If easyJet flew there people would think Bournemouth was the perfect holiday destination, says Alex James, as he takes the family to revisit his roots

I've been yearning to go back to Bournemouth for ages. It's where I grew up, but I've returned as a grockle, a holidaymaker, with my rapidly expanding family; wife, toddler, newborn twins and au pair all crammed into two huge cars after a 24-hour packing spree.

It's always irritating to hear people talk about how wonderful it is to live where they do or grow up where they did. It's like listening to people talk about how clever their children are. I never want to hear how nice it is to live anywhere except where I actually do - which is a wonderful part of the world, by the way. But Bournemouth is something special.

At first glance, it's an ordinary medium-sized town with a good university and schools, a crap football team and one sublime asset - the sea. A year or two ago it was voted Europe's best beach, but this year it is languishing way down the table. Nonetheless, property prices in Sandbanks, the posh bit, inexplicably continue to outstrip Manhattan and Tokyo.

We arrived on a clear Friday evening at my parents' house at Hengistbury Head, the opposite end of the bay from Sandbanks. There was promise in the air. There is a firework display at Bournemouth Pier every Friday during the summer, and Mona the au pair, my dad and I, feeling energetic, decided to cycle along the promenade to watch.

We rummaged around the garage looking for bicycles. Shed culture thrives here, and you never know what you're going to find digging around in a garage. I was sure there were a couple of tandems in there last time I'd had a fish around. The tandems were apparently out on loan. I can't imagine who to, but we turned up three bicycles: a granny special, with an ancient dynamo; an almost respectable pink mountain-style bike; and a wobbling fold-up with a dodgy front tyre.

Among the toolboxes, boat bits and sentimental junk that my mum insists need to be thrown away, I also came across an ancient Greek urn, six feet high. I'm sure I've seen a similar one in the British Museum. I asked my dad what it was doing there and he told me a long story. There is a tale behind everything in that garage.

Glamorous Mona, who had first pick, chose the mountain bike. I took the granny contraption, with relish, and left the fold-up for the Admiral, my dad. He never tires of the practical merits of the folding bicycle.

The promenade, with beach huts behind and the sand and sea looming in front, winds all around the bay. The last time I spent any length of time in Bomo was on a flying course, about five years ago. Weeks of flying racetrack patterns around the ancient flood plain that Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch are situated on revealed something that I'd completely missed growing up here. It's just one big, flat wide-open space. All the different parts of town aren't really different at all in terms of geography. You wouldn't know that from walking around on the ground. It is a cluster of very diverse neighbourhoods. Even the beach seems to have certain stretches that are more fashionable than others.

It's high season and beach huts were buzzing with little groups of all ages: children up late, running around squeaking with uncontainable mirth; retired schoolteacher types gazing at the moonlit sea beyond their gin and tonics in intimate, cosy silence; teenage snoggers, university stoners and revellers of all descriptions from the short-skirted honeypots to grotesque chavs shouting drunken insults at my bicycle. The smell of bonfires and burning sausages and the tang of the sea, a magnificent and infinite backdrop, and the endless carnival of characters made for a perfect glide into town. In the end, the fireworks were almost unnecessary, but good nonetheless.

The centre of Bournemouth is very cosmopolitan. I heard several tongues that I couldn't place at all. People come from far and wide. I think the further you live from Bournemouth, the more it must appeal. If it was further away and easyJet flew there, perhaps more Brits would go there and think they'd got an amazing deal.

My favourite part of town, which has been down at heel for as long as anyone can remember, is Pokesdown. The flourishing local garage culture supports a network of second-hand emporia, each with its own niche. The proprietor of Southbourne Exchange and Mart, where I bought my first guitar, is incredibly knowledgeable about hi-fis. There are tottering piles of amplifiers in that tiny shop, from cheap and cheerful stereos to vintage, extinct and highly sought after old BBC-style valve amps and police surveillance tape recorders that would cause anyone who knows about these things to come over quite peculiar.

