There’s a special sort of feel about historic grand hotels in our historic grand seaside resorts.
Often right on the seafront and in glistening white paint or marble, they were designed and built to impress, at a time when Britain ruled the waves as well as the world and wasn’t shy about showing it.
Crowned heads from across Europe as well as film stars and the rich and famous would twirl their parasols and maybe dip a toe or two in the surf at prestige spots like Bournemouth, which has always had that ‘posh’ edge compared to flashier neighbours along the South coast and the blousy brashness of Blackpool and other resorts further North in their heyday.
But times and holiday habits change, and these days, there’s always the fear that in this country, you might end up trapped in a fusty-smelling Victorian time warp, bringing to mind the old ‘God’s waiting room’ jibe and watching the traffic lights change for entertainment.
Having driven through Bournemouth only once before, on a brief diversion while en route to Southampton at the end of the Falklands War, those little niggles started to intrude, and I wondered if I was doing the right thing as the sat-nav steered us into town, but they soon evaporated as we headed towards the East Overcliff and caught sight of what unfolds into seven miles of beaches, no less.
And there, with commanding views to drop jaws, is the Bournemouth Carlton Hotel, rated as one of the finest 4* hotels in the place and with an award-winning frontage to boast about – just like a stylish, traditional seaside beauty queen.
There’s a stylish, traditional feel when you walk inside, too, but it’s a positive feel of real quality, with a recent, sympathetic refurb breathing light and air into the plush reception, staircase and main corridor, which give access to the restaurant, bar and public areas.
The Carlton is one of 12 Menzies Hotels, with more than £7 million invested across the group in 2012 from Bournemouth to Aberdeen to keep them as front-runners in their aim to provide ‘a warm welcome, a comfortable environment and exceptional service.’
In my book, they’ve pretty well managed all three at the Carlton, which works alongside the Bespoke Hotels group, with a warm welcome at reception from Laura; a large, comfortable double room with a work station and free WiFi and a balcony overlooking the sea; and the aforesaid exceptional service in the dining room overseen by beaming maître d’ Tony – not his real name, but he said his Vietnamese one was a real challenge for us Brits!
His domain was a highlight of our stay, after we had spent ages soaking up the view and then enjoying a pre-dinner drink in the mahogany-rich bar, adorned with portraits of top politicians from the past – perhaps only fitting as vital D-Day decisions were taken here by the great and good in 1944.
From the bar, which looks out over the outdoor pool, gardens and the sea, we moved to the adjoining Fredericks restaurant, with a dress code underlining that we were, after all, in a 4* establishment with standards to match and an AA Rosette into the bargain.
Not that it was in any way stuffy, because we were made to feel very welcome and at ease among the mirrors, chandeliers, ornate plaster mouldings and curtains flanking huge windows taking in the view, while we settled down with an appealing table d’hôte menu with main courses in particular reflecting local sources.
Smart, prompt and smiling service was the order of the day for our choices: confit duck leg with Dauphinoise potato, green beans and baby leek with a black pepper and hazelnut dressing; and a grilled Dover sole on the bone with buttered Jersey royals, Sopley asparagus and hollandaise sauce. I could have had the sole cooked in other ways instead, and could also have had it taken off the bone at the table – a measure of the sort of service it was a pleasure to be indulged with and which is all-too lacking in some made-over hotels.
It was all helped along with our almost cliché summer wine choice of a pinot grigio rosé, before the dessert menu seduced us with a Pimms crème brulee and shortbread biscuit. Seduced was a fitting description, too, because that was an inspired finishing touch, with the burnt sugar layer giving way to a lip-smacking custard with a finely-judged ‘bite’ of Pimms. Yum yum!
Time then to linger with the view, shared by the East Cliff Court Hotel next door, looking across to the sea and the soaring memorial to Red Arrows pilot Jon Egging, who was killed in a tragic accident after a seaside air display in 2011.
The stunning metal and glass sculpture is a poignant reminder that you can raise a glass to the courageous flyer from this superb vantage point for the Bournemouth Air Festival in late August, with the Carlton offering special deals for guests to enjoy the spectacle with uninterrupted views from the gardens, restaurant or lounges, while polishing off nibbles or an enjoying a BBQ and a bottle of champers.
All sorts of other offers available, too, with the Carlton embracing what it needs of the modern while making the most of traditional values. And I should have packed my bucket and spade.