The title of Britain's sunniest town may elicit a few smiles and giggles from Australian readers but this unofficial contest is taken quite seriously by the good people of Eastbourne and Hastings, two near-neighbouring south-coast resorts that tend to be more sun-kissed than anywhere else in the country. Each year, the pair exchange friendly(ish) barbs and weather statistics, with both, on average, clocking about 1900 annual hours of sunshine (Sydney, by comparison, gets about 2600, Melbourne 2200).
When it is bright and sunny, there is arguably no place more dazzling in either town than Eastbourne's Grand Hotel. Nicknamed the White Palace, it touts itself as the only five-star luxury hotel on the British coast and has been wowing guests and passers-by since 1875.
Originally catering for the Victorian upper classes, who would retire for summers at the seaside with their vast entourages, the Grand is rather more egalitarian nowadays, though beyond its vast, majestic whitewashed facade (which is repainted every three years, apparently), you'll find a landmark steeped in elegance and tradition.
Its smartly attired doormen have welcomed many illustrious figures over the years, among them Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and Ernest Shackleton. In 1905, after fleeing France amid scandal with his lover, Emma Bardac, Claude Debussy stayed at the Grand for two months. Book the Debussy suite and you can see where he composed one of his greatest symphonies – La Mer – while casting your gaze out over the English Channel.
Sea vistas come with many of the hotel's 152 generously sized rooms. Even the smallest category – deluxe doubles – are spacious, with super-high ceilings, bathroom with aromatic Molton Brown of London soaps and gels, antique dark-wood furniture, Nespresso machine and shiny lifestyle and travel magazines. If you're a family, or perhaps two couples, suite 107, where we stay, is a homey option with two bedrooms and a large, airy living room.
The Grand is as much a destination and social hub as a place to stay, with ambient public areas and flamboyantly stuccoed private events spaces that host weddings, conferences, Christmas parties and the like. While the outdoor pool – heated at 30 degrees – is possibly the most Insta-worthy feature of this labyrinthine hotel, the Great Hall is its handsome heartbeat. A charmingly old-fashioned venue for afternoon tea, it's furnished with soaring palatial columns, framed paintings of dapper-looking ladies and gents, colourful, fragrant flowers and an open fireplace that crackles to life in winter.
Next door's bars – and outside terrace – are sprinkled with armchairs and sofas on which you can lounge over cocktails and enjoy live music a few evenings a week.
Food and drink – jackets and collared shirts preferred for gentlemen – are served at the Grand's enormous main Garden Restaurant and there's fine-dining at the plush Mirabelle eatery, recently revamped with bright contemporary decor. Here, we munch on a scallop'y treat (seared hand-harvested scallops, mini scallops souffle and scallops ceviche), duo of lamb (cutlet and rump), and raspberry sorbet and white chocolate cheesecake, before retreating to the hotel's inviting lounge-bar for coffee, petit-fours and soothing tunes by the band, including an excellent rendition of Nancy Sinatra's Something Stupid.
We opt not to join the other couples on the dance floor, but the next morning, after a hearty English breakfast, we flex our limbs and shed some kilojoules with a fantastic hike. Exit left out of the Grand and you can stroll to Eastbourne's kitsch amusement pier via the town's neat palm-tree-lined seafront promenade. Go right and the South Downs, the grass-capped chalk hills that roll across southern England, are there to scale. After an uplifting hour of walking, we reach the top of Beachy Head, Britain's highest chalk sea-cliff (162 metres). The views are spectacular, with the gleaming white cliff lashed by the breaking waves of the bluey-green English Channel. It's blustery up here, so take care near the cliff edge, and hold on to your sunnies. Chances are you'll need them.
Rooms at The Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, start at about £130. See grandeastbourne.com
The journey from London Victoria to Eastbourne takes about 90 minutes. Direct services usually run every 30 minutes. See southernrailway.com
Steve McKenna was a guest of the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne.