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Brighton: Oh we do like to be beside the seaside

By Roger St Pierre

In common with other seaside resorts dotted along England’s South Coast, Brighton has been steadily reinventing itself.

The now geriatric mods and rockers still chug down for an annual nostalgia overdose but the rowdy charabanc outings and fractious party political conferences are long gone and on my recent visit I saw not a sign of a ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hat. Hip has all but replaced tat.

Once somewhere to retire to, or dirty weekend at, ‘London by the Sea’ is now, thanks largely to its thriving university, colleges and language schools, very much a haunt of the young and the young at heart. It’s also the nation’s pink capital.

For visitors, the product has improved beyond measure. There’s no longer any need to sign the register surreptisiously as “Mr and Mrs Smith”; en-suite has become de rigeur and there’s unlikely to be a fearsome landlady bellowing that if you are not present at five on the dot you will miss your tea and if you return after 10 pm from an evening out you’ll be locked out for the night.

Things are altogether more sophisticated and professional these days and in order to stay in the game, the humble seaside B&B must reach the quality and service standards of the big chain hotels while also serving up those personal touches the big boys can never offer.

Brighton’s original boutique hotel, Blanch House (www.blanchhouse.co.uk) is a prime example of getting it right.

This gem is set in an elegant Georgian terrace just above the seafront in fashionable and Bohemian Kemp Town, a short stroll from the city centre.

Here the smallish but very comfortable guestrooms are all individually themed and furnished – ours had the ambience of a Moroccan casbah.

We dived into the complimentary homemade biscuits and speciality teas as we unwound in our temporary home from home, which also gave us free wi-fi, a flat-screen TV, a DVD player, aromatherapy toiletries and bathrobes.

Those charms couldn’t keep us away from the Champagne, wine and cocktail bar siren-calling us downstairs – a lovely room that is more like a friendly family lounge than a commercial establishment, with co-patrons Kerry Turner and Jeremy Ornellas making sure glasses and conversation are kept topped-up.

Blanch House is a B&B, not a full-service hotel – and what a breakfast! – but gourmet standard private dining is available on request. It’s also possible to book the run of all 12 bedrooms, the bar and the charming Belle Époque Suite for a wedding or business event.

Brighton has become a foodie magnet and, thanks to its increasingly cosmopolitan demographic has a kaleidoscopic culinary offering so for our first night we decided to go out on the town.

Strong recommendation from Kerry and Jeremy led us to the delightfully named Giggling Squid (www.giggliingsquid.com) – a Thai restaurant with a difference.

Here we were given our own private little alcove – intimate for two, a squeeze for four – and a menu redolent with all the usual Thai suspects but also featuring a wealth of less well known delights such as lamb shank Massaman curry, tamarind duck, sea bass pad cha and a chicken curry from Thailand’s deep south featuring cumin, cinnamon, cardamom and other spices, rather than the fresh herbs used in most Thai curries.

And yes, squid and other seafood does feature prominently.

My partner does not normally like spicy food or any other Oriental food for that matter, but she proclaimed our Giggling Squid repast the best meal out she’d enjoyed all year.

At lunchtime there’s a range of set menus while Thai tapas provide an excellent way of getting to know this enticing cuisine on better terms – “startling flavours, amazing colours, and original textures” runs the promise at this cosy little eaterie.

Of course, we did patronise a chippie during our Brighton stay, as one must, and we polished off a pint of fresh prawns and some juicy whelks from a Tubby Isaacs’ street cart but the meal that really stood out was at Indian Summer (www.indian-summer.co.uk) an Asian restaurant that replaces all those rather tacky prints of the Taj Mahal and endless acres of flock wallpaper with the ambience of a bustling bons temps, conversation filled bistro, complete with European wait staff.

With a nationwide reputation, Indian Summer presents a dynamic mix of well-sourced seasonal ingredients, a base of family recipes handed down through the generations and a thoroughly contemporary slant to its keep it simple, keep it pretty presentation.

