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Breath of Fresh Air
Pre-conceptions about Bournemouth may be rife, but the Dorset destination is battling its ‘tired, old resort’ image with some zeal, and plenty of investment
Although it doesn’t boast the gleaming architecture of Portsmouth or the boutique hotel scene of Brighton, its beach – recently voted the best in the UK by the readers of Coast magazine – is an absolute gem. The seven-mile sweep of golden sand is within easy walking distance of the town, which is set back on the cliffs behind.
Bournemouth offers an interesting mix of contemporary and classic, the latter in varying states of repair. The resort thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when city folk flocked to take in the medicinal sea air, and its architecture – particularly that of the hotels – harks back to these glory days.
Keeping Things Conventional
It’s hard to miss the resort’s conferencing giant, the Bournemouth International Centre (tel: 01202 456 400), which sits on a clifftop overlooking the beach.
Since a £22m cash injection in 2004, the BIC has become the largest venue on the south coast, and, while not beautiful to look at, it offers an array of spaces, including four main arenas for conferencing and exhibitions. The largest room, the Windsor Hall, has a vast capacity of 4,200, while the other rooms hold around 1,000 each.
The Royal Bath Hotel (tel: 01202 555555), now owned by De Vere, is one of the town’s grandest Victorian properties, offering four star accommodation, panoramic sea views and event space for up to 400. There’s little to get excited about among the mid-range options, but the Cumberland Hotel (tel: 01202 290722), with its large ballroom space, and the four-star East Cliff Court Hotel (tel: 01202 554545) are both well-appointed contemporary options.
The array of Victorian seaside hotels and huge convention centre will hold little surprise for event organisers, but those who scratch the surface will find some real treasures behind these elegant façades. The Landmarc (tel: 01202 589868) is a supper club-style restaurant and entertainment venue, tucked away in a deconsecrated church in the town centre. Its imposing interior features soaring arches and stained glass windows, and has a capacity of 500 for private hire, with a raised VIP bar that holds 20 for dinner.
For large groups attending conferences at the BIC, the fabulous Opera House (tel: 01202 399922) in Boscombe makes a great venue for evening entertainment. Built in 1895, and the subject of a multi-million-pound restoration in 2007, the magnificent Grand Hall can hold 1,500 for an exhibition or reception, or 500 for an awards ceremony, while The Gallery, a more contemporary space, is a good choice for smaller functions.
The small, privately owned hotel market in Bournemouth is still crowded with guesthouses, but, while it’s early days for the resort’s boutique scene, a few progressive hoteliers have seen the potential for de-chintzing.
The Chocolate Boutique Hotel (tel: 01202 556857) in West Cliff, a leafy cliff-top area close to the centre, sounds wackier than it is. A smart 13-bedroom property clad in chocolate-y tones (naturally), the charismatic husband and wife owners run popular chocolate workshops for corporate groups.
On the other side of town in East Cliff, the contemporary Orchid Hotel (tel: 01202 551600), with its 34 homely rooms and a 60-capacity event space, is available for exclusive hire for larger groups. The third option, Urban Beach (tel: 01202 301509) in laid-back Boscombe, compensates for a poor location and unlovely exterior with 12 fantastic rooms.
Alongside the loungers and bathers, Bournemouth’s beaches also draw crowds of surfers, who give the resort a relaxed feel.
Now, thanks to a surfing-themed regeneration project, the surf breaks at Boscombe, 2.5km to the east of Bournemouth Pier, will attract an additional 10,000 surfers a year. The £8m project includes an artificial surf reef – Europe’s first – which will double the number of surfing days to 150 a year and amplify waves to Grade 5 (a ‘Hawaii Pipeline’ is a Grade 8). Facilities at the Boscombe Spa Village development (tel: 01202 451451), scheduled for phased opening throughout the summer and final completion in October, includes catering and showers, a surfing academy, 42 ‘super chalets’ and a glass-fronted restaurant with panoramic sea views.
Sandbanks & Poole
Just 10 minutes down the coast from Bournemouth lies the famous Sandbanks, Britain’s answer to Monte Carlo and the fourth most expensive place to live in the world. Café Shore (tel: 01202 707271), as sleek as a café can be with friendly service and a easy-going moneyed feel, makes the most of its plum views across the water to Poole Harbour with huge windows. It’s available for exclusive hire for receptions of up to 250 and the restaurant can hold 120 for lunch or dinner. A small alfresco terrace is only open at lunchtime.
Further options for entertaining in the Sandbanks include the FJB chain of hotels. The Sandbanks (tel: 01202 707377) and Harbour Heights (tel: 01202 707272) are two four-star options with pleasant enough decor and the standard function spaces. The former sits on the beach at Sandbanks, and the latter up in the wooded hills above, with glorious views across Poole Harbour from its terrace, which is available to hire for summer barbecues and receptions.
In Poole itself, The Lighthouse (tel: 0844 406 8666), a striking modern performing arts centre, is the most interesting and versatile of the venues, offering a central location and spaces ranging from a 150-seat studio to a 1,500-capacity concert hall with ample breakout options. For coastal events with a conscience, there’s The Lifeboat College (tel: 01202 662261) on the harbourside, available for up to 150, with sea-view accommodation when there’s capacity. Proceeds go directly towards the work of the Royal National Lifeboat Association.
Bournemouth International Convention Bureau offers a free venue and accommodation finding service. Contact the team on 01202 456464.
Three of the Best - Group Dining
The unprepossessing entrance next to the pier’s entertainment complex belies Aruba’s appealing interior and to-die-for 180-degree sea views. The balcony and window-side booths are perfect for sundowners before dinner, and sections of the large restaurant can be hired for groups.
Pier Approach, tel: 01202 554211
THE PRINT ROOM
A smart new addition to the town’s dining scene, this French-style brassiere occupies the former print room of the 1930s Daily Echo building. It’s a sophisticated affair, with high ceilings, sparkling chandeliers and a chequered terrazzo floor – a stunning setting for a dinner of 200.
Richmond Hill, tel: 01202 789669
The reputation of this bright 90-capacity beachfront restaurant has spread far beyond the south coast. The tidy decor, all neutral tones and tiling, leaves the sea views and inviting seafood menu to do the talking and, if the weather’s good, parties can use the spacious deck.
Pier Approach, tel: 01202 587785
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Summer 2008.