For a quintessential seaside escape, look no further than Bournemouth. This famed South Coast resort sits midway along a 10-mile sandy sweep whose promenade is lined with colourful beach huts beneath sandstone cliffs. Its metropolitan area encompasses several urban villages between Southbourne and Sandbanks, each with distinctive appeal: be it Boscombe’s bohemian buzz or the kiss-me-quick kitsch of Bournemouth itself.
The past decade has seen the seafront greatly reinvigorated and its blue-rinse image gradually replaced by surfer chic, cool accommodation and events such as the Bournemouth Air Festival (30 August-2 September) followed the next month by Arts by the Sea (29 September-6 October).
What to do
Hit the beach
Bournemouth’s biggest draw is its generous drift of soft, golden sand. Good weather brings beach-goers in their thousands, but those less keen on crowds can still find quiet stretches. Take a dip (the microclimate here sees some of the UK’s warmest sea water temperatures), relax in a deckchair or grab an ice cream from a beachfront stall.
Walk the plank
As for attractions, Bournemouth Pier (admission £1.20) is the obvious place to start. Step past the candy floss, funfair and slot machines to get rigged up for a ride on PierZip, the world’s first pier-to-shore zip wire (£20pp or £35 for two). Rock Reef indoor climbing wall is a good bet for wet-weather family fun.
New for this summer is a Selfie Wall Trail linking 11 colourful murals dotted along the seafront. The works, all by local artists, adorn everything from amusement arcades to public lavatories.
If there’s a swell, grab a surfboard and try your luck at catching a wave. If not, no worries: the chances are you’ve got perfect conditions for stand-up paddleboarding. Rent either board from Surf Steps on Boscombe Beach for £10 an hour, or take a 90-minute lesson for £35 per adult.
Poole Harbour, to the west of town, is scattered with uninhabited isles. Brownsea Island has gorgeous walks through woods populated by native red squirrels. The crossing from Sandbanks costs £7 with Brownsea Island Ferries; admission to the island (free for National Trust members) costs £8.
Under the sea
Visit the seafront Oceanarium for close encounters with otters, stingrays, sharks and African penguins. Admission £12.50.
Where to stay
Situated on a leafy street in Eastcliff uphill from Bournemouth Pier, The Orchid Hotel is ideally placed for easy access to everything. This gracious Edwardian townhouse hotel is classy but informal, with a bar, restaurant and 31 cheerful, newly refurbished rooms. The boutique styling is fresh and contemporary, while a 15-mile breakfast keeps things nice and local. Doubles from £130, B&B.
Boutique style takes more of a seaside slant at Urban Beach, an outpost of surfer cool plonked incongruously on a Boscombe backstreet. Chandeliers and plush fabrics give the 12 rooms a sense of opulence that contrasts with the beachy vibe downstairs in the restaurant, bar and tropical-themed, all-weather deck. The actual beach lies a 10-minute walk away. Doubles from £125, B&B.
Wake up to the ultimate sea view by booking one of the 15 (soon to be 24) Bournemouth Beach Lodges on Boscombe seafront. An upgrade on the classic beach hut, these cleverly cosy and compact seaside lodges can sleep four adults and two children and come complete with bathroom, kitchenette, TV, Wi-Fi and south-facing decks. Available for three, four or seven-night stays from £295.
Where to eat
You can’t visit the coast and not have fish and chips. Grab the classic dish from Key West Bar & Grill at the end of Bournemouth Pier, or opt for burgers, wings or salad – all served with splendid sea views.
Alternatively, upgrade to a quality seafood supper at WestBeach, whose fold-back windows and outdoor terrace open directly onto the promenade. Mains such as baked hake or South Coast crab straddle the £20 mark, or go all-out with a shellfish sharing platter for £55.50.
There’s more seafront dining at Urban Reef, which offers wood-fired pizzas, cocktails and beers at promenade level, or a fuller menu upstairs spanning burgers, fish and Indonesian curry, including a great range of “plant-powered” options and a focus on regional ingredients.
For a treat, book a table at Arbor – one of Bournemouth’s best restaurants – for exceptional but relaxed fine dining with a regional twist. Sustainable seafood and artisanal ingredients are sourced “from bay, barn and butcher” across Wessex and turned into the likes of duck wellington or pork cheek curry and presented in an airy, contemporary space dressed with upcycled furniture.
Where to drink
Start your day with a caffeine kick at South Coast Roast, a speciality coffee shop that roasts its own beans. Go beyond the lattes, long blacks and flat whites to try something out of the ordinary, such as a High Tide cold-brew served over ice with a wedge of orange.
Bournemouth is home to a thriving LGBT+ scene centred on The Triangle area, just up from The Square. Whatever your persuasion, head to Flirt Cafe Bar (01202 553999) for cocktails, beers and bar snacks enjoyed by a mixed and upbeat crowd.
For something a bit more sophisticated, ascend to LEVEL8IGHT Sky Bar on the eighth floor of the Hilton Bournemouth hotel. It’s the South West’s highest bar, which makes it the perfect vantage point for sipping cocktails (all priced at £11) while gazing over rooftops to the pier.
Where to shop
Bournemouth’s main shopping area lies either side of The Square. Commercial Road and Old Christchurch Roads’ pedestrian precinct is lined with quality high street chains such as Debenhams, Waterstones and Superdry.
For more in the way of independent shops, head to the suburbs. Southbourne’s best picks include Sugar Mango for its covetable collection of urban beach style womenswear, jewellery and gifts; head to BH6 (01202 418403) for carefully curated books, gifts and quirky home accessories.
Westbourne also shines for its grand Victorian shopping arcade filled with interesting stores and Bournemouth Colosseum, the UK’s smallest cinema (with just 19 seats). Nearby So specialises in design classics among its highly desirable range of furniture, lighting and decorative items.
Time your visit for the first Saturday of the month to catch Westbourne Farmers Market’s artisanal produce and goods.
Built in 1901 as East Cliff Hall, Russell-Cotes – an opulent villa, now a museum – looks down on Bournemouth Pier from the cliffs. The whimsical confection borrows widely from French, Moorish, Japanese, Renaissance and Scottish Baronial styles and is packed with art and other treasures collected by its Victorian owners. Admission £7.50; closed Mondays.
Nuts and bolts
Catch a bus from The Square (the main interchange) to reach Boscombe, Westbourne, Sandbanks and elsewhere.
Boscombe Pier is best for sea views framed by the Isle of Wight on one side and Old Harry Rocks on the other.
Take a break from the bustle and check out one of Bournemouth’s magical chines – steep, wooded ravines running perpendicular to the shore.
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