There’s no doubt that the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne is a place which evokes a bygone era, but it seemed a bit much that you could lie on your four-poster bed, look over your balcony onto the English Channel and see a Lancaster bomber rumble past your window, flanked by a Spitfire and a Hurricane. Attention to detail, you think to yourself, that’s the beauty of these old-style hotels. They think of everything ...
Such illusions are rudely shattered moments later by the cacophonous rumble of the Red Arrows scorching over the top of the hotel - another part of the deeply impressive Eastbourne Air Show (‘Airbourne’, geddit?) which runs for four days each summer and includes the Battle of Britain flypast, the Arrows, and displays from jet fighters of the recent past, propeller-led aerobatics of an earlier era, and wing-walking on top of a pair of biplanes from the Guinot from earlier still, the 1920s.
The air show, whether jet-fuelled or twin-propped (and the largest free such show in Europe) adds a suitable air of old-fashioned, daredevil fun to a weekend at the Grand where taking the sea air and enjoying the simple pleasures are just the ticket.
Since taking over in 1998, the Grand’s owners, Elite hotels, have spent a great deal of money on tarting up the inside of this spectacular, icing-sugared concoction of layers, balconies and columns, that dominates one end of the town’s sea-front. A dowager, from the 1870s, returned to former glories, but this has been no Hip Hotels makeover (just as well in the candyfloss-and-rock streets of Eastbourne). And while the political conferences are looking to the grittier locations of the likes of Liverpool and Manchester, so the Grand has eschewed the corporate trappings (well-equipped though they are) and clothed itself in its own history, not in inoffensive almond whites, but its original creams, peaches, ivories and golds, tasteful echoes of the White Palace of the exterior.
Once past the sweeping entrance, and just beyond the foyer, the Great Hall recalls the Hotel’s most famous era - the period from 1924-1939 when the Palm Court Orchestra broadcast to the nation every Sunday night. Now, one Sunday every month, the Palm Court Strings play to a smaller but appreciative audience taking tea, finger sandwiches and delicate cakes, a reminder of the days when whole households would decamp and both the toffs and their servants would take up residence.
The 152 rooms too, are dressed to impress. From suites with four-posters and sea-facing balconies to the more modest standard rooms, facing inland (reflecting perhaps the old master and servant divide), they all share attention to detail at least - the Molten Brown toiletries and the gowns on the back of the door - some to fit the grown-ups and some to fit the children.
That last is a nice touch for a hotel looking increasingly to the family market. For our crew, the luxury of a weekend in a Five Star hotel (the best on the south coast, by the AA’s reckoning) isn’t in where we can place the servants, but where we can place the kids. And whether they are welcome. ...
At six and four, our children are of the age when giving cheek and throwing themselves 100mph into every nook and cranny is entertainment to surpass even a Wii. So the first glance liveried staff of the Grand were a bit alarming - the last thing you need on a weekend away is the hot stare of disapproving staff and guests. But while they were buttoned-up, they were not stuffy. They were very friendly and helpful, in fact. On arrival, the kids got a small backpack with a camera, sunglasses and hat, and there’s an Ofsted-approved playroom to get them creative for an hour or so while the parents indulge themselves in the spa, the gym, the cocktail bar or the indoor or outdoor pool. The children’s tea room gets good marks too, as children can build their own burger, stuff their face with pizza or snaffle fish fingers in an environment where they are encouraged rather than merely allowed.
In the interests of investigation though, we tried for the high end of the food market... The top Mirabelle is a French restaurant of the fancy variety - named after its estranged sister in Mayfair (they now have different owners), and one of the best in the land, according to those who know (The Good Food Guide for one). Not one for the nippers then - excellent though it reputedly is - so we traded down a teensy bit. The Garden restaurant is slightly less formal (jacket, rather than jacket and tie), but the youngsters were still told to be on best behaviour - it’s grown-up territory. Fears of guests glaring at a child picking up the fish knife to butter his bread were again eased by waiters and staff indulging them to such a degree that the pianist twinkling Palm Court classics in the centre of the dining room switched to Elvis and Abba to satisfy quirkier tastes. He switched back before the older visitors noticed.
Did I mention the food was great? English, rather than French, so perhaps not so cheered on by more sophisticated palates than ours, but expertly done and delivered just the same.
The hotel’s place as the centrepiece of the town needs no expert witness for confirmation, but the airshow enthused us for more daring investigation, so we took to the skies by helicopter, the pilot of which found himself the host for arguably the most excited children ever to sweep over Beachy Head, to bank over Eastbourne Pier or to hover over the shingly beach and lively seafront. It’s a short but high-impact introduction to the topography and geography of the area. Taking off from the top of the hills overlooking the town (there’s a courtesy minibus to take you up there), its an efficient operation: they could have evacuated Dunkirk in half the time given their pick up and drop-off routines) but it acted as a nice counter-point to the jet-fuelled shenanigans of the airshow.
And memorable too - on the way home, after a fish and chip supper on the pebbly beach from the oddly named Holiday Inn, the best chippy in town, a sleepy six-year-old boy was asked the best part of his trip - and the helicopter ride topped a lengthy list. ‘But I want to go back to the Grand Hotel’.
And for a family break with a dash of luxury, he’s not a bad judge at all.
Rooms at the Grand Hotel start at £190 per night, including breakfast & based on two people sharing. Bookings can be made through the website: www.elitehotels.co.uk or on 01323 412345.
Airbourne, the Eastbourne Air Show runs every summer. Details on the show just past and plans for next year can be found at http://www.eastbourneairshow.co.uk/