Hastings: a breath of fresh air

by Adam Jacot de Boinod

With a mix of stylish hotels, interesting shops, history and leisure, Hastings is a salty seaside town that's definitely on the up

When I heard I was going to Hastings for the night in March, I wasn't that excited. In fact, truth be told, I presumed it would be bleak, blustery and a rather poor relation to neighbouring Brighton.

But, while Hastings may not possess the vibrancy and nightlife of its fashionable next door neighbour, I was pleasantly surprised at this up-and-coming east Sussex coastal resort, which offers an interesting mix of culture, history and leisure, sprinkled with some excellent places to stay and eat.

After a long drive from London, it was a relief to arrive at our hotel and be greeted with a complimentary glass of bubbly courtesy of Max, the owner of the Zanzibar International Hotel. If you thought that boutique hotels were only found in big cities, you'd be wrong as this little gem is a fine example – and the hospitality really is second-to-none.

Situated in St. Leonards-on-Sea, next door to Hastings, the Victorian building is right on the seafront, and with its themed rooms inspired by Max's travels around the globe, is light years away from your archetypal seaside b&b establishment.

Rooms include: South America, complete with free-standing bath; Morocco with its spiral staircase and mezzanine bedroom; and Antarctica – our room - which had a sea view, snow-white furnishings and a high-tech sauna and steam shower cubicle with a radio and lights. There's also the Manhattan Penthouse Suite, a cool loft apartment featuring a hot tub, jukebox and 'sky windows' for moonlit star-gazing.

Another wonderful place to stay is the award-winning, five star Swan House Bed and Breakfast, which provides elegant accommodation right in the heart of Hastings Old Town. They are also proud of their varied gourmet breakfast menu, the main ingredients of which are sourced locally where possible.

That evening, feeling hungry – and lazy - we decided to jump into a cab for the short ride to Hastings Old Town (but you can walk it in about 25 minutes). This eclectic, interesting area just off the seafront is strewn with antique shops, quirky art galleries, restaurants, bars and second-hand book shops and has even been dubbed 'the new Notting Hill'.

We had a reservation at Latham's Brasserie (63 George Street, Old Town, TN34 7EE; lathamshastings.co.uk), a cosy, modesty priced restaurant (fixed dinner 2 courses is £10.50; 3 courses is £18.95) in the centre of the Old Town with an inviting menu and efficient, friendly service. Sharing a Greek salad to start, I enjoyed the grilled seabass with black pasta, chilli, garlic and seafood for my main course, while hubby chose the excellently cooked fillet steak with pepper sauce.

For a special occasion, or to push the boat out a little (pardon the pun), book a table at St Clements, a modern fish restaurant with an excellent reputation (3 Mercatoria, St Leonards on Sea, TN38 0EB/stclementsrestaurant.co.uk).

George Street on a Friday night is buzzy and lively, and we almost popped into The Dragon Bar, which is related to the trendy Shoreditch institution. However the lure of our hotel room, a cold beer and a DVD seemed an even better idea.

The next morning, we devoured a truly stupendous champagne breakfast in our room (which arrived bang on time), and then headed out to explore Hastings.

Following a brisk amble on the long pebbly beach, we rummaged around the second-hand and antique shops in the Old Town and caught the Victorian West Hill Cliff Railway up to Hastings Castle (visit1066country.com) – this is one of the steepest and earliest funicular railways in England and a great way to travel up to the castle.

The 1066 story is told inside a medieval siege tent – along with a handful of other visitors, we learned about the history of Britain's first Norman castle, explored the fascinating ruins and took in the fantastic views across the town and English Channel.

We had to eat lunch on the hop (an M&S sandwich to be precise), however if we'd have had time for a hearty weekend brunch, we would have headed for Pomegranate (50 George Street, Hastings TN34 3EA; pomegranatehastings.co.uk), a characterful restaurant which is open from 10-4pm on Saturday and Sunday serving local, fresh food - anything from eggs benedict and moules to beer battered local fish and chips.

The Mermaid Café (2 Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings TN4) is also unbeatable for fish and chips: highly regarded by its many loyal customers, you can sit right on the beach with the seagulls and eat your lunch, which has come straight out of the sea in front of you.

Continuing the fishy theme, the Blue Reef Aquarium at the end of Rock-a-Nore Road is a great visit. Spy natural wonders including giant crabs, lobsters, seahorses and poison dart frogs, and stop at the giant ocean tank and underwater walkthrough tunnel for a close encounter with an exotic coral reef and hundreds of colourful fish.

Whatever the weather, Hastings has something to offer, and its laid-back vibe is a definite breath of fresh air.