A High Time at Low Tide

“A new breed of chic hotel is giving the British seaside an air of sophistication. Fiona Duncan uncovers our cool coastA”

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 15th July 2003.

 ‘St Mawes is the new St Barts’, trumpeted a recent Cornish newspaper headline, somewhat optimistically. But while the Roseland peninsula has not yet, as far as we know, become a chic, sun-soaked Caribbean island, it has certainly taken a few steps in that direction since the opening, five years ago, of Olga Polizzi’s sophisticated haven, Hotel Tresanton. Suddenly the dear old English seaside has become a cool place to be for metropolitan couples seeking a relaxing break, with or without children, and today Jimmy Choos and pashminas mingle happily with colonels and cardigans and buckets and spades in the narrow streets of St Mawes and elsewhere.

All sorts of coastal resorts, from brash to remote, are beginning to host the new breed of stylish, informal, hotel and it’s now possible to combine the childish delights of beach and pier with the certain attractions of a contemporary, comfortable and laid-back place to stay. Of the following 12 hotels, five have opened within the last year, another three in the last five years, and four are old favourites that are changing with the times. They cater for children unless stated.

Driftwood, Rosevine

Opened a year ago by new hoteliers Paul and Fiona Robinson, this intimate hotel has one of the most stunning locations I can think of, with vistas that are more Mediterranean than Cornish, a large garden and, at the bottom of the cliff, a perfect crescent of private beach. Inside, Fiona’s decoration (the house itself is no beauty) has the air of a chic Provençal hotel, coloured in creams and powder blues, with shells and straw hats and lamps made of driftwood. There’s a romantic cabin half way down the cliff, perfect for lovers, and a pavilion you can reserve for a private lunch or even an aromatherapy massage. Children are genuinely welcome, with high teas and a games room. Indeed parents may prefer Driftwood to Tresanton; the one drawback to that otherwise unimpeachable hotel is that it has little space outside. If you yearn for space but want a similarly stylish ambience, and excellent food, then head for Driftwood five miles away.Driftwood: Rosevine, near Portscatho, Cornwall TR2 5EW (01872 580644; wwww.driftwoodhotel.co.uk). Doubles from £140 per night including breakfast. Tresanton: St Mawes, Cornwall TR2 5DR (01326 270 055; www.tresanton.com). Doubles from £195 per night (high season) including breakfast.

Hell Bay, Bryher

California meets the Atlantic Ocean at this terrific hotel, re-opened in April this year after a metamorphosis. It takes commitment to get to Hell Bay on Bryher, the smallest community in the Scilly Isles (helicopter, ferry, jeep) but when you do you’ll find nothing but grass, golden sand, a jumble of rocks and the vast ocean between you and America. It’s the creation of Robert Dorrien-Smith, the hereditary owner of the neighbouring island of Tresco. He’s filled the new hotel with his own collection of modern art and sculpture, all with a regional connection, as well as eye-catching stained glass and mirrors. Bedooms are suites (many of which can be divided into two) each sleeping up to four with huge double bed and two attractive armchair beds. Freshly decorated, they come with videos, CDs, sink, kettle and fridge. There’s also a swimming pool, children’s play area, games and fitness rooms. The metropolitans haven’t discovered this place yet, but when they do they’ll love it, as long as the food matches the surroundings, because there’s nowhere else to eat. Hell Bay, Bryher, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall TR23 OPR (01720 422947; www.hellbay.co.uk). Doubles from £175 per night including dinner and breakfast.

