Review by Fiona Duncan, published 26th August 2007.
We are soaking up the last of the sun on a tiny island. Our table and chairs sit on raised decking, with huge umbrellas above; the perimeter wall is made of smooth pebbles piled up and caged in wire mesh, and a thatched wooden shack serves cocktails - mojitos, batida abacis and more.
Our waiter arrives with the drinks: a seriously cool dude in blond dreads topped by a funky hat. Another waiter - shoulder-length hair, bandana - brings the menus. The place is humming.
What can we see? Golden sands? Pretty, painted fishing boats bobbing on sun-dappled water? Not quite. This, remember, is an Urban Beach and an urban island, isolated not by water but by tarmac, in the middle of two converging roads in the middle of Boscombe, a suburb of Bournemouth.
There is a real beach, a very nice one, down the road, but it's not visible from here. Instead, in one direction we gaze on Fairhaven Court, a retirement home; in another Pringle Court, council flats. All around us: a sea of once substantial Edwardian houses, now multi-occupied and gone to seed, inhabited by a shifting population in a part of Bournemouth that years ago was the height of gentility and is now on its way back up.
The real beach is the subject of millions of pounds of investment, with a much-vaunted artificial surfing wave due to be installed next spring. A stroll along it takes you to the centre of Bournemouth and its pier.
Sound grim? It isn't. For an inexpensive getaway, this boutique hotel is great, with its pavement beach and, best of all, a brilliant, laid-back, friendly atmosphere created by its owners, Mark and Fiona Cribb, whose openness and honesty win many friends.
"We know that the Urban Beach is not perfect yet," they write in the literature in each room, "but we have been frantically renovating since January 2006. We are … just a couple in our early thirties who have borrowed more money than we can afford and will invest every penny back into the business until it is finished."
They're nearly there. They've created "the beach" and "dechintzed" the old-fashioned hotel they took on, creating 12 elegant, contemporary bedrooms with excellent bathrooms, including beautiful sinks, fluffy towels on heated rails, plasma TVs and DVDs, well-stocked minibars and wooden blinds paired with crushed velvet curtains.
Next to be transformed is the ground floor, at present an anodyne expanse of anaglypta, but soon to become an open plan brasserie/bar, with intimate booths round the edges. I hope they improve the food when it's done; our meal was fun, but its quality (salads, pastas and so forth) was only just acceptable.
In the morning we observed our fellow guests: relaxed young couples, plainly enjoying themselves, in jeans, T-shirts, even bare feet, tucking into a breakfast (excellent bacon) that was a considerable improvement on dinner.
The two dudes arrived and set about putting up the patio heaters and generally recreated the urban beach. It's a funny thing, but no one in this unlikely hotel can quite shake off the feeling that it isn't for real.