More Promise Than Delivery
I used to work for a man whose motto was "Never promise more than you can deliver." I was reminded of his wise words again and again during my recent visit to The Gallivant Hotel in Camber on the East Sussex coast.
The Gallivant bills itself as a boutique, beachhouse hotel. Its carefully photographed website promises coastal colors, artisanal driftwood furniture and a breezy, sand between the toes experience near the eight-mile long stretch of golden beach known as Camber Sands. The white washed wooden floors, touches of wicker and seashells, Shaker-style wooden clothes pegs and old-fashioned rotary dial phones (some younger guests may not be able to figure out how to use them), all hint at a family beach cottage on Cape Cod or a ramshackle beach hut in "Margaritaville".
If only bringing that beach lifestyle to East Sussex was simply a matter of decor. The illusion at the Gallivant endures only as long as you are willing to live by artificial light. Open the curtains and you are smack in the middle of a housing estate, separated by a hurricane fence from bungalows, clothes flapping on washing lines, children shrieking and dogs barking (which may explain why Wallace the Westie was on less than best behavior).
The views from rooms on the front of the hotel are similarly mundane. Between the hotel and the magnificent dunes of Camber Sands, lie the hotel parking lot, a road that is probably quite busy in the summer, the large beach parking lot and a fish and chip shop.
The Beach is the Star
There's no question that Camber Sands, backed by its 40-foot high dunes,is a remarkable beach. Climb over the dunes, along marked paths through the beach grass and shrubbery, and it stretches ahead, hundreds of yards wide and flat at low tide. It's the perfect setting for learning to handle a kite buggy, taking a dog for a run or kicking off a hike along the estuary to nearby Rye.
The Gallivant is conveniently located for the beach and, as a beachside motel, it delivers a reasonable experience. But in addition to its immediate surroundings, it's missing the little things that I'd expect of a chic boutique. Rooms are smallish, with too few electrical outlets (powerpoints) for modern guests. I didn't bring a pair of scissors and could not release the tiny soap from its packaging. After Wallace the Westie and I had been to the beach, we discovered there was no accessible outdoor water supply to rinse our sandy feet.
The Beach Bistro
The Beach Bistro, a large casual room with a bar on one side, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner at fixed hours (posted on the hotel website). Chef Trevor Hambly makes a point of sourcing local food as much as possible, including fish and shellfish caught in nearby waters, salt marsh reared lamb from the surrounding Romney Marsh and artisan bread from a named local baker.
The most successful dishes seem to be those in which the high quality ingredients are allowed to shine through. The best on our tasting menu included a game terrine with the Gallivant's own splendid Kentish pear chutney, perfectly cooked salt marsh lamb, crisp fried Rye Bay dabs and whiting fillets with brown shrimp potato cake.
Less pleasing was the chef's own variation on brandade de morue, a Mediterranean salt cod dish that had been delicious in an earlier cookery lesson but arrived at the dinner table salted to the point of being inedible. A dish of Rye Bay scallops, with a smear of butternut squash, a veal jus and a scattering of chopped black pudding, was too cheffy and overworked for me. But then I never have warmed to the currently fashionable combination of scallops and what is, essentially, a sausage made of blood.
A dessert of a miniature Sussex Pond Pudding, a suet pudding with a lemon, butter and sugar filling, was too stodgy for me and described by one of the hotel's owners as "a bit of an experiment," as were some of the local wines we drank. An odd decision, considering the hotel was filled with food and travel writers intent on writing reviews.
The Cookery School
The Gallivant Hotel offers a range of cookery classes, for £95 (2012 prices) and cookery weekend packages. At our visit, the chef had only been working at the hotel for a few months, and clearly the cookery class experience needs a bit of work. It was rather disorganized and not particularly hands on - although I did learn how to open a scallop. The venue was a large marquee and we had to choose between too little heat or too much noise.
The Bottom Line
The Gallivant is a pleasant (though somewhat overpriced if its summer 2012 online rates are to be believed), recently redecorated strip motel beside a beach. It is what it is and succeeds best when not overpromising or overreaching in the kitchen. At the moment, it is the closest you can get to the wonderful Camber Sands without booking a week at the nearby Pontins holiday camp so good for a salty weekend break about two hours from London.