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Tim Boxer

Nina Boxer

[ Brighton ] [ Guidebooks: Lonely Planet: Great Britain, Africa, Italy, Rome ]

Exploring Britain’s
Raciest Seaside Town

Text and Photos by Ivor Davis

MERICAN travelers heading to London frequently detour to Bath, Stratford on Avon and or the Cotswolds.

Just 60 miles south of the British capital, a fast 55-minute train ride from London's Victoria Station, sits the seaside town of Brighton, still a dazzling secret to the majority of tourists who land at Heathrow and want to explore the country.

Brighton can be blustery, even wild, but on a fine sunny day when the English channel sparkles and the light reflects off the town’s beautiful Regency squares and terraces, there is no more delightful town in all of Europe.

So if you’re planning a trip to England you will do yourself a disservice if you don’t sample the joys of the town the cognescenti call "London on the Sea." But beware: Take your sandals because like many English seasides the beach consists of stones, not sand.

The town is raunchy, fun, exciting. It used to be the place you escaped to from London for what was known in the old days as "a dirty weekend," the kind of place where the boss took his secretary for an illicit affair, or the boss’ wife ran off with her hairdresser.

Nowadays when dirty weekends have gone the way of the two-martini lunch, it’s packed with great restaurants for every pocketbook. It is also the preferred home base of many of England’s showbiz set who don’t work nine-to-five and can therefore spend mornings in Brighton and toddle up to London avoiding the rush hour.

Home To Trendsetters
BRIGHTON is home to celebrities ranging from Cate Blachette to actress Joan Plowright, widow of Laurence Oliver who made Brighton his home for decades: from American Idol judge Simon Cowell to Paul McCartney, although rumor has it the ex-Beatles’ ex-missus will get the sea front house in the divorce settlement. All of these fashionable denizens have driven up the local real estate prices so that Brighton is now one of the most expensive places to live in Britain.

The photogenic city has appeared in innumerable British movies from 1947’s Brighton Rock with Richard Attenborough to Mona Lisa with Bob Hoskins, and even the l995 film Richard III with Sir Ian McKellan. In 2004 Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst escaped to the town for a sexy weekend in the film Wimbledon.

Brighton’s past is even more colorful than its present. The town came into fashion in the 18th century when the Prince Regent (his father was King George III, the one who was unwise enough to mislay the American colonies) decided Brighton was the perfect place to conceal his mistress, Mrs. Fitzherbert, far away from the prying eyes at court.

He built a palace to house the lady and his party minded friends who often accompanied the couple for lavish seaside vacations.

The resulting Brighton Pavilion, open to the public, is quite the most eccentric and fun palace in Europe. It’s a fantasy that combines Chinese furniture and décor with India style minarets, domes and terraces. (Phone: 01144 1273290900 or www.royalpavilion.org.uk)

Check out the close by Brighton Museum which has some killer Art Deco furniture, and a very nice little restaurant.

The Dome—the Prince’s racing stables—showcases live concerts ranging from classical to rock under its vast glass roof.

Places To Stay, And See
THE fact that Brighton is home to the largest gay population outside London has done nothing but increase its reputation for great food, good clubs, fabulous art and design galleries and a nightlife that doesn’t quit.

We stayed at the Hotel Du Vin and Bistro on Ship Street—steps from the sea front and right in the heart of town. From here you can walk to restaurants and shops (the new Lanes and the Old Lanes) famous for antiques and fashionable and quirky boutiques.

The Theater Royal, one of the oldest theatres in England—all Victorian red plush and mahogany—is a great place to see a tryout play before it moves to London’s West End theater district.

Meander through the Old Lanes to window shop the overpriced antique jewelry but do your real shopping in the raffish North Lanes on the other side of North Street where you can still get a few bargains, though given the state of the dollar these are fast shrinking.

The Hotel DuVin (www.hotelduvin.com, phone 011 441273718588) has 37 rooms starting at $300 a night. The boutique hostelry has the most comfortable beds this side of a Four Seasons, offering cool white duvets over Egyptian cotton sheets, flat screen TVs and huge walk-in showers floored in stainless steel.

For couples the hotel has several ultra romantic rooms with side by side twin clawfoot tubs facing the sea view, with nothing between them but a bottle of champagne and a couple of glasses.

