A short stay in... Brighton

A dirty weekend, the best in Bohemian shopping, a swinging gay scene and the funkiest nightlife outside London. Enough reasons to head for this legendary seaside town? No? OK, what about the pavilion, the pier, the funfair, fish'n'chips, the rock...

WHY GO THERE?

Brighton has been the definitive destination for a dirty weekend since Prince Regent partied here with his mistress in the late 1700s. The Prince (later to become the decadent King George IV) was largely responsible for making the city what it is today: the most interesting and alternative British seaside resort by far. Testaments to the Prince's exotic brand of hedonism are still much in evidence in the flamboyant Royal Pavilion. Always a place for illicit pleasures, the city boasts one of the most lively nightlife scenes outside London and is refreshingly permissive, with a thriving gay scene. Brighton has long tended towards the idiosyncratic, and as residents say "if you don't get it, it's not for you". With the Brighton Festival running from until 24 May, there is no better time to experience Brighton rock.

WHEN TO GO

Since Brighton is more than just a seaside resort, a visit out of season does not equal rain-soaked boredom. Much of the attraction lies in the city's burgeoning nightlife and shopping scene, and its events calendar is packed with festive, sporting and arts programmes year round. The Brighton Festival, at various venues around the city, is heralded as the biggest mixed arts festival in England, encompassing national and international theatre, dance, art, opera, concerts and exhibitions. The Festival Box Office is at The Dome, 29 New Road ( 01273 709709).

GETTING THERE

By Road: Brighton is about 50 miles from London on the M23/A23, which takes about 90 minutes in a car and a couple of hours by coach. Express coaches run from London's Victoria Coach station (0171 730 3466). However, during May there are major road works on the main routes into Brighton which, in addition to bank holiday traffic, will probably double your travel time. Probably better to make the journey...

By Rail: Connex South Central has a regular service from London Victoria to Brighton via East Croydon, with an express train (49 minutes) running both ways once an hour. This will be increased to every half hour at the end of May. Thameslink runs services from Bedford via Luton, London Bridge and Kings Cross. Scotland, the North West and the Midlands are all served by direct services. There are also direct trains from Wales and the West Country. For more information call National Rail Enquiries on 0345 484950.

WHAT TO SEE

One of the great things about Brighton is that everything is within easy walking distance. Buses are plentiful and any taxi journey within the city costs no more than about pounds 3. The Tourist Office provides a free map, and although navigating the city is fairly simple, this can be useful in the Lanes. There are endless city tours on offer, the more intriguingly titled of which are Famous Back Passages of Brighton, the Sewers Tour, and the Cemetery Walk, where participants visit the sprawling Lewes Road Cemetery - cremation place of Aleister Crowley. Brighton Tourist Information Centre has further details (see INFORMATION section).

The Royal Pavilion: this Oriental, Mogul-style Palace, set in an English garden, is a must see. Originally built by the Prince Regent as a Royal resort, guests came to live it up away from the social confines of London, and to "take the water"- a 4am bathing ritual and revolting seawater crabs'- eyes beverage. Keep your shades on for the technicolour interior - all rich red, gold leaf, and opulent Chinese patterns. Admission pounds 4.50.

Preston Manor: this old manor house just off the Preston Road was originally built in 1250 as a monk's dwelling. Bought by the Stanford family in the late 1700s, the house evokes perfectly the atmosphere of an Edwardian gentry home. Ghostly sightings were once frequently reported - the disembodied hands of a murdered nun, buried in unconsecrated ground outside the house, were said to creep up bedposts. Admission, if you dare, pounds 3. A joint ticket to the Royal Pavilion and Preston Manor can be bought from both venues for pounds 6.50.

The Lanes: see SHOPPING.

Regency Town House: 13 Brunswick Sq (01273 206306). This Grade I listed, terraced home dates back to the 1820s. The building is in the final stages of restoration as a heritage centre, and will eventually be a "how-the- other-half-lived" alternative to the Royal Pavilion. Guided tours of the house and town illustrate that Brighton is one of the UK's most important towns in terms of Regency architecture.

