Review: A weekend to savour amid the timeless yet surprising splendour of the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne
It may sound traditional or old-fashioned but the historic hotel is as vibrant as ever, as Peter Ormerod discovered
For many of us, time has taken on a strange quality in the past year. It has hurtled and dragged, felt lumpy and slick, sometimes simultaneously; events have seemed at once seconds ago and from ages past. Time has been elastic, stretching and contorting and warping.
It's notable then that one of the many remarkable things about the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne is that it seems to stand outside time. And that's what, above all, makes it an ideal place to be now. Some may call it traditional or old-fashioned; they may think of it harking back to some golden age of hospitality. But that would not be quite right, because the Grand is no museum or theme park but simply a place that does its own thing and always has and, one, hopes, always will.
Yes, it is vast and palatial. Yes, debonair porters greet you at the doors to its opulent, columned Great Hall, which is aglow in golden light. To the left are sunny and snug lounges; to the right is a restaurant that somehow manages to be both majestic and intimate. Further on, a staircase rises gracefully; wood panels abound; staff - there are lots of them - glide about with a serenity that belies the effort they put into their work, and greet you warmly wherever you happen to encounter them. It sounds like stuff of period dramas, but somehow feels fresh; you know the place has history to spare (it was built in 1875) but you are treated as if you are its first guests.
We were staying in a master suite giving views to an expanse of the English Channel; a balcony let us take it in more fully. It is not a room filled with gadgets and gizmos and gimmicks; the television is sized modestly by today's standards, and while the wi-fi connection is good, there is a sense that this is a chance to escape electronic devices, rather than be subsumed by them. There is a glorious bathroom and lovely furniture, and nothing of the sterility that so many hotels mistake for modernity.
Our first engagement was afternoon tea in the splendour of the Great Hall. Proceedings began with a glass of Louis Roederer Champagne that was as crisp and invigorating as you could dream of; a classic selection of finger sandwiches was delicate but satisfying; fruity pastries brought tang and richness; and the scones were little marvels of melty sweetness and warmth. And the Virunga Earl Grey was as good as Earl Grey gets. Huge credit is due too to the chefs' skills with gluten-free fare, which was every bit the equal of its conventional counterpart.
Eastbourne has various delights. The seafront, great bandstand and all, affords many enjoyable strolls, and the pier is a classic of its kind. Further inland are museums, entertainment venues and family attractions, the miniature steam railway being a particular favourite with families. But all these are perhaps outweighed by its natural glories: the beach grows more ruggedly beautiful as it stretches westward, while the walk up to Beachy Head is one of the most stirring the south-east coast offers.
But exploring the Grand is quite an adventure in itself. It has more than 150 bedrooms, along with countless meeting rooms, a health club equipped with a swimming pool (complementing its older outdoor pool), spa and gym, a snooker room and seemingly endless lushly carpeted corridors with decorative windows and elegant flourishes. Every inch of it seems cared for, inside and out; what an immense job it must be to keep the place this well. It seems to occupy roughly half of Eastbourne.
The Grand has two restaurants. Fans of fine dining may want to opt for the award-winning Mirabelle, where culinary creativity abounds. But the Garden Restaurant is resolutely fad-free, offering a menu that, in all the best ways, would have been familiar to diners from generations past. Dinner there has a relaxed formality: men are expected to wear shirts and jackets, but the environment is so open and light, and the service so warm and breezy, that it never feels stuffy. Our dinner there began with Grand fishcakes, blending soft textures with punchy flavours sharpened by tomato salad and coriander oil. My main course of roast sirloin of Scottish beef with Yorkshire pudding was a rich, mellow and earthy delight; the lightness and freshness of my companion's pan-fried fillet of seabass was offset pleasingly by the samphire cream sauce. Her mixed berry meringue roulade brought zing and crunch and sweetness and depth; my warm apple and cinnamon tarte tatin with tonka bean ice cream was gloriously sticky and spicy and squishy. A glass of fruity, warming Malbec helped everything along.
Sea air, a satisfied stomach and a sumptuous bed meant sleep was easy and deep. So then to breakfast, where seemingly endless breads, pastries and fruits were accompanied in my case by traditional porridge (none of your overly fancy milky sweet stuff here, thank you) and on my first day by a Grand cooked breakfast (everything you'd hope for, done beautifully, especially the poached eggs) and on my second day by kippers, whose saltiness and lemon tang soon woke up any parts of me that were still sleepy. The Garden Restaurant again provided a fine setting.
It all amounted to a holiday that will linger long in the memory. The Grand is a special place, well worth every one of its five stars. 'Grand' can refer to a kind of haughtiness, while the word 'grandeur' is often preceded these days by 'faded', especially where British seaside establishments are concerned. Yet this is friendly and welcoming, with not a hint that its best days are behind it: it feels as alive and vital as it surely ever has. And while it does not claim to be inexpensive, there are some good deals to be had, offering impressive value for money.
To spend time at the Grand is to spend time away from time. It offers timeless luxury by the sea. And that is as valuable now it ever has been.
* Peter Ormerod was hosted by The Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, part of Elite Hotels. Located in the heart of Eastbourne overlooking the seafront, there are 152 bedrooms and suites, two restaurants and a health club with indoor and outdoor pools. Stay overnight from £152 per room (two sharing), including breakfast. Call The Grand Hotel on 01323 412345 (www.grandeastbourne.com).