The hotel’s bistro has some of the best cuisine in town, seriously French as is the frenetic sommelier Mathieu Ouvrard who is faster in working a room than any wine pusher I have ever seen. There is also a wine cellar for an enophile to salivate over.

Where To Eat
BRIGHTON also has one of the world’s most original lunch spots, Bills, close to the Pavilion. From the outside it looks like a huge produce warehouse, vegetables, and potted plants spilling out into the street. Inside is a cross between an old fashioned grocery store with shelves crammed with jars and cans of goodies, and counters dishing out the most original and wildly decorated salads it has ever been our pleasure to sample. Oh yes and they do sell the produce and the groceries too.

We also heard good reports about, but didn’t have time to sample, Momma Cherri’s Big House which offers—would you believe?—American soul food in the heart of England. It and was featured recently on Chef Gordon Ramsey’s TV show.

Here’s a few insider secrets but keep them to yourself. We’re going back and we don’t want too much crowding from American tourists.

The Melrose Restaurant, a simple bistro on the sea front opposite the old pier, has been run by the same Greek family for 35 years. It’s not fancy but their seafood is fresh and fabulous, and the prices are astonishingly reasonable even in today’s hyperinflated market.

Hove is the community slightly further along the seafront. The new name of the town is actually Brighton and Hove, but the Hove end is a little less hectic or "more refined" as the locals would say.

Check out the Ginger Pig, one of the new English "Gastro Pubs," for lunch or dinner: Terrific and inventive food, great drinks and reasonable prices. 3 Hove Street, 011 441273-736123.

At the other end of Brighton, Kemp Town is home to the Blanch House Hotel and Restaurant, the current darling of the show business "luvvie" set, and serves cool food in even cooler surroundings.

On the other side of the spectrum, fast but excellent sandwiches for "elevensies" (the time when the English stop their morning round for coffee) at the very casual café in central Brighton at Marks and Spencer’s department store, third floor, is totally reliable. Fine sandwiches, cakes and great coffee or tea if you prefer.

Warning: the dollar is weak, the pound is strong, so you need to check the menus carefully if you haven’t taken a line of credit on your house to fund going out for dinner.

One restaurant on the beach in Brighton actually clobbered us for an extra two pounds ($4) "charity contribution." When I checked on what the charity was they said they had a new charity each week and the latest was to help "birds." I asked them to remove the charge.

How We Got There
TRY the new British airline Max Jet. For what other airlines charge for premium economy tickets you can fly nonstop to Stansted Airport avoiding the madhouse that is Heathrow on this fairly new service.

Here’s the kicker: Every seat on their new fleet of 767s is Business Class. Well worth the extra money. Great legroom. We paid $800 each way although you need to check current fares with their website and watch for their "deals."

Fast trains from Stansted leave regularly for Liverpool Street Station in central London. The night before we left to return to Ventura we stayed at the Stansted Radisson a terrific hotel that is barely a 100-yards walk to the check-in desk. Forget the shuttle; it’s the closest I’ve ever stayed to a check-in desk anywhere in the world. www.stansted.radissonsas.com. 011-441279661012. Rooms start at around $220 a night. Well worth it.

Global Guides

Before you head for Brighton, be sure to pick up Lonely Planet Great Britain (1014 pages, $29.99 Amazon.com Price: $19.79 ) for incisive information on England, Scotland and Wales. It calls Brighton an "outrageously hip, delightfully camp and incessantly vibrant seaside resort."

Lonely Planet Africa (1184 pages, $35.99 Amazon.com Price: $23.75 ) is a massive tome to be lugging around but it does cover the continent efficiently. It’s a great reference book before you board your flight. If you don’t plan on taking off a year to tour all 49 countries, then visit www.lonelyplanet.com to select individual guide books dealing with one country at a time.

Lonely Planet Italy (924 pages, $25.99 Amazon.com Price: $17.15 ) gives you history and culture, plus food and art chapters, for every part of the land. It’s a bit heavy, but this book will definitely make your trip easier and a lot more enjoyable. If the capital is your destination, then by all means pick up Lonely Planet Rome (338 pages, $19.99 Amazon.com Price: $13.59 ) to make your visit pleasant in every way. The book is neatly divided into sections covering city life, arts, architecture, food, history, sights, walking tours, eating, drinking, entertainment, shopping, sleeping, excursions, directory, language, index and maps. Delightfully written with lots of information. 

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