Brighton Museum & Art Gallery: near the Pavilion on Church St, this museum houses 20th-century art and design from Clarice Cliff to Zandra Rhodes, arts from around the world, and is at present holding the impressive Surreal Life: Edward James exhibition. Admission free.

The Piers: Palace Pier with its cacophonous amusement arcades, screaming fairground rides and endless junk food stalls is an essential part of any trip to Brighton. Entrance is free, but anything thereafter involves parting with cash. In contrast, the West Pier is historically and architecturally unique as the only Grade I listed pier in the country. It dates back to the late 1800s but has been closed due to storm damage since 1975. Seemingly a monumental, rusting ruin, the structure actually remains fundamentally unchanged since 1916. This summer may be the last chance to go on to the pier before renovation work starts. To organise a tour call 01273 321499 - expect to don a life jacket and hard-hat, and to pick your way through mountains of pigeon poo.

The Brighton Fishing Museum: situated between the two piers in the fishing quarter, under the Kings Road arches, this is worth a visit. Admission is free and it has some turn-of-the-century film of Brighton seaside.

SHOPPING

From new-age crystals to exquisite antique jewellery, and not forgetting vegetarian shoes, Brighton is a consumer heaven for die-hard shoppers. Even without many pennies to spend, much of your time in the city will be spent wandering aimlessly around its famous Lanes - the maze of small, pedestrian streets given over entirely to shops crammed with curiosities. The Tourist Office (see INFORMATION) has a comprehensive, free booklet detailing Brighton's wide range of shops and watering holes, but your first stop should undoubtedly be North Lane. Dubbed Brighton's Bohemian Quarter, North Lane is home to more than 350 of the most quirky shops you're ever likely to wave a credit card at; up and coming designers, second-hand stores, local crafts, and goods from across the globe. The Lanes, once the heart of the original fishing town of Brighthelmstone, provide the best of the city's shopping with designer clothing, jewellery and antiques shops set around cosmopolitan squares and dissected by narrow brick-paved pathways.

The recently renovated area on the Esplanade, just along from the Palace Pier, is classed as the Artists' Quarter. Residing in little shops underneath the arches are one-off items, ranging from traditional buckets and spades to the obligatory pieces of funky driftwood furniture.

The style-challenged can find high street names in North and East Streets, Western Road and Churchill Square - the latter is undergoing transformation from an ugly 1960s shopping precinct into a swanky, undercover mall catering for the characteristically rain-soaked British seaside shopper.

WHERE TO STAY

Although there are a vast number of hotels in Brighton, it is worth booking ahead, especially over a bank holiday weekend. Prices are per person per night, based on two people sharing a room.

n The Oriental Hotel, 9 Oriental Place (01273 205050). This hotel, with its relaxed atmosphere, funky decor and young owners, is situated just off the front at the West Pier end. From pounds 15.

n Paskins Town House, 19 Charlotte Street (01273 601203). Pristine decor, tranquil atmosphere and renowned veggie breakfasts using mostly organic produce (50 varieties of veggie sausage come through the kitchen annually) Two minutes from the Kemp Town sea front. From pounds 17.50.

n Ainsley House, 28 New Steine (01273 605310). Traditional, couple-run B&B, very homey and two minutes from Marine Parade. From pounds 22.

n The Regency, 28 Regency Square (01273 202690). Once the home of Winston Churchill's great grandmother, this superb Regency Town House is a grade II listed building set in a charming square with views of sea and ailing West Pier. From pounds 35

n The Granville, 124 Kings Road (01273 326302). This hotel boasts prime promenade position and 24 en-suite bedrooms, each decorated with their own theme. Try the Noel Coward suite or the pink and white Brighton Rock room. From pounds 49.

