I have a photograph of me aged six on the beach at Eastbourne, with the town’s iconic Grade II-listed pier in the background. I’m wearing my favourite towelling robe. It’s white and covered in a pattern of black seahorses. I’m beaming, because I’m on holiday with my mum and dad, and I’m clearly on a sugar high from whatever I’d demanded in lieu of lunch. We were probably planning to go and fly my kite on Beachy Head later that afternoon.
I spent many summers in Eastbourne as a child and have enormous affection for it. I forget where we stayed, but it was always the same guest house with a busy carpet, a creaking staircase that split midway in different directions and a tiny cocktail bar with a jukebox that played Carole Bayer Sager’s You’re Moving Out Today on a loop; its piano intro still takes me back to 1977 in a heartbeat.
On each visit, we would admire the splendour of the Grand Hotel, aka the White Palace. We never ventured in. I didn’t know why, but of course now I realise it’s because we couldn’t afford it. The Grand Hotel is for special occasions, and families with the ways and means to breakfast in its palatial Garden Restaurant, where your smashed avocado on toast is swept to your table on a plate covered with an ornate silver cloche and unveiled with a “voila” from the waiter.
I stayed recently, in one of the newly refurbished suites (28 Superior rooms have also been updated). I was in room 200, the Debussy Suite. The composer stayed here while working on La Mer in 1905. The refresh has left it gleaming white, with a shiny marble bathroom and cleverly designed Molton Brown branded refillable dispensers attached to the shower wall. There’s a terrace with impressive views out to the giant (white, of course) ferris wheel and beach. In my lounge there was an incongruous 1970s-style fireplace constructed from those amber fire glass gems that glow when you turn it on.
The Grand Hotel is plush, with awesome spatial volumes and interior details, and just enough faded seaside glamour to remind you that this is somewhere built for swanky Londoners to escape to in the late 19th century. It’s quirky: the toilets are all marked “cloakrooms”, with sign writing on wood that must be from the 1950s; the Wi-Fi is painfully slow; and the hotel makes its own gin. There’s an outdoor and indoor heated pool and health club.
Afternoon tea in the Great Hall feels cinematic and genteel, with soaring ceilings and antique furniture, while light lunches (sandwiches, burgers and salads are detailed on a menu with as many different teas as there are wines), are served in the lounge next to the terrace and bar at the front of the hotel.
My dinner was at Mirabelle, a fine dining spot. It’s hushed and chic, but unpretentious. One of my more eccentric friends was dining with me and asked for chips as a starter, rather than the wild mushroom broth and ravioli with crispy sage that I was having. The waiter found it charming, hailing it “a brilliant idea!” By the end of the evening, we felt like his best friend. I moved on to lemon sole with a dab of caviar; my companion had artfully arranged duck breast. She dashed off to make the last train to London and I worked my way through five cheeses then decamped to the bar for a martini, which was as 1970s as Carole Bayer Sager.
I love sitting at a bar on my own, eavesdropping on people’s conversations. And eyeballing the crowd. At The Grand, the guests are varied, but mostly 25 to 35 years older than me. This, for them, is as nostalgic as my first visits to Eastbourne. Many had mobility issues, with all the walkers, canes and other accessories that come with them. I’m glad this place exists and hasn’t been remodelled. The appeal is clear – it’s comfortable, friendly and old-school swanky.
While I sipped my martini, I thought of my parents, who passed away some time ago. They’d have loved it here. I took my mother to a Robuchon restaurant in Monte Carlo once, and she projectile-spat everything out of her mouth onto her plate after I’d informed her that the “lovely bit of lamb” she was eating was, in fact, squid with various alchemical embellishments. I grew up on a diet of egg and chips and chicken nuggets. She found that menu, and the hotel we were in, bewildering. The Grand isn’t bewildering, intimidating, or trying to be cool. It’s just... grand.
Doubles at The Grand Hotel ((01323 412345; grandeastbourne.com) start from £156, including breakfast. There are several rooms with walk-in showers and grab rails, and one fully accessible room.