Estate Tour lasts 1 hr 45 mins and costs £25 per person. They also have a Michelin Plate Tasting Room restaurant with views across the vineyards, al fresco dining in the vineyards or a picnic hamper option, which makes this a great place to stop for some lunch.
To finish off your weekend you could opt for a spot of rambling along the South Downs Way which runs right through Alfriston. It goes west along to Firle or south east down to the Cuckmere River and Cuckmere Haven and with lots of interlinking footpaths (it’s Ordnance Survey Explorer 25), it’s easy to plan a short loop. Alternatively, head back into Eastbourne for a quick visit to the Pier or a walk along the seafront to Beachy Head.
This rounds off what should be a quite magnificent weekend, and with luck, you’ll now think of Eastbourne with the gilded memories it deserves.
Of course, you don’t have to do all of the above to enjoy the delights of Eastbourne, and there are plenty of other things to see and do in the town and surrounding area, but they do say you should either go big or go home, and having been in lockdown at home for what feels like the best part of the year, you may find you don’t want to go back home just yet.
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