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Costa Rica

This lively South Coast town, 2008's best beach in Britain, is in the top crop of our seaside resort, an attractive weekend break destination as well as a base for the longer family holiday. I found Bournemouth bursting out of its genteel past, and boasting a host of attractions new and restored.

Best beach

Bournemouth, with its seven miles of unbroken sand, recently scooped Coast Magazine’s Best Beach in Britain award. And last year it beat Spanish rivals on beach quality, cost and eco-friendliness. Judges praised the Dorset town’s atmosphere, nightlife, and facilities for children and surfers. Survey its winning assets on a 500 feet high ride in the Bournemouth Eye, a helium-filled balloon tethered by a steel cable in Lower Gardens (day or illuminated night flights, adults £10, child £6). Sea-front strolls link into the famous chines, steep-sided , green ravines leading down to the beaches, unique to these parts. 'Walk the asphalt paths of Branksome Chine,” urged John Betjeman, “in resin-scented air like strong Greek wine'. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in a house in Alum Chine. A plaque marks where it stood.

Back to the future

Four key projects in Boscombe, a mile east of the town centre,
show how Bournemouth is refreshing its past and innovating for the future. Last year the splendid 100 year old opera house (venue for Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in the 1960s) reopened in all its plush Victorian elegance. Within 4 months it was named the UK’s best live entertainment venue. Next comes the sprucing up of old Boscombe Pier, ready for this summer (2008). Europe's first artificial reef for surfers (bigger breakers guaranteed) opens just offshore in October (2008). Then it’s the rebirth of the humble beach hut. Hemingway Design (they created the Red or Dead fashion brand) are turning dilapidated 1958 buildings into the sharpest beach huts around, to buy or rent for the day.

Art for all

The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum is one of my favourite old museums, jam-packed with fascinating things. And it all started as a birthday gift. Local hotelier Sir Merton Russell-Cotes built the Art Nouveau villa, perched on the Bournemouth cliff top, as a present for his wife Lady Annie in 1907. Sir Merton filled it with paintings from his collection, by Rossetti and other artists, and items acquired on his world travels, and they gave it to the town. The great actor Sir Henry Irving is fêted in the room where he stayed; other items honour his contemporaries Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt.
Admission free.

Dive with whales

The town centre Oceanarium dips into far flung waters, from the Amazon to Africa, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Ganges. But all those red eared turtles, piranhas and flashlight fish from the Abyss are only the hors d’oeuvres.
Take a trip in the world’s first interactive “dive cage.” Without getting wet, make close encounters with “virtual” great white sharks and dolphins, before the entire cage is swallowed by a blue whale, the world’s biggest mammal. (Fortunately it spits you out, like Jonah in the Bible.) They create the effect with 170,000 frames of video and animation, on twelve 50-inch plasma screens. www.oceanarium.co.uk 01202 311993. Adult £8.50 Child (3-15yrs) £6.00
Recover your land legs on the seafront, where every summer Sunday summer there’s a line up of vintage classic cars from 1915 to the 1980s.

Read all about it.

Forget fish and chips served in newspaper. Bournemouth has pushed the idea to its ultimate, and wrapped an entire Parisian-style brasserie in an old newspaper office. The elegant old Daily Echo building had stood empty since the 90s before it was restored to this novel use. The restorers brushed up the Art Deco architecture, retained the high ceilings, and added crystal chandeliers and a black and white floor terrazzo. The huge room where papers once poured off the presses opened last year (2007) as the Print Room brasserie. The paper’s reception is now the Ink Bar. www.theprintroom-bournemouth.co.uk There’s more new from old in Club 1812, a cocktail and live jazz bar in the former mansion of Bournemouth’s founder Captain Tregonwell. Another splendid place for cocktails at sunsets is the balcony of the Aruba bar and restaurant.

Rooms with a view

Bournemouth caters for many taste – from younger visitors attracted to one of the liveliest club scenes in the south, through outdoor types who fancy a walk in the nearby New Forest, to music-lovers in town for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. And it has the hotels to match, from the stylish Edwardian Hotel Miramar, Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkein's regular summer haunt (www.Miramar-Bournemouth.com) to the lively lure of the chic boutique hotel Urban Beach. www.urbanbeachhotel.co.uk.
Other recently refurbished hotels include the Langtry Manor, in the very house King Edward VII built for his mistress, actress Lillie Langtry (four poster beds, Jacuzzis and Saturday night Edwardian banquets, www.LangtryManor.co.uk) and the Cumberland, one of the finest Art Deco hotels in Britain.

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