The sun beats down from a cloudless sky, the aquamarine water breaks gently over the white sandy beach stretching into the distance. I could have been whiling away the hours on an exclusive Mediterranean beach but, no, my family and I were relaxing at the exquisite Sandbanks Hotel, just around the bay in Poole, Dorset.
Reportedly, it’s the only four-star UK hotel with direct access to a Blue Flag beach, and I’d highly recommend it.
Usually, we’re not a family for hanging around hotels whilst on holiday, preferring to explore the local area instead. This time was different. We still ventured out-and-about but spent considerably more time than usual relaxing at the hotel. This wasn’t only due to the building’s fine beachfront location – which entices you to stay and exploit it to the full – but an inviting programme of activities for young and old alike.
Bedrooms look out towards Poole Harbour or the beach. We stayed in a second-floor room overlooking the beach and despite losing the sun from our balcony towards the end of the afternoon, the breathtaking views were ample compensation; plus, of course, our balcony faced the right way to enjoy the golden sunrises. The room was comfortable, spacious and contained everything needed for an enjoyable break.
Within the hotel grounds, the company’s own Watersport Academy offers – among other activities – biking, sailing, windsurfing and kayaking. The location is ideal for such sports because the shallow – and I mean shallow – waters of Poole Harbour are just across the road while a cycle path, accessible from the hotel, runs along the sea front to Bournemouth and beyond. We grabbed our cycle helmets and peddled along the front. After three miles or so, we stopped to catch our breath and enjoy an ice cream before heading back for Hollie’s kayak lesson.
Donning a wetsuit, Hollie paddled away with the instructor close by; all the staff we met were knowledgeable and helpful. When it became clear that Peter, our seven-year-old, fancied getting out on the water, I agreed to take him out in a two-man kayak. As I’m not normally one for water activities, it was great to find the instructor was reassuring; so, wearing the necessary garb, we ventured out – and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Peter undertook several activities organised by the Kids’ Club (operates during school holidays). So enthralled was he by the various games and challenges on offer that he’d have happily missed dinner had we not reminded him of the time.
We dined in the hotel’s restaurant and the food was spot-on. Being vegetarian, we often struggle finding suitable dishes on menus but always found something appetising at the Sandbanks Hotel. Our kids were well catered for, too, because they could either choose from the children’s menu or the specially prepared hot buffet.
We enjoyed using the warm 10-metre indoor swimming pool and relaxing on the outside terrace, staring out to sea – it was pure tranquillity; and before the end of our stay, Paula, my wife, took the opportunity of being pampered at the Haven Spa in the company’s Haven Hotel, just down the road. After she returned from her Delux Facial Experience feeling totally refreshed, we couldn’t think of a better place to lunch than The Haven; clement weather meant being able to dine outside, watching the chain ferry ply its trade between Sandbanks and Shell Bay.
Any visit to this region must include seeing some of Poole’s many attractions, including Compton Acres. Open 362 days a year, it’s marketed as the “South’s finest privately-owned gardens”. It’s a spectacular floral display where the subtle scents of the myriad plants perfume the air. Originally created in the 1920s, the area is divided into several different-styled gardens, from the Bog and Sculpture Gardens to the Japanese and Heather Gardens.
Other highlights of Poole include taking a stroll along the quayside – always a hive of activity – and watching the boats come and go. I’d recommend taking the small ferry across to National Trust-owned Brownsea Island, within Poole Harbour, which is just a short ride away.
One thing I love about islands is their isolation. However near they might be to the mainland – and Brownsea is very close – there is always that feeling of being in a different world, away from the hustle and bustle of mainstream living. Although tourists flock here, especially spring and summer, there is a real sense of tranquillity. Despite being tiny – just 1.5 miles by 0.75 – there are still plenty of moments when it feels like just you and the island.
The 500 acres of woodland, heathland and salt marsh are a haven for wildlife. It’s one of the few places in southern England where you can spot red squirrels; it was well into our adventure on Brownsea before we spotted our first, scampering away into the woods, but what a delight.
Baden-Powell hosted the first Scout camp on the island in 1907 and I’m sure they would have enjoyed themselves as much as we did. The island has a gift shop, information centre, café, a nature reserve (managed by Dorset Wildlife Trust) and acres of beautiful countryside, home to not only squirrels but peacocks, deer and plenty of birds.
We were sad to leave the Sandbanks Hotel, which is blessed with a team which genuinely wants to help guests feel welcome and make the most of their stay.
Part of the family-owned FJB Hotels, this is a family-friendly property the company can be proud of. Of the other three hotels in the group, The Chine Hotel in Bournemouth is geared towards family breaks, too; it will be interesting to see if it lives up to the standards set by the Sandbanks Hotel.
Dorset BH13 7PS
The Sandbanks Hotel, 01202 707377, www.fjbhotels.co.uk
The Haven Spa, 01202 700211, www.fjbhotels.co.uk/haven-hotel/spa
Compton Acres, 01202 700778, www.comptonacres.co.uk
Poole Tourism, 0845 234 5560, www.pooletourism.com