BOURNEMOUTH is in the county of Dorset on the south coast of England.
In a UK-wide poll in 2007, it was found to be the happiest town in Britain, scoring an impressive happy-index of 82% of those taking part in the survey.
Aer Arann’s recently-opened direct flight link from Dublin is making Bournemouth one of the under-the-radar weekend escape venues of the year; giving people a chance to discover just how happy the town is.
I was expecting a larger and more anglicised version of Youghal or a Bray, but was pleasantly surprised at a fairly characterful town that just happens to have a great piece of beach. The drive in from the (pleasantly small) airport takes no more than 10 minutes. Open English countryside gives way to dual carriageway and developments, before the relief of a calmer interior of a bright and lively town where the sound of seagulls mixes with the chatter of humans.
We were staying at the four-star Norfolk Royale Hotel. Situated on a mildly hilly street that invites you to tumble down the short walk to the town centre or the beach, the Norfolk has an exterior that’s full of Edwardian flourish with the slightest hint of faded glory. Once inside, you’ll find that nothing has faded. The large lounge area is very spacious yet with enough defined areas within it to facilitate good-quality lounging. The Norfolk prides itself on its range of gut-stuffing afternoon teas. For those uninitiated with this particularly English tradition, it involves much more eating material than actual cups of tea. Watch out for the special champagne offers on Fridays for an afternoon tea with bubbles.
The leisure centre is accessed discreetly via a back stairs, so you can saunter down in your fluffy bath robe without running the gauntlet of fully-clothed people in either the lift or the reception area.
The rooms are large and luxuriant. The enormous TV at the end of the bed gave me a bit of a fright when I woke up in the morning, but I quickly learned to love it.
Décor is plush, there’s a bathroom you feel like spending some time in and it comes with a Molton Brown toiletry range. I also liked the ironing board in my room with an iron attached to the board. It’s the little things that make me happy.
The promenade itself is a great draw. The layout is basically Victorian with a feel that’s very much 21st-century Britain. The Oceanarium by the entrance to the pier is worth a visit, but a long walk along the 10km-long beach past the multi-coloured beach huts (or “pods“, as the locals call them) is a lovely experience in any weather.
With neatly laid-out pedestrian access from the beach to the town centre (with main traffic diverted up onto an overpass), a stroll in Bournemouth’s nicely landscaped Lower Gardens beckons. The main drag wraps very conveniently around the park and you can take a ride in the tethered balloon to give you a commented guide and view of the surrounding town and coastline.
The central plaza situated between the Lower and Central Gardens is a real meeting point, complete with a café designed like a large bandstand. From here, a pedestrianised shopping area radiates. It’s as comprehensive and pleasant a place to shop as you’ll find anywhere, including Debenhams, Marks & Spencers and a variety of shops selling beach and outdoor wear, with plenty of nice places to eat and drink.
In Boscombe, a little to the east, there is another shopping area with a very different character. Here, you’ll find an open-air market every Thursday and Friday, as well a lot of antique shops.
The rejuvenated section of the beach given over to surf culture is active throughout the year. It’s actually Boscombe Beach and the happening restaurants and businesses here are all new and installed only within the last four years in a building that was neglected for years.
Anyone who knows something about waves will tell you that there are no surfing waves on this part of the English coast. But the Bournemouth/Boscombe people were not to be outdone by nature, so they made and installed what they claim is Europe’s first ever man-made reef, designed specifically for creating the sort of waves you might normally find on Ireland’s west coast. We checked out the result with Brad and Ben at Sorted Surf School and it was, like, totally radical for the south of England, dude!
Cycling is another activity that’s well worth exploring in Bournemouth. The town itself has plenty of great cycle routes, including the long promenade (outside of season only), while nearby Poole has even more designated cycle lanes.
And, if you’re feeling even more adventurous, the New Forest is within the reach of your average amateur cyclist too.
Depending on how long you have to spend in Bournemouth, you may want to wander further afield. The aforementioned New Forest is a huge national park that stretches over three counties and includes some of the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land in the United Kingdom. It’s also home to a great variety of unique wildlife and flora, including the famous New Forest ponies. The coast on either side offers a great deal worth exploring too, particularly the stretch westwards that take you to some spectacular scenery.
Bournemouth attracts a wide variety of clients. It’s one of the main spots for retirees to spend their golden years, but it’s also a university town.
Between Bournemouth and the adjoining towns, there is a very sizeable population and there are over 20,000 bed-nights in Bournemouth alone. As such, the variety and quality of choices of eating out is very impressive.
For lunch by the sea that will fill up your coast-induced appetite, try the Urban Reef on the Boscombe Beach stretch. The interior has some delightful touches redolent of English seaside culture at its most colourful while the cuisine is modern quality surf ‘n’ turf using local ingredients where possible.
For dining somewhere where you can eat well and admire the surroundings, try the very popular Print Room on Richmond Hill just off the town centre. The designers have made superb use of the huge industrial space of what was once an actual newspaper print room, while the food is decent value with large portions close to the centre of town.
For something extra special, the Green House is a few blocks back from the beach, but worth the extra trek.
The slightly bland name should not detract you from a menu that changes with the fortunes of what local produce is at its best. The quality of food here is comparable to Michelin-star level in a building that also houses a hotel conceived and designed on the principles of minimising carbon footprint.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Located in a typical Bournemouth avenue of tall trees where hotels and houses seem to harmoniously co-exist side-by-side, the Green House offers an insight into the possibilities of luxury-standard green living (thegreenhousehotel.co.uk). B&B rates for a double room start at £180 (€225).
Closer to town centre, the four-star Norfolk Royale (www.peelhotels.co.uk) has double beds with breakfast starting at £153 (€191) per night.
For further details, go to www.bournemouth.co.uk.
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