You never know what's going to turn up in a junk shop, and I find poking around there much more exciting than shopping in identikit high streets and malls. There's a good drum shop, a vintage frock boutique, antique furniture outlets, philatelists and bric-a-brac galore. One of my favourite bric-a-brac shops had disappeared, but the guy who ran it turned up a few doors down in a new shop crammed with old and new electric train sets. It also, bizarrely and delightfully, sells ashtrays and ornamental paperweights. An oldish gentleman was sitting at a table with a train whizzing around on it, with a supremely contented smile on his face. He'd obviously just got the thing working. These businesses must run on tiny margins, but there is a lot of love in Pokesdown, and a degree of peace and satisfaction that perhaps empire builders never glimpse.

The girls - my wife Claire and Mona - wanted to go out on Saturday night. The last time I had a night on the tiles in Bournemouth was my stag night. It's a stag and hen bun-fight in town every weekend. The popularity of the town for these parties has become something of a problem for the locals. There is so much stag-hen chemistry that mounted police have been drafted in to keep civilisation from capsizing around The Square, Bournemouth's centre.

The week of my stag night I'd spent in various European capitals promoting Blur's Think Tank album. Over the preceding days I'd been to Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Milan, Stockholm and Amsterdam. Saturday night in Bournemouth blew them all clean out of the water. It's a sexy explosion of rampaging roisterers. It's out of control. I drove the girls around the carnage a bit, to see if they really wanted to jump in. Mona was smiling and Claire was pointing at things, so we parked and took the plunge. One of the more respectable-looking places, called Wiggle, declared itself a supper club. We realised once we'd got past the doormen that it was a pole-dancing joint, but we thought we'd stop for one drink. Claire wanted to drink Kir Royale, but the barman didn't know what that was and said they didn't do champagne by the glass anyway, so I bought a bottle. Gradually the place began to fill up and become more obviously unpleasant, so we left for Disco Fever, a huge nightclub metropolis down the road.

There is certainly a slight thrill of violence about the whole of the town centre, and I removed my silly hat, which was singling me out for too much attention, and danced to Phil Collins before making an early exit.

Next day, we left the raucous rudeness of the town far behind. The sprawling conurbation of the Bournemouth metropolitan area is very well placed for exploring immaculate and diverse wildernesses, sitting as it does between the New Forest to the east, Hardy country to the north and the World Heritage coastline of the Purbecks to the west. The whole family - three kids in nappies, parents and grandparents - squeezed into one Volvo and we headed for the New Forest, a vast, ancient jungle of unusual atmospheres and idle delights. We parked near a stream and fiddled about making dams in the pools of sunlight among the oaks, ferns, brambles and holly bushes. It was blissful. It was a good, gurgling stream. It drew the eye like an open fire and gradually we sank into a state of chatty content.

On the other side of town, the Isle of Purbeck and its World Heritage stretch of coastline is a truly exceptional place. The little car ferry that runs across the harbour entrance at super-rich suburban Sandbanks takes you into a different world. You could throw a stone across the mouth of the harbour but there could hardly be a bigger difference between the two sides. Shell bay, where you land, is a perfect beach. Miles and miles of dunes dissolve into National Trust heather, pine forests and secret lakes. Tiny paths lead to endless beautiful nowheres in virgin landscapes.

The villages of the Purbecks are well worth poking around, too. The crumbling remains of Corfe Castle and the deserted cottages of Tyneham have an eerie enchantment for children. My favourite place in the Purbecks - in fact my favourite place in the whole world - is Kimmeridge. It's privately owned, but for a small fee you can park your car and wander down to the mysterious shoreline. The estate that it belongs to, Smedmore, came on to the open market recently. It was a steal at £25m for the house, a good stretch of the Jurassic coast, a folly, oil fields and all sorts. If I could have raised the money, I'd have bought it, just like that. In a hundred years' time, it will seem ridiculous that such a huge chunk of coastline was ever for sale.

