Bournemouth’s main draw has always been its long, wide and immaculate yellow sandy beaches. It was once the playground of rich Victorians – Charles Rolls (as in Rolls-Royce) and Edward VII both enjoyed its shores – and has been extremely popular ever since it was founded as a purpose-built resort in the early 1800s.
But as increasingly cheap air travel lured visitors away from the UK in the twentieth century, Bournemouth went the way of many other coastal towns in Britain: tourism dwindled and its seaside grandeur faded to a dreary, out-of-date facade.
Today things are changing. Bournemouth is shrugging off its stag-do central image, and welcoming a new breed – or, in fact, a few new breeds – of visitor to its sands. Lottie Gross explores what the town has to offer visitors today.
For the active traveller
It’s not all about beach-bumming in Bournemouth. While there are indeed some superb stretches of sand, there’s also a whole lot of surrounding countryside ripe for exploration.
Get yourself a pair of wheels from Front Bike Hire on the promenade do the ten-mile round cycle to dramatic Hengistbury Head. Stop off at the top to take in the views over the coastline and sample Purbeck ice cream in the visitor centre before heading back to town.
Bournemouth pier also caters for the adventurous: there’s a zipline that whisks willing participants from the end of the pier onto the beach, narrowly avoiding a dip in the Atlantic, and inside Rock Reef there’s a climbing wall and suspended assault course.
For surfers and ocean explorers
Surf culture has been ever-growing in Bournemouth over the last two decades, despite the much-criticised surf reef that never made waves in Boscombe (pun intended).
If you’re not keen on diving in, hang out at Urban Reef to watch novices and experts out on the water while sipping a cocktail of your choice (takeaway drinks available for those who’d rather relax on the beach).
For food fiends
Bournemouth has long been a victim of big restaurant chains and small, somewhat grotty takeaway joints. But there are a few diamonds in the rough – if you know where to look.
The latest addition to the nearby Sandbanks area is a new Rick Stein restaurant that serves deliciously fresh seafood and fish dishes on an inventive, daily-changing menu.
The Koh Thai tapas bar has been a long favourite with the locals, with two locations in Bournemouth town centre and Boscombe. Try the 24-hour ribs and the prawn tempura and you won’t be disappointed.
For culture vultures
As a relatively new town whose tourism focus is mainly around the beach, Bournemouth is somewhat lacking in museums and art galleries. But there’s one star on the seafront that makes up for it: the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum is a treasure trove of Victorian eccentricities showcased among world-renowned artworks.
The building, commissioned by former Bournemouth mayor Merton Russell-Cotes in 1901 as a summer home for his wife, is an unusual piece of architecture and now dedicated to the couple’s extensive travels around the world and their vast collection of art.
The rooms are lavishly decorated, with nods to various cultures around the world (see the Japanese symbolism in the murals on the ceiling in the main hall), and there’s a curious artefact around every corner.
Visit the ladies’ toilet on the ground floor to see an original, working Victorian loo, and take five in the café on the first floor, which has one of the best views of Bournemouth beach.
The latest addition to Bournemouth’s accommodation portfolio finally signifies a shift in the standard: the brand new Hilton hotel on Terrace Road is far cry from the tired 1960s-style hotels the town is overrun by.
It’s stylish inside with a surprisingly boutique feel about it – the rooms are decorated with retro tourism posters – and the hotel’s restaurant, Schpoons & Forx (complete with cutlery-themed décor) is one of the town’s best establishments, with a varied but expertly executed menu by chef Matt Tebutt.
Slightly out of town, the Chocolate Boutique Hotel is perfect for anyone with a sweet tooth. They run truffle-making and chocolate portrait painting workshops for guests, and each room comes with its own daily supply of the sweet stuff.
Perfectly poised near the town centre, the Green House Hotel provides a conscience-friendly luxury option. The hotel generates much of their own electricity and uses solar power to heat the water that fills their gorgeous free-standing baths.
South West Trains run a service from London Waterloo to Bournemouth, with tickets from £16 return. Explore more of Bournemouth and the south coast with the Rough Guide to Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.