The British Airways i360: The world's tallest moving observation tower

When the architects behind the London Eye, arguably Britain's most successful tourist development this century, unveil a new £46 million attraction, it's kind of a big deal. Not only is the 162-metre-tall British Airways i360 the world's tallest moving observation tower but it's also the world's most slender tower (a fact you may not want to be reminded of just before you go up it on a windy day).

Located on Brighton's seafront, it's daytrip-able from London (one hour by train) and only 45 kilometres from Gatwick Airport. The tower's futuristic donut-shaped observation pod can accommodate 200 people, who are smoothly whisked from ground level up to 138 metres to enjoy, on a clear day, 360-degree views of up to 42 kilometres.

On paper, it sounds unstoppable. A record-breaking new attraction in a popular seaside location within easy access of London. What could go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. The tower's design has attracted significant criticism (iSore is the most popular nickname) largely because the observation pod is stored at ground level while not in operation, which means that most of the time it looks like a very tall industrial chimney. 

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The attraction stands on the site of the former West Pier, a Victorian pleasure pier that's now a forlorn rusting wreck after storm and fire damage, and many locals would have preferred to have seen the money spent on restoring that instead.

But, to be fair, the London Eye also had its naysayers when it opened and we're all suckers for a great view, so perhaps the end justifies the means?

My visit, two weeks after its August 4 launch date, starts poorly. Strong winds mean we can't embark at ground level so instead we're herded through a security checkpoint into a nondescript function room downstairs. There aren't enough seats so most people have to stand and there are no videos or information panels to distract us while we wait.

Once onboard, however, things start to look up. The interior is sparse but striking with metal floors, bench seating and an elegant bar serving a limited selection of drinks from local suppliers.

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Our launch is so smooth I barely notice it. Suddenly, we're gliding almost imperceptibly skyward and the panoramic views of the city and the coast start to unfurl. 

I head to the bar to discover there are no menus ("Sorry, we've run out") and my first glass of sparkling wine still bears the lipstick of its previous owner. Eventually, with a clean glass charged with delicious Nyetimber​ bubbles, I'm able to admire the scenery.

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Fortunately, it's a clear evening and to the west I can see for miles, past colourful beach huts and Hove's manicured lawns towards the coastal town of Worthing. In the other direction is the Palace Pier, a spindly finger of amusements and blinking lights, and beyond that the Seven Sisters, a series of towering chalk sea cliffs.

Look north and the city's impressive Regency-era seafront squares soon give way to an undulating maze of urban sprawl which creeps towards the South Downs, a range of chalk hills that border the town. 

Look south and you've got, well, sea. The English Channel to be precise – a vast expanse of steely grey with the odd ship dotting the horizon.

Having grown up nearby, I recognise the lavish white Italianate exterior of the upmarket Grand Hotel, the concrete travesty next door that is the Brighton Centre and the faint shadow on the horizon that may or may not be the Isle of Wight.

However, anyone not familiar with the area wouldn't have the foggiest. Brighton doesn't have London's iconic landmarks and with no commentary or information to assist, you're left admiring what is essentially a nice view. There is a free phone app with a map you can download and a guidebook for sale costing £7, but most people seem more concerned with taking selfies. 

Inside the pod are several TV screens, but rather than providing useful information about the experience, they're showing sun-drenched clips of British Airways holiday destinations. 

After 10 minutes at the top we glide back down, at which point the doors jam so we have to wait 15 minutes until someone figures out how to open them. 

There's a gift shop, of course, and an onsite restaurant called The Belle Vue. It's headed by a UK MasterChef winner and specialises in local produce. Dinner there is OK rather than great (to be fair it's their opening day so some of their signature dishes aren't yet available) but I suspect its beachfront location and upmarket cafe-style menu are better appreciated during the day.

In summary, the i360 is an undoubtedly impressive engineering feat that currently delivers a rather lacklustre tourist experience. Hopefully, in time, the rough edges will be smoothed out and more innovative features added.

Of course, not everyone agrees. When I ask one of the attendants if he's bored of going up and down all day, he replies, "Not at all. I love it. Every time is different."

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitbrighton.com

GETTING THERE

British Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to London via Singapore. Phone 1300 767 177, britishairways.com

SEE + DO

Flights last 20 minutes during the day and 30 minutes after 6pm. Adults £15 ($26), children £7.50. Under 4s free. See britishairwaysi360.com 

Rob McFarland was a guest of British Airways and British Airways i360.

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