The Eastbourne supremacy
The town is fast becoming cool - and it has nothing to do with the climate
It's God's waiting room. People come here to die," grimaces the young heroine of Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, a new film set in Eastbourne. Hero to heroine: "Really? I heard it was the new Brighton!"
Eastbourne Council could not be more pleased with the line if they had written it themselves, since for years they have been trying to change the view of the resort as the exclusive province of retirees and ageing holidaymakers.
That's an image that's not so easy to dispel in a town where old folk in mobility vehicles even pepper the location shots of this out-and-out teen flick.
But there's also truth in the advertising Eastbourne has been putting out: the glittering palm-lined prom, yacht-lined marina and trendy alfresco restaurants are all there, and in the year of a strong euro, credit-crunched Brits appear to be pouring in - bookings e are up 66 per cent - to discover the charm of a resort last year named the sunniest place in Britain.
Actor John Malkovich has just done his bit to drag the town into the realms of cool. His outfit, The Big Sleep, whose first hotel has made the Condé Nast Traveller Cool List, has chosen the resort for its third property, which opened on the seafront earlier this month.
This cheery budget property is chic in a funky, pared-down way which will appeal to those who appreciate the wit of blue furry bedroom curtains and retro bar furniture, and is bound to bring in the aspirational young.
They will have to fight for strutting room on the prom with the affluent who pack out the five-star Grand Hotel nearly next door, not to mention the rollerblading youngsters whose presence - a result of the recent influx of families -is breathing fresh life into the resident population.
Although entering Eastbourne from the north can be a dispiriting experience with roundabouts and industrial estates peppering the approach from the A22, the seafront is improbably glamorous.
Stretching from the Grand at one end to the marina at the other, the visitor encounters miles of pristine, pastel-painted grand Victorian buildings on one side and an immaculately-kept promenade punctuated with lawns and flower-beds on the other.
The beach is shingle, but it is wide and the holder of a Blue Flag for cleanliness and safety, and there's no shortage of smart, navy-and-white deckchairs, as well as a row of beach huts. But Eastbourne's greatest attribute may be its zero tolerance for the seediness which mars some of its south coast neighbours.
While the pier, which is lit up like a tasteful Las Vegas by night, offers only traditional attractions - a camera obscura, amusement arcades, tea rooms - there are plenty of other pursuits to attract the younger and fitter.
These include sailing, windsurfing, canoeing and body-boarding under the aegis of the Spray Water Centre; three 18-hole golf courses, plenty of tennis courts (this is the home of the Open), and a pukka bandstand which offers live music every night in summer from brass bands and rock'n'roll tributes to the full 1812 with fireworks every Wednesday.
The extreme sports festival was last month, but September will see "Go Fast Speed Days", in which racers will spin around Beachy Head, the clifftop beauty spot a mile or so out of town which is one of Eastbourne's greatest attractions, particularly for walkers and picnickers, and which will also be the site of a marathon in late October.
As far as events go, however, Airbourne, the biggest seafront air show in the world, is Eastbourne's tour de force, and will this year take place between August 14 and 17, when RAF jets, historic planes and parachutists will dance a ballet across the horizon, with ringside seats for everyone who can find standing space on the seafront.
As far as a place to stay goes, Malkovich's effort is clean, crisp and cheerful, so long as a sea-view room is available (those on the back have a dismal outlook), and the Continental breakfast, with its hard-boiled eggs and fresh fruit, is a lot more appealing than that offered by many more pricey hotels.
But those who want to go one level up in the modern luxury department may prefer The Waterside, Eastbourne's first boutique hotel, which opened earlier this year and offers truly chic rooms, a cocktail bar and a cheerful verandah restaurant overlooking the prom and pier and serving good fresh, local fish.
It is a totally different crowd which goes for The Grand, an enormous wedding cake of a hotel, still pristine and awash with flunkeys more than 130 years after it was built to cater for the carriage trade. In no way, except perhaps for its rated Mirabelle restaurant which attempts to strike a modern chord, can it be considered chic, but it offers a level of splendour and service rarely available in British resorts.
Although Eastbourne may be unique in fielding four or five theatres offering musical and/or comedy entertainment, shopping is a bit of a disappointment. There is little within walking distance of the seafront, while even shiny, new Sovereign Harbour at the marina has few unique shops, though the usual high street names are there.
The main shopping area centres on the railway station, where it is worth checking out Bruford's, an old-established jeweller with some very nice pieces and a level of service to equal the Grand and, across the road jolly kitchenware at Steamer Trading. The best nightlife is also tucked away in the alleys opposite the station in what is known as the Mark Lane triangle.
There is the pleasant Loft Lounge, a former printworks converted to a cocktail bar which also serves coffee and snacks, while locals like Okto, an ambitious but well-priced modern restaurant. Hudsons is another popular cocktail lounge. It would be a pity to visit and not stop in the beautiful hinterland to the north-west, where some of the best shopping and dining opportunities are.
The picturesque hamlet of East Dean has a deli opened by an alumnus of Le Gavroche, while pretty, mediaeval Alfriston has an award-winning bookshop, Much Ado, a couple of nice boutiques and the cosy Badger Tea Rooms.
A Gordon Ramsay-trained chef is resurrecting the once-popular Moonrakers restaurant, and in the village of Jevington, the Hungry Monk, which has been serving its famous banoffi pie for decades, has just been named South-East Restaurant of the Year by The Good Food Guide.
But it is Eastbourne proper which is seeing the new kind of visitor, perhaps typified by Rick Parfitt of Status Quo, spotted leaving The Waterside for the beach in his wetsuit last week. Okay, he's 59 and has had a quadruple bypass - but he is still a rock'n'roller.
The Big Sleep (01323-722676, www.thebigsleephotel.com) has double rooms from £65 with breakfast; The Waterside (01323 646 566, www.watersidehotel.eu) has doubles from £90; and The Grand (01323-412345; www.grandeastbourne.com) has doubles from £140. More information at www.visiteastbourne.com.
There is a small community which supports a United synagogue on Susans Road, and a small progressive congregation which meets twice monthly for Shabbat services. More information at http://jewishsussex.com