Among the wealth of inventive dishes on offer is a re-invented paneer shashlik starter, with spicy marinated Indian cheese matched to sweet pineapple, earthy beetroot for colour contrast and sour cherry tomatoes for intense depth of flavour: “But it does not stop there,” explains head chef Parth Shukla, “We add a fancy touch of vegan Indian caviar – which is sago granules marinated in balsamic vinegar – to bring a completely new dimension to the dish.”

Parth and the team have also swept away the connotations of hellish heat usually associated with vindaloo, that infamous Bangladeshi curry house standard, as the kitchen maestro explains: “The word vindaloo derives from the classic Portuguese dish ‘carne de vinha d’alhos’, which is meat – usually pork – in vinegar and garlic.

Our new Anglo Indian version features pork belly that has been steeped overnight in fresh ginger and such spices as cloves, cinnamon and star anise to create an unusual sweet and sour end taste and it’s topped with a crispy pork crackling.”

Indian Summer was founded back in 2001 by Minesh Agnihotri, who gave up a career making medical prosthetics, and Byron Swales, whose family had been forced to leave Burma, fleeing in a wooden plane. Their mission was to bring the authentic tastes of the Indian sub-continent to Brighton and to further this end they recruited the already widely acclaimed Parth Shukla to head the kitchen brigade.

There’s more than just a wide selection of acclaimed restaurants to attract visitors to a thriving town that had enjoyed city status since the monarch granted the honour in 2000, in celebration of the Millennium – and some 8.5 million tourists arrive each year, contributing around £408 million to the local economy.

Increasing numbers of them take advantage of the city’s pioneering free Greeters scheme – a UK first – under which local volunteers show them the sights.

Star turn at the moment, if you’ll excuse the pun, is the huge wheel, like the London Eye, that gives visitors a bird’s eye view.

The rusting hulk of the once magnificent Western Pier has long since sunk into the sunset – or, rather, almost disappeared under the waves of the English Channel – but Brighton Pier, with its rides, slots, souvenir shops and cafés, remains one of the nation’s busies tourist attractions while, for a dose of history and culture, take in the amazing Royal Pavilion – Indian in style on the outside, with its multiple domes, but dominated by Chinese influences in its lavish interiors, opulent furnishings and wondrous collections, all of it created, with no expense spared, for the 18th Century Prince Regent.

Almost next door, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery has a range of dynamic and innovative galleries while Brighton Marina is one of Europe’s largest such facilities, the Sea Life Centre displays more than 150 species, 57 displays and an underwater tunnel, Komedia is a stylish entertainment centre in the North Laine, with weekly stand-up comedy nights, the Brighton Dome showcases the biggest names in show business, and the more than 200 year old Theatre Royal Brighton still brings top West Ends shows to the city.

If retail therapy is your quest, you’ll find all the key high street multiples in the city centre – 85 of the big names can be found at the Churchill Square shopping mall – and a mix of traditional seaside shops and artists’ studios down at the beachfront attract appreciation and enough sales to keep the 30 or so resident artists in business, while the rabbit warrens of tiny streets and alleyways that comprise The Lanes and the North Laine district feature everything from designer boutiques, jewellery outlets and antique shops to quirky bric-a-brac.

Whether browsing the shops, trawling the many atmosphere-laden hostelries, engaging in a wide range of sports on land or sea or simply relaxing on that vast pebble beach, there’s never a lack of things to do in the fabled ‘City By The Sea’.

A year-round programme of world-class special events includes May’s three-week long Brighton Festival, the largest such event in England, with more than 700 featured happenings.

And all of this is set with the scenic backdrop of the towering chalk hills of the beautiful South Downs and with mile upon mile of glorious Sussex countryside to explore.

It was in 1750 that Dr Richard Russell, with his seawater cures, spurred the transformation of Brighton from a sleepy little fishing village into a pioneering seaside resort.

Down the years it has had its highs and its tough times too but Brighton’s never looked in better shape than right now.

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