By Demetra M. Pappas
I spent a good deal of time at Brighton Beach – easy to access by subway. As a young woman, my first full-time job was in Manhattan, this island surrounded by water and ports, containing history, also accessible by trains from the boroughs, Long Island’s bedroom communities and the Hamptons, New Jersey and Westchester (and parts north).
For those who want a different train to the “original” Brighton and an alternative island city, a visit via BritRail to Britain’s cities of Brighton and Portsmouth are just the ticket (pun intended). Yes, you have to take a plane to the train to get their, but the OneWorld Alliance between American Airlines and British Airways makes planning from New York to London almost as easy as boarding a bus or a scheduled train, with so many daily flights as to be nearly at par with LIRR/New Jersey Transit and Metro North.
Upon arrival in the UK, the Sofitel Hotel London Heathrow T5 offers many luxuries, but a weary traveler will most appreciate rolling the cart from baggage claim to check in. Sleeping off jet lag is one possibility, but another is checking into the spa is rejuvenating. Indeed, I met one woman in the spa who had a long layover, too short to stay over, and she booked in a spa day for a chance to message away the coils of travel.
Training around the UK is far more restorative – en route to Brighton, the visual treat is that there are rolling hills and the chalk hills of what is affectionately called “the Downs.” ACP Rail/BritRail makes this all very easy – order from the US, and get on the train at Heathrow (rolling the cart from the Sofitel to the train is a decadent travel luxury).
Upon arrival on the South East Coast in Brighton, check into the 37 room Hotel du Vin, on the edge of the cobblestoned shopping labyrinth called “the Lanes,” and just off the pebble beach. Rooms have all sorts of amenities from monsoon showers (and cast iron baths) to complimentary fresh milk in the minibar for the upmarket morning coffees and teas. Breakfasts have cooked options (such as generously portioned smoked salmon and scrambled eggs) and a bread and fruit bar, with addictive croissants/pain au chocolat to seasonal fruits.
Dinner has an array of locally sourced produce, delectable meats (such as grass fed steaks with optional French sauces), poultry and seafood (with a daily pasta). These are all superior, and a sommelier will pair wines to each course. This all said, the du Vins have (in my opinion) the best cheese courses I have ever had – in any country, ever. There are French, English and European cheeses, and staff are happy to give a full tutorial. When I asked about Epoises, an unpasteurized cheese hard to find in the US, my server apologized for not having it, but brought over another staffer who was actually from Epoises environs to discuss my apparently delightful request.
Today Brighton is almost a bedroom community, with the benefit of clubs and diverse cultural opportunities. However, Brighton’s main claim to fame has long been the Royal Pavilion, the former palace built as the home of the Prince Regent (later George IV) in the 19th century. It is a “folly,” of Indo-Saracenic architecture, excessive chinoiserie, minarets, gilded palms that make gilding the lily dull. If not clubbing, consider a foray to the 200-year old Theatre Royal, am architectural jewel which just launched its own company with the summer production of Pinero’s hilariously staged “Dandy Dick.”
Portsmouth, also on the South Coast, is England’s only island city, with the world’s oldest dry dock still in use. A waling tour of the forts is a must-do. The HMS Warrior (1861), once England’s largest, most heavily armed vessel, innovatively combined steam engines, rifled breech loading guns, iron construction and armor, ending with a propeller. Now, it has tours and event dinners (with spectacular sunsets). Also in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard is the Mary Rose a salvages and restored carrack legend of maritime archaeology, due to open in late 2012. Nearby is the moving D-Day Museum with the Overlord Embroidery of dozens of panels; Portsmouth suffered tremendous losses in WWII, as a port with chalk hills to make aerial bombing easy, and has an ongoing connection to the war and its social history.
Portsmouth is also the birthplace of Charles Dickens (celebrating the 200th year of his birth). The house has been restored and refurbished and has acquired both period pieces and originals (including the couch on which he died). Another literary character, Sherlock Holmes and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are represented in the spectacular Lancelyn Green Bequest organized (and managed online) by archivist Michael Gunton. Retail therapy collectors will enjoy Gunwharf Quays and never get lost with the Spinnaker Tower (Portsmouth’s millennium project) as a landmark.
For more modern accommodation, the Portsmouth Marriott Hotel has all the comforts of home for tourist and business travelers – and also has a weekly drinks party at which guests are treated to drinks (and dish – one manager told me the best way to deal with jet lag is denial, a line I now use!). The open plan lobby also houses Sea Level Restaurant, with impeccably fresh seafood (the scallops are lightly textured and prettily presented). •
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