Photo of Pier at Harwich

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 17th December 2006.

Now here's a good place for a weekend away - to my mind, at least. You have to like the sea, and ships, and not object to industrial landscapes - or rather seascapes. Picture-book pretty it isn't; atmospheric, absorbing and "real" it most certainly is.

One glance at the Pier's distinctive blue and white façade - designed to resemble a Venetian palazzo - and the age of Dickens comes to mind. Built in 1864, the hotel was designed to accommodate overnight passengers departing from Harwich for the Continent. I can almost see the guests leaving the hotel in their crinolines and top hats, and stepping across to the pier opposite to board the steamers and packet ships. It was from here, too, in 1620, that the Mayflower set sail for the New World, with a Harwich man, Christopher Jones, at her helm.

The diminutive Ha'penny Pier, so called for its original admittance charge, is still charmingly intact and gives its name to the hotel's contemporary fisherman's wharf-style bar and bistro on the ground floor. Locals and passers-by pile in for proper fish and chips, the chef's fish pie and daily specials chalked up on a blackboard. You write your order on a notepad and hand it in at the bar. The seats are comfortable, the food satisfying, the lighting clever, the mood jolly.

Check-in for hotel guests is also at the bar: relaxed, yes, but bags are nevertheless promptly taken to your room, either upstairs or in a separate building next door.

All the rooms are several cuts above for the price (deep, white-sheeted beds, natural sea colours on tongue-and-groove panelling, desks and large mirrors, attractive chairs, plenty of storage, minibars), but with only £10 each between a "standard", a "superior" and a "deluxe" it pays to go for the largest - and bag the view. There are six sea-facing rooms, including the enormous Mayflower suite (£170).

Mine was No 3, with windows on two sides, and it was perfect, except for the bath (I got a good soaking with the shower every time I turned on the bath taps).

Arriving at dusk, I took in the view: on the far side of the bay, the Orwell and Stour estuaries snaked into the distance, while to the right, the lights of Felixstowe docks were smudged across the mist and to the left, the clearer shapes of ships docked at Harwich's Parkeston Quay were visible.

In the morning I had to tear myself away from the scene: the pier at my feet, tugs, ferries, cruise ships and fishing boats beetling about on the water.

The Pier has been owned for nearly 30 years by the hands-on Milsom family. Like their other establishments, Maison Talbooth and Milsom's, both in Dedham, it's a close-knit operation: in fact the Pier is one of the few hotels I've come across where staffing isn't a headache, with many long-serving locals on the palpably happy team.

And so, to sum up: a comfortable room with a great view, half a dozen oysters and a grilled lobster in the hotel's stylish first-floor fish restaurant, a large antiques centre and the oldest surviving picture house in the land (the Electric Palace) round the corner - the makings of a fine weekend away.

The Pier, Harwich, Essex (01255 241212; Doubles from £95 to £115, including breakfast