Sunday, September 20, 2009

Diary entry: St Leonards on Sea, England

     It’s been almost 950 years since William the Conqueror’s bowmen put an arrow through the eye of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and changed the course of history. You’d think that would be enough time to get over it and move on, yet a visit to this historic section of the south coast of England shows just how much people still remember. Perhaps I exaggerate (moi?) but the seaside hamlet of St. Leonards is rich in its memories. Bingo parlors, amusement palaces and the kitschy beachfront crazy golf course aside, you can’t go far without some remnant of the vivid past grabbing your attention. The names alone tell a story: Norman Road, Archer Terrace, Warrior Square. The ruins of a medieval castle and abbey overlook the tiny boat harbor, and a pastiche of architectural styles pay tribute to the passage of time. A kind of weird, wonderful vibe prevails, promoting visions of bygone days at the shore. It’s not just marauding Normans, either. Locals dress up as pirates and take you on tours of smuggler’s caves. Plaques commemorate sites destroyed in WWII bombings. And a local theatre company papers the town with posters advertising its latest production of “The Tart and the Vicar’s Wife.”

     Perhaps scale has some bearing. St Leonard’s is no Brighton, with its succession of screaming nightclubs and gelato stands and droves of orotund weekenders. You might label it an arty decay here, a small enough community where residents happen upon friends promenading. The tiny pedestrian lane called George Street, has trendy bistros set side by side with ancient curio shops and used book stores, where scruffy elderly hippies sip cappuccinos at outdoor tables. Even the fenced-off, long-condemned pier, with its ghostly silhouette adds a contemplative silence to the picture. Stroll along the boardwalk and you pass a succession of fish and chips places and Indian restaurants, wending your way around cyclists and young families pushing babies in prams, comfortably mingling with old folks on an afternoon stroll, jackets zipped to meet the exhilarating ocean breezes. Nobody hurries, and the regal figure of Victoria, timeless in bronze, presides stern-faced from her pedestal in Warrior Square, watching over the waves she once ruled.

     A few doors away, facing the same ocean, stands the Zanzibar International, a boutique hotel of 9 elegantly-appointed rooms, opened almost four years ago. Spare, minimal, light, airy, the property immediately garnered attention as one of the top small properties in Britain. A tiny oasis of unobtrusive hospitality, this jewel of a retreat seeks only your happiness. As always, the secret is in the details: the vintage telescope on its tripod in the front window; the sandstone Thai Buddha’s head, eyes downcast, on the ledge in your bathroom; the terraced garden with its tropical plants and comfy wood seating; the fully-stocked honor bar in the lobby; the DVD library which has something for every taste; and a genius-level breakfast IQ, “the last impression a guest has of the hotel, so it’s important to us.” Optimal location, devoted staff, fairly priced at the high end of the lodging spectrum. This romantic small hotel is a little dream worth visiting.
     Of course you could go across the square to the fusty old hotel for a third of the cost and get an ocean view, but you will need to tolerate a shabby ambience, the Fawlty Towers school of hotel management, and the dreaded English breakfast (runny eggs, overcooked bacon, cold white toast and two small brownish objects generously referred to as mushrooms). While a number of charming dining out options can be found in the area, the fish and chips shop near Zanzibar’s corner looked authentic, posted a nice menu, and sent out pleasing aromas, perhaps the best advertising of all: probably a great place to pop into for a fast snack.

Zanzibar International Hotel
9 Eversfield Place
St Leonards on Sea
East Sussex
TN37 6BY

Tel 01424 460109