FOOD AND DRINK

With more than 400 eateries in Brighton you're certainly not going to go hungry. Alongside the ubiquitous fish and chips, there is cuisine to represent more or less every country on the planet; Italian, Indian, Mexican, Caribbean, Chinese, Lebanese, Mongolian, Turkish, Greek, French, Belgian, Thai, Indonesian, Californian ... and English. Foodie zones are around Hove's Church and Western Roads, Preston Street and The Lanes in Brighton, and the seafront in Kemp Town.

n Quentin's, 42 Western Rd, Hove (01273 822734). Very civilised place for a classy nosh-up in a relaxed, rustic setting. Three courses can be consumed for pounds 18.95, and the menu features everything from guinea fowl to fresh catch of the day.

n Terre A Terre, 71 East St (01273 729051). Very inventive, global veggie dishes, in brightly painted, arty setting. Eat your way around the menu with Terre Tapas for two for pounds 9.75.

n English's Oyster Bar, 29-31 East St (01273 327980). Superlative Oysters for pounds 7.95. Pricey but tasty a la carte, and very good value set lunches at pounds 6.95 for two courses.

n Surfers @ Paradise, 18a Bond St, North Lane (01273 684184). Eat on- line at this minimalist restaurant with internet access, whirling wall projections, and a good new world wine list. Dishes range from steak to seared tuna, and two courses cost about pounds 15 per person.

n The Greys, 105 Southover St (01273 680734). This tiny pub is classed as one of the best in town due to its eccentric landlord and Belgian menu. Set menus and a la carte, with two courses from about pounds 10. Book a week in advance for dinner: this small pub has a big reputation.

n Richards, 101 Western Rd, Hove (01273 720058). The perfect pre-theatre/club drinking venue with buzzy atmosphere and an all day breakfast menu for all night party-heads. Full English for a fiver.

NIGHT LIFE

Along with its shopping, Brighton's night- life ranks among some of the best in the country and was recently responsible for the birth of big beats, a genre of dance music that has taken nightclubs at home and overseas by storm. Whether you want to wig out at the Big Beat Boutique or have your ribs tickled at the Komedia, Brighton's myriad venues will provide the most avid creature-of-the-night with fun until sun-up.

Following are some notable nightclub knees-ups, but more extensive listings can be found in publications such as What's On (free from the tourist board), Impact (50p or free in clubs and pubs), The Latest (30p), and The Argus (28p), available from newsagents and tourist offices.

Old favourites: The Escape (10 Marine Parade), and The Zap (Kings Rd Arches) are still going strong, attracting large crowds for jungle and house nights.

Gay: Wild Fruit at The Paradox (78, West St) is a popular monthly, mixed gay night.

Top two: The Honey Club (Kings Rd Arches) attracts top national DJs and a glam house crowd, but the ultimate Brighton club night has to be Big Beat Boutique at the Concourse (Madeira Drive). The Skint crew have still got punters making pilgrimages from across the country.

OUT OF TOWN

In just two and a quarter hours, for pounds 10 (foot passengers, day return) and pounds 35 (per car, day return), you can be wandering around Dieppe sampling French fare from the produce markets. Stena (0990 980980) operates a high-speed ferry link between Dieppe and Newhaven - the port is nine miles from Brighton: take local buses from opposite the Sea Life Centre. Round tickets, including port transfers, can be purchased from local travel agents.

Those without passports should head for Lewes, set in the South Downs six miles from Brighton. Lewes is a remarkably well preserved old town with beautiful Georgian buildings and a castle built by William the Conqueror's son-in-law. Hosting some of the most impressive displays of Guy Fawkes pyrotechnics in the country, Lewes is well worth a visit on 5 November. Take local buses from the stop outside the Royal Pavilion, or trains run half-hourly from Brighton station.

DEALS AND PACKAGES

Brighton Tourist Board is extending an arts-friendly welcome to visitors throughout the festival, offering special rates at selected hotels with a free pass to the Royal Pavilion, and free temporary membership to the Festival Club. Call the individual hotels in question - listed in Brighton Festival Brochure (brochure request line 0345 573512). Stay at the politician's favourite, the Grand Hotel, Kings Road, Brighton (01273 321188). Between Sunday and Thursday this first-rate hotel overlooking the piers has B&B for pounds 50 a person, per night (pounds 80 other nights).

INFORMATION

Brighton Tourist Information Centres can be found at Bartholomew Square (01273 292599, opening hours 9-5 Mon-Fri, 10-5 Sat, and 10-4 Sun). They offer a room reservation service for a pounds 1 fee plus a 10 per cent deposit of your first night's accommodation.

There are free information brochures available on various subjects including the festival, or visit Virtual Brighton at www.brighton.co.uk.

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