The Abbey, Penzance

Refreshingly low-key, known best to the cognescenti, the Abbey has been a hip Cornish hotel for well over 20 years, long before Tresanton was thought of. Owned and lovingly tended by 60s icon Jean Cox (née Shrimpton) and her husband Michael, it’s always been special and now, with the opening of a fabulous new restaurant – warm cocoon of a bar downstairs, airy dining room upstairs –  it has a new lease of life. The young chef, Ben Tunnicliffe, has immediately rewarded the Cox’s with a well-deserved Michelin star and he and his Polish wife Kinga now manage the hotel for them with heartwarming energy and commitment. The 1660 townhouse overlooking the harbour is an eclectic, stylish mix of antiques, paintings and objects d’art. Ravishingly pretty, it’s the antithesis of bland minimalism and much more like a private house than a hotel. Abbey Street, Penzance, Cornwall TR18 4AR (01736 366906). Doubles from £100 per night including breakfast.  

Old Quay House, Fowey

Though it doesn’t open until the beginning of August, I’m sure this place is going to be special. Its core is a characterful old building in the centre of Fowey, with a new extension overlooking the estuary and harbour. Its harmonious interior is embellished by funky Lorna Bailey pottery, and the informal restaurant spills out on to a teak deck with spectacular views. Bedrooms, equipped with the latest future-proof technology, are traditional in the old part of the building, contemporary in the new. One is in a glass turret – magical. 28 Fore Street, Fowey, Cornwall PL23 1AQ (01726 833302; www.theoldquayhouse.com). Doubles from £120 per night including breakfast.

St Enodoc, Rock

Well-heeled British families have flocked to Rock for their bucket-and-spade holidays for generations, but hotels that are both stylish and child-friendly have been thin on the ground on Cornwall’s north coast until the emergence, after a total makeover, of St Enodoc in 1998. The imposing building is typical of the area: solid and dependable rather than attractive, and the interior decoration suits its seaside location with its bright colours, clean lines and easy-going comfort. After a change of ownership it’s in peak condition: just repainted, with fresh new fabrics.  The Mediterranean style bar and restaurant is popular with non-residents, with a wide terrace for outdoor dining. Bedrooms are like bedrooms rather than hotel rooms, with marvellous views across the Camel Estuary. Rock, Cornwall PL27 6LA (01208 863394; www.enodoc-hotel.co.uk). Doubles from £135 per night including breakfast.

Hotel du Vin, Brighton

A quick break in Brighton is perfect for keeping both adults and children equally happy, dividing the time fairly between the deliciously brash amusements of the Pier and seafront and the quaint shopping warren of The Lanes. In pole position between the two, the latest Hotel du Vin hits the spot: an adult place where children are genuinely welcome but do not dominate. In the quirky Gothic-revival building wooden seagulls fly above the lofty bar/sitting area, the bistro buzzes, there’s a pool table and sun terrace and a Nantucket feel to the excellent bedrooms (equipped with power showers and large tubs, plasma-screen TVs, hi-fi, air conditioning, great beds). The three best rooms have a pair of bathtubs, sea views and telescopes that once stood on the seafront. Staff are charming and, as at its sister hotels, the wines and cigars are imaginatively chosen and dispensed without stuffiness, and the prices are very fair. Ship Street, Brighton BN1 1AD (01273 718588 www. hotelduvin.com). Doubles from £134 per night including breakfast.

The George, Yarmouth

I love the George. Like the Swan at Southwold it’s a handsome old building in an upmarket little seaside resort whose owners (in this case John Illsley, former bass guitarist of Dire Straights) have cultivated an easy-going atmosphere. “We try not to have rules – only blinkered thinking says you can’t have breakfast whenever you feel like it”.  The panelled 17th century hall sets the scene, with cosy wood-panelled sitting room on one side and serious Michelin-starred restaurant on the other (there’s also a brasserie) The bedrooms are all inviting, if pricey, some in country house style, others recently redecorated with adorable fabrics. Those in the oldest part of the building have the most character, with panelled walls and uneven floors. Best of all are the two first floor rooms with wonderful views from their decks over Yarmouth Castle and the Solent. They also overlook the garden, fronted by a small shingle beach. In summer it’s the hotel’s happy heart and the perfect place for lunch. Quay Street, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight PO41 0PE (01983 760331 www. thegeorge.co.uk). Doubles from £175 pr night including breakfast.