Kimmeridge is a rocky beach - actually, come to think of it, it's probably a wave-cut platform. The great thing about it is that it hasn't changed much since the Jurassic period. It is timeless. You can see the geological strata in the precarious cliffs, and feel the force of colossal glaciations in the striations gouged out of the deck. It can smell a bit of bad seaweed at low tide, but that's the best time to potter around the rock pools. There are fossils and limpets, winkles and periwinkles and smooth black pebbles and boulders that gleam in the sunlight. Brandy Bay, a smugglers' cove a little further along, has sandy patches, and there's always * *enough driftwood for a bonfire. Clavell's tower, the folly that punctuates the eastern end of Kimmeridge bay like a wonky exclamation mark, has been about to topple off the cliffs and into the sea for as long as I can remember.

I always have the feeling I'm in another world when I'm at Kimmeridge. It is altogether elsewhere, and profoundly beautiful. The water is gin clear over the rocks, and the lichens and anemones are a brilliant display of colour and form. An afternoon there rebalances the mind. The post office in the tiny village does a good cream tea, too.

Bournemouth lacks really spectacular restaurants, but it is none the worse for that. People in Bournemouth would rather go on picnics than fanny around with wine lists and foam. It would be a kind of disaster if a celebrity chef rode into town and made restaurants fashionable.

There are plenty of good takeaways, but the best places to eat are cafés. Cafés never let you down. The cheese on toast at The Point House Café at Hengistbury Head has been my number one snack ever since I first tried it. I've tried to recreate it at home. I even bought a commercial grill to better emulate it, but I can't get the cheese to go as golden as it does there. I think they may sprinkle breadcrumbs on the cheese. I'm going to have to ask them, but it may just be some kind of miracle.

There were all amounts of cheesy things going on around town, from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra playing a tribute to Abba in the park, to open-air Shakespeare on a beautiful island in Poole Harbour. But, on my cultural seismograph, the biggest ripples were being caused by a chance to catch the Brighton-based girls' band The Pipettes at the Opera House in Boscombe. There has always been an energetic music scene in Bournemouth. The frenzied Mardi Gras atmosphere of the town centre, where all the girls look like Paris Hilton, has always been abhorrent enough to people of good taste to drive a strong subculture, and sure enough, all the cool people were at the Opera House.

There aren't many things that top seeing a brilliant new band in a small venue. The Pipettes were one of those rare invigorating treats. They really have got the lot and the world is theirs for the taking. They've got the frocks, the hair, the songs, the sound, the vibe - and they're really cute. They're going to save us all from the stuffed stage-school muppets, with their saucy winks and hand-clapping routines.

Towards sunset, the beach was deserted, apart from a few fishermen and dog walkers. After a day of uncertain grey skies and drizzle, the sun suddenly crashed in, low on the horizon and warm on the skin. It's funny how the beach is only busy during office hours. Sunrise and sunset are the most spectacular times. I floated out to sea on my back, and Hengistbury Head, the slowly eroding sandy prominence between Christchurch harbour and the Solent, was lit up a brilliant gold, the sea a vast impossible blue.

The real beauty of Bournemouth, the allure that has drawn its more glamorous residents over the years - the poet Shelley, and my favourite writer, Robert Louis Stevenson - doesn't reveal itself instantly. People do actually drive at 20mph there, and I find the glitzier parts of town absolutely ghastly. It's the quiet corners that have the most personality, and the odd moments like that sunset swim are the most memorable ones. I'm attached to the place, and I'll always come back.


Getting There

National Rail enquiries: 08457 484 950; www.nationalrail.co.uk

Staying There

The Orchid Hotel, 34 Gervis Road, Bournemouth (01202 551 600; www.orchid-hotel.co.uk). Doubles start at £70, including breakfast.

Chewton Glen, New Milton, Hampshire (01425 275 341; www.chewtonglen.com). Doubles start at £290, room only.

Visiting There

Corfe Castle, Wareham, Dorset (01929 481 294; www.nationaltrust.org.uk). Daily 10am-6pm (to 5pm in October, and 4pm from November-March); admission £5.

The Opera House, 570 Christchurch Road, Boscombe, Bournemouth (01202 399 922; www.operahouse.co.uk).

Further Information

Bournemouth Tourism: 0845 051 1701; www.bournemouth.co.uk. Dorset and the New Forest: www.dorset-newforest.com