The Driftwood, Bexhill-on-Sea
The tourist board was unsurprisingly excited when stylish new boutique hotel and Austrian restaurant The Driftwood opened in Bexhill-on-Sea a few weeks ago. It’s not often they have something new to shout about in this resort with a rather elderly image. What’s more, the arrival of something this smart and contemporary is the kind of vote of confidence that could help draw in new enterprises.
The six-bedroom Driftwood is just a street away from the fabulous modernist De La Warr pavilion on the seafront, so this is a perfect place to stay over if you’re building a trip around a big show or exhibition.
The building the hotel now occupies, amid shops on Sackville Road, has had several incarnations. It was formerly a furniture shop and at one point in its history a cannabis factory was even found in the basement! Since the hotel’s arrival there are more above board aids to relaxation – like crisp cotton sheets, in-room coffee machines, rainfall showers and someone else cooking your dinner.
It’s the baby of Seng Loy, a charming, hands on hotelier who has worked for the likes of Intercontinental, The Waldorf and The Langham in London and wanted to use his expertise to create his own accommodation. He already owns Hastings House in St Leonards and the two-bedroom Bexhill Beach Residence. (If you’re lucky you might also catch an appearance from his dog!).
I’ve stayed in a fair few hotels in my time travel writing and I’m a particular fan of boutique hotels (give me a stylish bolthole over a giant marble lobby any day) and I have to say the Driftwood really hits the mark. Too many hotels slap a ‘boutique’ label on something pretty ordinary they’ve simply thrown a few quirky touches at but at the Driftwood there is a great finish on everything from thick carpets (good for cutting the noise of other guests coming in late) to velvet curtains, to parquet effect feature walls.
I loved my room immediately, not least because it was in my favourite colour – teal. It also included a desk I totally coveted – I’d looked at something similar in Heals last year. Other nice touches included a chesterfield sofa, bathrobes, quality toiletries, a rainfall shower, a retro radio and what turned out to be a very comfy bed. Noted London designer Mark Standing was employed to come up with the look.
I’d already had a look round the other rooms on the hotel’s launch night a few weeks before so I can tell you one even includes a little alcove for a dog with a bean bag, bowl and welcome treats! Even the smaller rooms maximise space so none feel pokey.
The Austrian restaurant at street level, already attracting a good stream of locals, came about because Seng’s wife is Austrian. Young chef Michael Roessl is something of a continental Jamie Oliver and now sources his ingredients from across Southeast England.
We had starters of smoked salmon roulade and light Austrian styrian spring rolls (kind of Asia-meets-spicy sauerkraut). Moving on, I had catch of the day – sea bass with a lovely wild garlic puree and herby boiled potatoes – comfort food without the stodge. My husband’s cheesy spaetzle – a more textured Austrian take on gnocchi – had him reminiscing about ski holidays. More carnivorous options included traditional veal escalopes.
For dessert, though my husband went for a fluffy chocolate mousse, I had to try the apple strudel, and lovely it was too – with a little jug of custard, cream and berries so you didn’t have to decide between them. A man at another table was also getting nostalgic, thinking back to a strudel he’d had in Vienna in the 1940s. The menu was great for those of us who enjoy something a bit different, but not off-piste enough to scare more traditional eaters. You can also drop in of an afternoon for tea, Union Coffee and Austrian-style cake.
The wine list includes some Austrian choices. Having been pleasantly surprised by one we were recommended at Brighton’s Hotel Du Vin the other year we went Austrian again and were again rewarded – none of that cloying sweetness Germanic wines were once infamous for.
We were there on a Friday night and the restaurant was busy with locals so I’d recommend booking ahead for weekends. There’s banquette seating along one side and I thought this would make a nice spot for a group booking for a celebration. Though there’s a small bar serving the restaurant it doesn’t feel like somewhere you’d linger unless you were eating, so after we’d finished our meal we went on for a night cap at Rocksalt-on-Sea down the road where a band was playing.
The next morning we countered our indulgence by having a simple egg on toast for breakfast but you can have a full English, (or veggie version), smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, or brioche French toast with maple syrup and berries which another table were tucking into and looked fabulous.
In the area
So why Bexhill? Well, Seng believes it’s up-and-coming due to a ripple effect – people who are priced out of Brighton are moving to Hastings and those priced out of Hastings are moving to Bexhill, which is changing the demographic.
Though it may not be immediately obvious, there is, for the weekender, already more than the De La Warr pavilion to Bexhill.
The small Bexhill Museum is charming. It’s old-fashioned, in a good way, with an ecclectic clutter of exhibits. The first room is mainly natural history – including some impressive casts of dinosaur footprints found on the beach. Then there’s a gorgeous collection of vintage clothing, particulary flapper-era dresses. (In the same room you can learn the traumatic truth of what happened to the Camberwick Green characters at the hands of their Sussex creator…)
Downstairs are some early sports cars and the story of how Bexhill became the birthplace of British motor-racing. (Reverting to stereotype my husband was already down there while I was still swooning over the dresses). In the same room is Eddie Izzard’s childhood railway set – yes, really – which you can push buttons to operate. He grew up in the area and the buildings and backdrop his dad created round the set pay homage to local scenes.
Lovely-looking Egerton Park behind the museum has a smart children’s play area, outdoor gym and climbing wall.
I had been told that Bexhill had a vintage scene besides the Modernist De La Warr and those great garments in the museum, and some scouting of surrounding streets paid off. There were a few shops selling old train sets, posters and the like, clustered in Sea Road along with Horton’s, a contemporary (licensed) cafe with a nod to the 50s in its decor. Best of all were Fantasia – a 1950s-style hairdressers complete with retro hairdryer hoods on Devonshire Road and Di Paolo Cafe, opposite the De La Warr with what looked like an original 50s counter and chairs where you can get gelato in those traditional wavy glasses.
Herstmonceux Castle and observatory are also within striking distance and of course, Bexhill is a quieter access point to Hastings – only 15 minutes away. There you can take in the lovely restyled pier, buy fresh seafood from huts beside the fleet that landed it and browse antiques shops, as I did, for anything from a butter churn to a taxidermy duckling to a full size model of a Christian saint.
The Muddy Verdict:
Good for: A treat-yourself weekend away. A stopover linked to a show at the De La Warr. Mini-breaks exploring nearby Hastings. Dog-owners who don’t want to compromise on style. Foodies.
Not so good for: This isn’t a full service hotel, don’t expect a gym, spa etc – think of it as a restaurant with high-spec rooms. Though they’d be welcome, it isn’t a place I’d think to bring children, except to eat, it’s more romantically designed. If mobility is an issue note there are no ground floor bedrooms, though the restaurant is level.
££ Rooms start from £99 per night, though there are sometimes discounts if you take pot luck close to the date. The restaurant is reasonably-priced.
The Driftwood, 40 Sackville Road, Bexhill, East Sussex, TN39 3JE, England, 01424 732584, thedriftwoodbexhill.co.uk