Brighton, England Seaside Weekend Getaway - My Family Travels

The coastal U.K. resort town of Brighton has been reclaimed by the young and trendy and boasts enough Royals, museums and shopping to rival London and… enough surfing to intrigue families. Here's a look at Brighton Beach packages and Brighton family attractions for visitors.

The Britain most of us know is the crown jewels, the changing of the guard and that famous tower. But, there is more to Britain and, for something completely different, visitors might consider taking a train to the south coast to tour Victorian sewers and discuss catching waves with surfers. And for literary lions or lambs, how about a visit to the town and home of Rudyard Kipling, and an overnight stay at a luxury hotel that was once home to the poet Shelley?

And did I mention? Visiting magnificent gardens, touring countryside wineries that have gained new respect, taking courtly walks, and stopping at such offbeat places as a vegetarian shoe shop, a fast food vegetarian restaurant and visiting several oddball shops found in this part of the UK? This is the UK? This sounds like another country.

“Here’s my story, Alan,” I told a friend, Allen Littell, whose duties at the old New York Herald Tribune in Paris used to be editing a particularly prickly columnist named Art Buchwald. “You could almost skip London and just spend all your time, or maybe a week or so in Sussex,” I told him. Littell, who is now a spry 79-year-old freelance travel writer who has been to Sussex many times and is perhaps one of its most enthusiastic walkers, disagreed. He viewed that as an exaggeration, of course, and perhaps it is when you consider the vastness of London. So did the famed Samuel Johnson. “Sir,” he said. ”When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” But so what? My family could never get enough of London, but we can also appreciate country life in England.

Quirky Sites in Brighton

Brighton and its sister city Hove have a combined population of more than 250,000 with a large concentration of young people, which helps explain why they have more restaurants per household in the UK than anywhere other than London. As for natural beauty, it should be enough to say it's set on the south coast and bordered by the English Channel and the rolling, green green hills of the South Downs.

We took the 30-minute train ride from Gatwick Airport outside of London to Brighton Beach, which started out as a small fishing town until, in the late 1700s, the well-known Dr. Richard Russell pronounced the healing benefits of seawater. Royalty came, followed by the masses. “They didn’t have penicillin or much medicine in those days, so you can imagine this was such good news everyone wanted to believe it,” said Glenda Clarke, a life-long tour guide whose jaunts include a walking tour of "Regency Brighton." The water treatment is no longer used but Brighton still draws a lot of tourists: eight million of them come each year to see the city by the sea. Not many of those are Americans, according to tourism officials who say that is perhaps one of the reasons the reception here is extremely welcoming.

Brighton is known today for its lively night life. But there are also less advertised underground attractions. Brighton’s sewers, for example, are the only ones in the country open to the public. They are held up as an example of imaginative Victorian engineering. If the idea of a trip conjures up images of murky, claustrophobic tunnels, not to mention rats scurrying under your feet, the reality is not as sordid.

True, tourists are issued protective hard hats and disposable gloves after viewing the introductory video. Visitors are taken down in groups of up to 25. There is a smell but it’s nothing you can’t get used to. Human waste does flow through here, of course, but so does a lot of other stuff in the murky, two-foot-high flow of water. The Southern Water Company's Brighton Sewer Tours are open from May to September.

More Traditional Museums & Hikes for touring Brighton

The city’s No 1 tourist attraction which can be seen from just about anywhere, rises up like a smaller version of the Taj Mahal. It’s the Royal Pavilion, built as the spacious weekend home-away-from-home for King George IV.

Since King George abhorred the stuffiness of London’s royal scene he took up residence most of the time in the Pavilion, where guests were entertained with 36-course dinners, among other diversions. A series of architects designed the minarets, domes and pagodas that has resulted in this somewhat strange-looking mélange of styles. Stuffy Queen Victoria didn’t like Brighton, describing residents as indiscreet. She sold the pleasure palace to the city of Brighton in 1850. Since then, the pavilion has been continually refurbished and restored. Guided audio tours are available in English, French, German and other languages and even the younger kids will enjoy this outing.

Museums may seldom qualify as offbeat, but there are exceptions. Here, they include the Amberley Working Museum, poorly named because there’s none of the mustiness and static of a museum displaying art or objects. The 36-acre park features 30 different buildings with hundreds of exhibits of restored buses, automobiles, trains and other modes of transportation. It represents Britain’s largest collection of working steam engines. And if you need personal transportation, a narrow gauge railroad or an open air bus will take to all over the park.

