Days out: Pushing the boat out with minarets and chips

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Sharks, shops and a fantasy palace: for a refreshing and inexpensive day trip,

Sarah Jewell goes to Brighton.

On a cold day in January, when the bills keep plopping through the letterbox and the winter blues have set in, a day trip to Brighton is a good way to cheer yourself and the children up without spending too much money. The sea air is as invigorating today as it was in the 1750s, when Dr Richard Russell's sea-water cures turned the little fishing town of Brighthelmstone into a fashionable seaside resort. Warm sea water mixed with milk is no longer considered particularly therapeutic, but a good dose of shopping is uplifting, and the streets of Brighton are crammed with tiny shops selling antiques, arts and crafts, bric-a-brac and knick- knacks to suit all tastes and purse sizes. And when your feet are aching there is a huge choice of cafes in which to recover, from the Wai Kika Moo Kau Global Vegetarian Cafe, to the Shark Bar on the beach.

The visitors

Sarah Jewell took her nephew Alfie Stirling, seven, and his friend Juliette Denny, six.

Sarah: As we walked out of Brighton station, blinking into the sunshine, there was only one direction Alfie and Juliette wanted to go and that was due south, straight down the hill to the sea. However, I managed to persuade them to turn left so that I could enjoy browsing through the North Lanes. Sydney Street, Gloucester Road, Kensington Gardens and Gardner Street are bursting with bargains and curiosities; you can buy original Thirties cigarette cards, Art Deco wooden chairs, Victorian silver-backed hairbrushes, and vegetarian shoes. Alfie and Juliette soon got fed up, so we walked through the centre of town past the high street stores and down to the seafront.

Standing on the promenade, we leant over the blue Victorian railings and admired the pea-green waves and then crunched our way along the glistening grey pebbles towards the Palace Pier. All along the beach there are dozens of little arches, but under the road, tucked away in one of them is the Fishing Museum. The Sussex Maid a Fifties fishing trawler, squats in the arch surrounded by shells and nets and pictures of ships.

We walked up to the pier and along the wooden-slatted deck. Here the air smelt refreshing and the water sparkled as we promenaded up and down just as the Victorians would have done. Feeling hungry, we fortified ourselves with fish and chips and then walked past the amusement arcade to the children's funfair on the end of the pier where we sampled the genteel delights of the bumper boats, the mini-dodgems and the leaping horses on the golden carousel.

Back down the pier and across the road, another Victorian building has been renovated. The old Brighton Aquarium, built in 1872, houses the Sea Life Centre and some of the original Victorian tanks have been restored. Here little pop-eyed plaice and great gulping catfish swim about. In the modern tanks, tiny seahorses and huge gliding rays are equally enchanting, but I most enjoyed gawping at the white-bellied sharks in the underwater tunnel.

After tea in the Lanes we wandered back towards the station past George IV's fantasy palace, the Royal Pavilion. Outlined against the afternoon sun, the onion-shaped domes and flying minarets looked bizarrely exotic: an uplifting end to a refreshing day out.

Alfie: I thought it was a bit boring walking down to the sea as all the shops we looked in were selling things for grown-ups, like tables and chairs and pots and jewellery, but I did like the juggling shop. It had juggling balls and kites and skates in the window, and I thought it would be a really good place to buy a present.

The beach was quite exciting. It was nice and cool, as I felt hot after walking through the town, and I liked the sound of the pebbles crunching under my boots. I liked looking for treasure, and found a ball of fish eggs which I took home.

I thought the pier was very exciting. I loved the funfair and best of all I liked the Crazy Clown Flying Roundabout. It was brilliant, as it went right up in the air. The Sea Life Centre was fun. I really liked pretending it was scary in the shark tunnel and shouting out, and I liked looking at all the fish. I didn't like the Pavilion much; I thought it was a bit fancy and trying to show off, with all those turrets.

Juliette: I wanted to walk straight down to the pier, but Sarah wanted to look in all the shops. I did like some of the shops especially the one which had rolls of black-and-white-spotted material in the window that looked like Dalmatian dog hair. I liked the beach and the tiny little puppet shop on the seafront which had string puppets hanging in the window. I thought the pier was very exciting. I liked sitting in a canoe that floated round a little river through a tepee and past a giant cactus, and I liked the bumper boats. Sea Life was fun. I liked touching things in the rock pool. The sea-anemones were really sticky, and the hermit crabs were all bumpy. I thought the ray fish were very friendly because they kept sticking their noses out of the water to say hello. I had a really good day out in Brighton and I enjoyed going home on the train.

The deal

Brighton is one hour from London Victoria by train, with two trains every hour.

Palace Pier, Madeira Drive (01273 609361) open daily 10am-10pm, admission free. Brighton Fishing Museum, 201 Kings Road Arches (01273 723064), open daily 10am-5pm, admission free. Royal Pavilion, 4-5 Pavilion Buildings (01273 290900) open daily 10am-5pm, admission adult pounds 4.10, child pounds 2.50, conc pounds 3. Sea Life Centre, Marine Parade (01273 604234) open daily 10am- 4.30pm, admission adult pounds 5.50, child pounds 3.95, conc pounds 3.95