Ming E. Wong
Sussex is where Londoners go to play.
Its dense coastal plain, dominated by the city of Brighton, is the beach and Riviera of England, frequented by visitors. And it is just about two hours from the capital by train.
The historic county is also where you will find vineyards, castles and country houses, many of which are the retreats of English celebrities such as Keith Richards, Adele and Sir Paul McCartney (of the legendary rock group The Beatles).
But what probably raised its prominence on an international level is when British royal heartthrob Prince Harry and his American wife, Meghan Markle, were officially bestowed the titles of Duke and Duchess of Sussex upon their marriage last year.
Royalty had actually lived in Brighton at the Royal Pavilion, which is open to the public today. Built by King George IV, it is a rather eccentric residence with minarets, domes and pinnacles — a hotchpotch mix of East and West.
During a tour of the place, I wandered from one splendid room to the next, awed by the posh reception, the banquette room, the Music Room, and even the rather modern and well-organised kitchen. The colours were exuberant, and the décor, exotic.
The flamboyant King George IV was known for his excesses and grew so large that he eventually could not walk up the stairs by himself.
His descendant, Queen Victoria (1818-1901) did not take to the residence as it was too small for her family and she sold it to the city of Brighton in 1850.
Later, it served as a hospital for Indian soldiers during World World I, which accounts for the later gift of an imposing Indian gate on the pavilion grounds.
Brighton today feels more like the 60s that have been morphed into the 70s and early 80s.
The heart of Brighton is the Lanes, a maze of independent boutiques, cafés and restaurants with quirky names such as Choccywoccydoodah Bar (decadent chocolate), Dum Dum (artisanal doughnuts) and Lucky Voice (nothing to do with singing equipment but cocktails with lots of decorations). The shops are also proudly environmentally-, pet- and bio-friendly.
Every imaginable cuisine seems represented — Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, American burghers, Lebanese and Latin American. But I noticed that vegetarian and vegan are strong trends.
But you need to push through the Lanes so that you can arrive at the seafront, and you will see another Brighton icon — the Brighton Palace Pier.
Expect fairground attractions such as roller-coaster rides at the giant pier.
Nearby, you will find Sea Life Centre, the world’s oldest aquarium, the Fishing Museum, and even a casino. I suppose these places cater for wet weather amusements.
On sunny days, the seafront is the place to be.
During one of my jaunts, I enjoyed looking for a nice spot to sit on the pebbly beach and just chill. It could be nice and quiet at one place, and noisy and lively at another with activities (from casual gatherings to pre-wedding bridal parties) in full swing.
A little further down the coast are the remains of the West Pier and the British Airways i360, a 173mtall revolving tower. I would recommend buying advanced tickets for a pre-selected or flexible time to go up the tower. They are cheaper and there is always a crowd waiting to ascend. At about £15 (S$27), the gorgeous views of the sea, beach and city are totally worth it.
And while you are in the glass pod at the top, enjoy a glass of locally-produced wines from the Nyetimber Sky Bar.
• Trains to Brighton depart regularly from London Victoria Station. I collected my ticket (booked online) from a machine before departure. If you want to skip London completely, consider flying to Gatwick which is 30 minutes by train to Brighton.
• If you love to stay by the sea, opt for Grand Hotel, a local institution which I found very English, from its décor to its high tea and plaid-dressed porters. The ladies’ toilet is actually signposted “Powder Room”.
• Visit the Regency, Brighton’s oldest and most famous fish and chip restaurant with a view of the beach and the i360 tower. It is also a celebrity hangout, so who knows who you might meet.
• Shop to your heart’s content in Brighton, if you prefer funky and independent shops to generic
malls. If you collect old records, admire musical instruments, love ethnic clothes or boutique designers, like unusual household gadgets, and enjoy bio and gourmet food, this is your town. I love the independent magazine store, Magazine Brighton at 22 Trafalgar Street.
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