For those so inclined, this area may be one of the best in the world to take a simple hike. Few trails can match The South Downs Way, which offers 100 miles of guided or unguided pathways. Free maps outline “strolls” (under two miles), a “short walk” (five miles) or a day’s walk (nine miles in up to five hours). You can travel by foot, horseback or by bicycle. The trail is famous for its wild flowers and its butterflies and runs through picturesque villages, imposing country homes and flower-filled nature reserves.

Gardens and art museums abound in the area but since we’re trying to stick to the offbeat, I’ll only briefly mention Denman’s Garden, where if visitors are lucky they’ll get a tour from famous designer and owner John Brookes, or the Petworth House and Park, with an art collection of work by Turner and others that rivals London galleries.

Surfing Off Brighton's Beaten Path

Trains take you almost everywhere in Sussex, but we took a 13-minute bus ride from Brighton North Street Stop to Rottingdean, a small coastal town that used to be known for its smugglers but has become famous in recent years for its surfers.  While the coast here certainly offers a more amenable climate than London (though I have a friend who says the rainy climate is vastly exaggerated and he plays golf there regularly), it still has storms, which lcoal surfers welcome. Matt Hammons, who perhaps has an unlikely occupation for a surfer (he's a financial consultant) and has surfed around the world, told us he prefers it here because he can always take off for a few hours of bad weather.

“I managed to surf here 60 times last year. Mate, I’m telling you, that was a very good year.” he added. Surfing here at this secluded beach backed by high chalk cliffs is not quite like California. For one thing, there’s a rocky bottom.

Rottindean is also known as the one-time home of Rudyard Kipling. He created some of his most memorable poems and tales here, including the “Just So Stories.” He left because of frequent interruptions by visitors. His actual home is a private residence, but The Grange is a reconstruction of his study. It’s open daily and there’s no admission charge.

And to wash it all down, you can take a tour of the Ridge View Wine Estate now managed by the Dutchess of Cornwall. English wines have long been denigrated, but tour guides will explain that recent climate “warming” changes have led to this area of the UK being ripe for fine sparkling wine that competes with classic French varieties. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier are all grown here. The Ridge View Merret brand is named after Englishman Christopher Merret, who produced sparking wine some 30 years before its most famous proponent, Frenchman Dom Perignon in Champagne. For skeptics, Merrett’s papers describing his findings were archived at the Royal Society in London in 1662. A taste will convince you the English rise to wine respectability is nothing to sniff your nose at.

Trip Planning Details for a Brighton Vacation

British Airways certainly makes it easy to skip London with direct flights to the smaller and far less congested Gatwick Airport from Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Atlanta, and my own home airport in Orlando. Our destination was the mostly small villages in East Sussex and West Sussex, often visited by day-trippers from London but generally not well-known outside the famous city 60 minutes away by train. Brighton was the centerpiece of our trip; the Brighton Tourist Office was very helpful in planning.

Brighton Shopping:
Personally, I am the “accidental” shopper, but Brighton has collected some of the world’s most unusual array of stores such as the Cheep Bookstore which has over 50,000 titles, all new and never costing more than 3 pounds.

The Animal House is an enormous collection of stuffed gifts from woolly mammoths to a life-size tiger. And if you want to bring home something for the children, there’s also Purple-Heart, which has hand-made tie-dyes for babies and children. Also, over 50 styles of hand-made baby shoes.

Then, there’s Vegetarian Shoes started in 1990 by artist Robin Webb who says he was initially inspired by hearing of shoes made out of recycled car tires in Africa. His more sophisticated shoes today are made out of a Microfibre material used for yachting upholstery.

Brighton Where to Stay:
Blanch House had a dozen funky rooms and a popular 1970s lounge-chic cocktail bar at my visit, but it's been done up as an elegant boutique hotel with a devoted following, so rates now start at around £300 per night.

Alexander House Hotel & Utopia Spa is in West Sussex, only about 15 minutes by car to Gatwick. While the remodeled spa is ultra-modern, it used to be an English Country farmhouse that dates back to 1332. Among its best-known previous owners are the family of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here too, rates have risen considerably and the spa is in demand. .

Brighton Where to Eat:
Terre a Terre (01273 729 051) is where Paul McCartney once regularly dined and it’s known generally as the best vegetarian restaurant in Brighton. Non-veggies also seem to approve of its tapas, too.

Due South (01273 821 218) has been called by critics 'the best in Brighton,' and locals agree. They stand in line for Sussex beef tournedos with chunky chips and suet pudding filled with creamy leeks and old Sussex cheddar, all prepared from locally sourced ingredients.

For fast food, vegetarian style, there’s the Red Veg, where you can get a mushroom burger with cheese (also vegetarian) and “spicy wedges” with a Coca-Cola.

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