Review by Fiona Duncan, published 12th August 2007.
A mysterious grey-blue sea; a vast, flat sky. A jigsaw of muddy tidal creeks and saltmarsh dotted with little boats; Scolt Head Island in the middle distance. A great flock of dunlin suddenly rising and crossing our view, flashing alternately dark and pale as they turn in unison.
We turned from the window, elated. We'd just driven for hours, only to find a glorified roadside pub, with a straggly car park, a heaving bar and a clutch of rain-soaked, dishevelled-looking locals swilling beer on the terrace.
Tramping up narrow stairs, we were shown, tired and despondent, to our room. And then, through the floor-to-ceiling gable window, we were confronted with that thrilling coastal panorama. Suddenly we got the point of the White Horse, a seaside pub, restaurant and hotel combined.
We unpacked, bathed, took turns peering through the telescope, changed for dinner and descended. Ensconced in comfortable armchairs, equipped with a bottle of Sancerre, we unwound and found that the "heaving bar" had a relaxed buzz, that the "unkempt locals" were friendly fishermen swapping stories after a long, wet day and that our only care in the world was which dishes to choose from the menu.
Things got better and better. It would be wrong to say that the food at the White Horse is as outstanding as the setting, but it perfectly fits the informal seaside feel of the conservatory dining room, with a terrace beyond.
We ate buttery local samphire with our fingers, the freshest of Cromer crab with quails' eggs and celeriac remoulade; fillet of sea trout; halibut with saffron-braised fennel and naughty hot chocolate fondant with white chocolate ice-cream. A dizzying number of waitresses attended us, a different one for each course.
The mix of diners was genuine and refreshing. In many a similar "seaside chic" establishment down south you could hang a notice: yuppies only. Not here. "Quality without pretension is what I'm aiming for," says owner Cliff Nye.
Why does the White Horse work? Because Cliff is just the right person to own it. A third-generation Brancaster holidaymaker, he learnt to sail here as a child and went on to become a professional yacht skipper. But if the sea is his first love, buying "run-down pubs at the bottom of the garden" and transforming them is his second.
When the "desperately depressing" White Horse, complete with tacky caravan park, came on the market 11 years ago, Cliff was afloat between Antigua and Maine.
"I'd always wanted to get my hands on the place. I bought it over the satellite phone then and there." He also owns the Fox at Willian, next door to his home in Hertfordshire.
And so back to the bedrooms, painted in off-whites and duck-egg blues, with tongue-and-groove panelling and model seabirds on wire stilts, Nantucket style.
Of those in the main building, the split-level Room at the Top stands out for its enormous view and its telescope (and it's a bargain at only £15 extra). But equally pleasing are the eight single-storey annexe rooms that snake in a curving, flint-fronted line towards the water. They are extra-insulated by a marvellous grass roof, fully visible from the terrace and thick in summer with sedum, thrift and wild herbs.
Quality without pretension? Without a doubt.
Brancaster Staithe, Norfolk (01485 210262; www.whitehorsebrancaster.co.uk). Doubles from £100 per night, including breakfast.