Review by Fiona Duncan, published 30th March 2008.
The Zanzibar International Hotel in St Leonards-on-Sea. Now there's a thought, one full of wonder and contradiction. Zanzibar? International? Funny old St Leonards-on-Sea?
The use of the word "Hotel" is adventurous, too, for the enterprise of 30-something travel-addict Max O'Rourke is not, by anything but the widest stretch of the imagination, a hotel – it's a modest, if funky b&b. There are minimal facilities; guests are invited to telephone 10 minutes before arrival so they can be let in; a phone number is given for night-time assistance.
"What sort of place are you expecting?" I ask my friend Tiggy, who has kindly accepted the challenge of a winter's night on an East Sussex seafront. "Oh, with a name like that, one of those up themselves Mr and Mrs Smith-type hotels. A groovy bar, in-room spa treatments, 24-hour room service, that sort of thing."
Me too, and I'm sure we are not the only first-time guests who have to make rapid adjustments to our preconceptions when we arrive. Because we quickly discover that there is nothing either international or up itself about the Zanzibar.
The Victorian house stands on the three-mile, seen-better-days seafront, close to where St Leonards merges into Hastings, in a terrace of houses and flats that bristles with estate agents' boards. Finding a parking space isn't easy, but once inside, we are warmly greeted by Trish, who's in charge whenever Max is away travelling. She swiftly produces two enormous glasses of Champagne and insists on carrying our luggage up the many stairs.
No, this place is not super-cool; it's more characterful than that. Max has taken a run-down house and decorated it himself to reflect his love of globe-trotting. Each room (this is where the "International" comes in) is gently themed around a country or continent: India, Antarctica and so on. Three stand out for their sea views, and ours – Africa – is one of them.
A cool hotelier would have removed or disguised the very English Victorian fireplace, cornicing and battered old sash windows. But they help to fuel our dawning realisation that this is not a slick professional operation, but a funky amateur one, with a skeleton staff doing its best.
For dinner, Trish directs us to the excellent restaurant, St Clement's, a 10-minute stroll away. As we walk, we fall for St Leonards-on-Sea, John Burton's grandiose, purpose-built Regency town which may be a shabby echo of its former glory, yet is full of charming quirks, including imaginative shops. One displays wacky French Empire-style armoires covered in cowhide; another is devoted to canine treats. We notice expressive, funkily dressed young people: one senses artistic endeavour.
The morning brings the view. Propped up in our beds, looking forward to our (excellent) Champagne breakfast, all we can see is water, and a riveting sunrise that has us gazing in awe. "I'll never forget this place," says Tiggy, and she means it as an accolade.
Eversfield Place, St Leonards-on-Sea (01424 460109; www.zanzibarhotel.co.uk). Doubles from £99 to £220 per night, including breakfast. St Clement’s (01424 200355).