Though the hotel in its new guise was ready early this year, I decided to save my first visit to Cooden Beach – since “Beach” is the optimal word here – until the summer.
Well, until last week, there hadn’t been much of that, had there? I waited until the end of August, then bit the bullet, assuming – like the rest of us – that no summer was forthcoming, but hoping for the best. Ha. On the first day of my stay, Storm Antoni chucked it down so prolifically that just getting from the car to the safety of the striped awning above the hotel’s entrance was a feat.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Grace Leo, owner of Cooden Beach, certainly didn’t think it would be like this. An international hotelier, as charming and elegant as she is knowledgeable about worldwide hospitality, Grace has come to rest in Britain, where she is creating a new brand of waterfront hotels called the Relais Retreats.
Her first, in Henley, is a 16th-century coaching inn overlooking the Thames; now it’s the turn of the Relais Cooden Beach, overlooking the English Channel.
Both hotels are a far cry from the likes of the Lancaster and the Montalembert, Europe’s first design hotel in Paris, Cotton House in Mustique, or Vidago Palace in Portugal, which are among her many other projects. Whether they are worthy vehicles for her vision remains to be seen; in the meantime, we are lucky that they have been saved and reimagined by such a pro.
Many a British hotelier might turn up their nose at the idea of creating a dashing retreat in this overlooked, outwardly humdrum spot, not helped by the block of flats opposite the entrance. Not so Grace.
At Cooden Beach, she was struck as much by the hotel’s backstory as by its back view (more of which later) as well as its proximity to London (one hour 50 minutes by train to Victoria) with its very own railway station, two minutes’ walk away. Looking for a fun beach hotel? It’s closer than you think, and affordable too.
First the back story. Cooden Beach was built in typical mock Tudor style in 1928 as part of the development of Bexhill initiated by the 8th Earl De La Warr, who owned the land. The town and its coastline had become increasingly fashionable (the station opened in 1905). There was a royal visit by King George and Queen Mary and later Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret played on the beach. In 1935, the modernist De La Warr Pavilion, today a thriving arts centre, was opened.
And now for that back view. Saturday remained blighted by rain, so much so that my friend Geraldine and I were grateful for the flames in the statement circular glass fireplace in the bar. We saw nothing of the view until the morning when, mercifully, the weather changed: blue skies, scudding clouds and enough warmth to sit outside.
What a revelation. Cooden Beach is huge, beautiful and mostly empty, with marvellous vistas across to Beachy Head in the distance. The stretch, liberally scattered with blue-striped deck chairs, in front of the hotel is private and there’s a terrace for outdoor dining.
Suddenly it was summer, and we were in heaven. After breakfast, we joined a Qigong movement class on the beach and after that I had a gorgeous lava shell massage in the little beauty salon.
In the hands of Grace, and that of her designer Pascal Allaman, Cooden Beach now sports an airy, open plan, coastal feel; a little bit Nantucket, a little bit Deauville, a little bit British (the corridors are accurately painted in English Channel blue). The vibe is cool and easygoing.
We loved the look, which extends to the bedrooms, with its gaily striped carpets. I wished I could have reached the toiletries irritatingly bolted to my bath wall and Geraldine wished she hadn’t had to duck beneath an oddly protruding wall light: those were our niggles. Which didn’t, this time, extend to the food.
At the Relais Henley, Geraldine and I had found fault, but here at Cooden Beach we purred contentedly as we devoured our slow-cooked lamb and seafood stew. Mind you, there was a hiccup with Geraldine’s starter (though no fault of the delightful head chef, Ajay), when she inadvertently sent a quail’s egg, perched on top of her seafood cocktail, flying through the air. Search as we might, we couldn’t find it. At breakfast next morning she dug into her handbag for a pen and, lo, there it was. Mystery solved!
Double rooms from £180 per night, including breakfast. Cooden Sea Road, Bexhill-on-Sea TN39 4TT (01424 842281;