Swan Hotel and Crown Hotel, Southwold

Take the extended family to Southwold: put the oldies in the Swan, younger ones in the Crown and ring the changes by eating in both (they operate a cross-billing system). Both hotels are owned by Adnams, the brewery and wine merchants that’s intertwined with this affluent, timeless, beautifully kept little resort and runs it like a benign dictatorship.  Overlooking the market place, the Swan’s gracious but invitingly slouchy drawing room makes everyone feels at home, with old dears propped on one sofa, media types reclining on another. Bedrooms are being upgraded in cool colours, with travertine marble in the bathrooms and plasma screen TVs and DVDs. The best has a telescope and distant views. There’s informal as well as formal dining here, but for a real buzz go to Southwold’s hotspot, the Front Bar at the Crown, where queues have been known to form for its modish food and wines, served all day. There’s also a pretty restaurant here and 12 recently redecorated bedrooms.Swan Hotel: High Street, Southwold, Suffolk IP18 6EG (01502 722186). Doubles from £120 per night including breakfast. Crown Hotel: High Street, Southwold, Suffolk IP18 6DP (01502 722275). Doubles from £110 per night including breakfast.

Continental, Whitstable

I’m not sure I’d stay here (bedrooms are bright but basic) if I couldn’t stay in one of the simply converted fishermen’s huts (for two or four people) which stand on the beach in front of this 1920s hotel. Sad and neglected until a few years ago, the Continental now exudes a youthful ambience and a jolly Art Deco style interior. In the large mustard yellow and red bar food is available all day at weekends, including inexpensive champagne and oysters (the hotel is owned by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company); there’s also a brasserie. 29 Beach Walk, Whitstable, Kent CT5 2BP (01227 280280; www.hotelcontinental.co.uk). Huts from £130 per night including breakfast.

Harbourmaster, Aberaeron

Back in the 1950s, an eccentric resident of Aberaeron decided to give each of her five properties a different brightly coloured coat of paint. The idea caught on, and today the purpose-built Regency harbour town is an uplifting riot of colour. Opened a year ago, this former harbourmasters’ residence and pub on the waterfront continues the theme: azure blue outside, multi-coloured inside. The ground floor is given over to eating and drinking, with a curving bar, informal dining room and inventive menu featuring local produce. Up the winding listed staircase are seven bright, modern bedrooms, fine for a stopover. Best is the one at the top, from where the harbourmaster could keep an eye on all three harbours under his control in Cardigan Bay. No children under five. Pen Cei, Aberaeron, Ceredigion SA46 0BA (01545 570 755; www.harbour-master.com). Doubles from £75 per night including breakfast.

Castell Deudraeth, Portmeirion

The descendants of Clough Williams-Ellis, though charged with conserving his fantasy village, Portmeirion, are nevertheless keeping up with the times. Those who hanker after Portmeirion’s peculiar charm – and it’s breathtaking location – but find the main hotel too formal and flouncy – can now stay amidst cutting edge luxury at Castell Deudraeth. The mid-19th century mock castle stands just above the village, and though Williams-Ellis bought the property in 1931, it has only now been restored to provide 11 coolly elegant, high-tech bedrooms. Downstairs, the masculine main hall, leading to an airy bar and grill, has been restored to its original 1860 design. Stylish, but not cosy (the reverse could be said for the clientele on my visit). Stay at the Castell and swim at the main hotel’s beach and pool (all Portmeirion’s facilities are open to guests of the Castell). Here, in this intoxicating spot, your back is turned to the fakery of the village and your eyes can feast on the glorious reality of the Glaslyn Dwyryd estuary and mountains beyond. Portmeirion, Gwynedd LL48 6ET (01766 770000; www.portmeirion.com). Doubles from £181 per night including breakfast.

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