So good it’s got its own Monopoly set, local expert Suzi Dixon says we should take a Chance on Bournemouth, and enjoy not just its coast, but the culture and food of this increasingly trendy resort town.
What is actually in Bournemouth beyond the beach? With seven miles of award-winning golden sand, you can’t blame people for thinking of fish’n’chips, deckchairs, pier-end entertainment and sandy picnics when they think of Dorset’s premier tourist destination. But the town’s had something of a renaissance and a lot of council investment in the past five years, with a lot behind the seafront to shout about.
Bournemouth has a holiday atmosphere, all year round, and a new wave of quirky boutique hotels and B&bs are attracting more young and funky holidaymakers. Forget the blue rinse brigade and lairy stag night crews of old – tourists in Bournemouth nowadays increasingly come to the town on foodie breaks, to sample the finest fare in Dorset, or on spa weekends, or to enjoy conferences and concerts at the BIC (Bournemouth International Centre) and the O2 Academy.
Best of the Beaten Track
That said, most people are going to base their holiday around the beach, and why not? It’s certainly a good place to start. Bournemouth pier is gorgeous and the surrounding area, including the Lower Gardens, received a recent makeover with more food kiosks, rides on the pier, a traditional carousel, stalls and fun activities for the family. Plans are even afoot for a zip wire! The Lower Gardens also contain the iconic Health On-Line balloon, a great place to sight-see if you are not afraid of heights…
Bournemouth famously has seven miles of beautiful beaches but it’s the three miles from Sandbanks to Canford Cliffs that are particularly pristine. They have held blue flags since 1989. Poole has a stunning natural harbour, the world’s second largest after Sydney. From April to September, the town’s hipsters run boat parties from Poole Harbour around Old Harry’s Rock, three chalk formations which mark the most easterly point of the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A sunset cruise blasting out reggae – once you are beyond the gates of the calm and quiet harbour, of course – is not to be missed. Most are organised by promoters from The Winchester pub, so keep an eye on the website for dates and times.
Locals and surfers tend to drift more eastwards towards Boscombe pier, which gets great waves despite the failure of the artificial reef. For those looking for a more cosmopolitan area, swanky Sandbanks has a beautiful harbour and ferry trips over to Brownsea Island for wildlife walks. The Purbeck Flyer will take you from the town centre past the harbour to the ferry port. Or head to Hengistbury Head for a more challenging walk and beautiful views across the bay.
Experience & Events
You may like to visit Bournemouth during one of its many festivals, or enjoy it off-season and avoid the crowds. For a full programme of annual events head to the city’s official website and use their event finder. Notably, the Bournemouth Air Festival in August, the Bournemouth Bay Run at the end of March or the Food & Drink Festival in June are bound to make the town busier than usual. Opting for accommodation with good public transport links is essential during these times.
The Green House hotel is popular for its eco innovations and also its award-winning restaurant, Arbor. Awarded silver in the Dorset Tourism Awards in the first few month’s since the restaurant’s relaunch, Arbor offers seasonal and local produce in a laidback setting. Chef Andy Hilton and manager Olivia O’Sullivan are passionate about Dorset flavours, sustainability and originality, with all produce sourced within a 50 mile radius of the Green House, ensuring the finest, freshest ingredients. If you are travelling with a family, the Riviera Hotel and Apartments has its own outdoor private pool and a games room, so you are covered for rainy days. The apartments are also an attractive option for those who want the privacy and freedom of self-catering, without renting a cottage that’s miles from the town centre. The Queens Hotel and Spa tops my list for beauty or bootcamp breaks. The Forever Gorgeous Spa, in the hotel’s basement, is newly refurbished and includes a couples’ treatment room or a larger private room for hens or birthday pampering parties. The Urban Beach hotel only has 12 rooms but has the wow-factor and ultimate in surfer chic, walking distance from Boscombe pier.
Speaking of food… if you are eating out with a group, I highly recommend Scene Asia. This is Indian, Chinese and Thai street food at its best. Every chef is an expert in their field and will cook specific dishes to order if the buffet doesn’t have what you want. There’s even a whole table of desserts and a chocolate fountain. Yum! Burger Shop, on Old Christchurch Road, is newly opened and offers gourmet burgers with a hip hop soundtrack. The triple-cooked chips are to die for. Make sure you get a portion each if you are dining with a partner else you may well fall out. By day, Flirt Cafe in the Triangle is quirky and cool, with a massive menu of sandwiches, salads, smoothies; a hot buffet and drinks after dark; it forms the cornerstone or Bournemouth’s ‘Soho’, the BH2 area, which houses the gay community and is also a hotspot for the town’s thriving underground dance scene.
A little up from Flirt, The Winchester, on Poole Hill, has long been the hub of Bournemouth’s DJ scene. Local DJs often spin here after returning from gigs in Prague, Berlin or Paris – techno, tech house and electro are the most popular nights, while deep house and drum’n’bass parties also take place. Named by Escapism magazine as the best town in the South for clubbing, Bournemouth nightlife is for those who seriously love to dance. Taking the lead from The Winchester, the recently revitalised Halo nightclub and Orange Rooms now also offer an underground sound and Sasha, John Digweed, Zane Lowe, Ferry Corsten, Steve Lawler and Pete Tong have all worked the turntables here. More big names are in the pipeline for early 2014 so be sure to keep an eye on underground bible Bournemouthnews.info to plan your visit. If you like your music a tad more commercial, Bar So, next to Bournemouth’s main square and Lower Gardens, plays the more accessible end of dance and offers two floors plus a cocktail terrace for your night of fun and frolics.
Getting There & Around
Bournemouth airport has expanded and is served by the major European cities, as well as a few quirky places such as Wroclaw in Poland, Sharm al Sheikh in Egypt and Dubrovnik in Croatia. See Bournemouthairport.com for a complete list. More than 20 airlines operate out of the area but the most popular routes are probably those provided by easyJet, Aer Lingus and Ryanair. Once in the city you’ll find parking is expensive and hard to come by in the summer months. Go green and take the bus! The town’s Yellow Buses and New York-esque yellow cabs are great value for money and it’s easy to hop on and hop off around the town centre. For links to Poole, Wilts and Dorset M1 and M2 bus services have free wifi to keep you entertained on your journey. To head to Sandbanks and as far as Swanage, the opened-topped Purbeck Flyer is the only way to travel in the sunny summer months. For shorter journeys, you can hire bikes by the day or week from the seafront, near the main pier.
Last year, the Make It Bournemouth campaign included two TV adverts, showing the benefits of Bournemouth beyond the beach. For information from the tourism offices, see Visitbournemouth.com. My own website BournemouthNews.info has reviewed pretty much every bar, club and restaurant worth going to. They are also first on the scene when a new place opens but never review until one month in, to get feedback and stay undercover. As such, you can be assured of an honest and accurate article on each venue.
Bournemouth: Then & Now by John Needham is a great book for a history of seaside life, from the Victorians who believed sea air could cure all manner of ills, to the first few beach huts, which were little more than ramshackle sheds. Just Bournemouth by Keith Rawling is more useful in terms of up-to-date information and maps of the town centre. And – it’s not a book so forgive the poetic licence – I really recommend Bournemouth & Poole Monopoly for getting your head round the various districts and how they relate.
Bournemouth may not have been immortalised on Hollywood celluloid lately but we do have links to the silver screen, with Christian Bale a famous ex-Bournemouth resident. On TV, Harbour Lives, presented by Ben Fogle, is promising to be a popular insight into life in Poole.
Soundtrack to the City