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Searching for Southampton’s Sun

Lawyers know not to ask any question when they don’t already know the answer. So it was a brave concierge who asked my daughter, aged four, what she’d liked best about his smart new Southampton hotel, the De Vere Grand Harbour. “My daddy’s bed” she replied, wrapping herself around my leg. He retreated, looking a little bit surprised, and I worried about getting arrested.

In fact, she had a point. The bed I’d shared with my wife had in fact been wonderful: huge, firm, comfortable – all the things needed for a good nights sleep for two people, one of whom has back problems and the other being seven months pregnant. Four-year-old Lucy’s bed, folding out from a sofa, was also reasonably comfortable but obviously not on the same scale.

What made it most surprising that the bed had been Lucy’s choice was that she was still wet from a hysterically happy hour in the hotel’s swimming pool, bath-temperature warm and all the more inviting as huge picture windows trickled with a grey rain enveloping a cold Southampton beyond. She’d spent an hour the previous evening in this tropical space and rushed down again before the morning breakfast, giggled delightedly when thrown into the water, ripped off her armbands and taken her first tentative swimming strokes unaided.

I’d never expected her to choose the food as her high point. When, the previous evening, I’d ordered Lucy’s child meal I’d asked whether it would be enough for a hungry four-year-old, but it certainly wasn’t. A small pot containing a quarter-tin of spaghetti rings and five ovenbaked new potatoes did not, in her opinion or mine, constitute a meal, and when I tried the potatoes they were so salty I was driven straight to the minibar – and expensive move. This raises the question of what sort of child this food is designed for. A two-year-old that isn’t hungry? A second meal had to follow: penne in a sauce that tasted canned.

Once Lucy was settled it was time for a drink. I headed down to the bar but instead of taking my drink order a waiter told me to take a table where, he assured me, I would be served. To a man fired with a thirst by his daughter’s salty potato supper this was immediately irritating, not least because it was 15 minutes before I did actually get a drink despite being mere feet from an empty bar.

There are two restaurants in the Grand Harbour Hotel, and although we went for the less expensive Brewsters it seemed quite fully-priced to me. My starter of clam linguine sat on starchy, coolish pasta, and my steak, at £19.95, was a disappointing disc of dry meat that arrived, teetering on a matched disc of potato, both al dente. Quite nicely presented, but less rare than I’d ordered and without that special flavour or texture that beef can provide. Though it’s not such a great achievement, the wine at least was good, and the service excellent, with my fancy taken by our attentive Australian waitress and my wife preferring the more effacing attentions of the French one. We were celebrating a birthday and they provided a specially-commissioned summer pudding for desert that did much to make up for the shortcomings of their a la carte dishes.

It’s only when you’ve a child flaked out in your hotel room that you’re restricted to the hotel’s own restaurant, however, and a range of specialist restaurants are tentatively opening their doors within easy walking distance. And after an excellent breakfast the next morning I had time to explore. The Harbour Hotel is just one of the newest developments to help Southampton’s relaunch as a trendy, restored waterfront. The marina is still under construction, while in the main port freight ships are framed by endless, utlitarian carparks and plagued by the erratic British climate. But there are signs of progress. One of the UK’s largest covered shopping malls is a short stroll away, with a good range of department stores and chain outlets gathered together in a weather-proof microclimate. This is the port used by the Mayflower on its journey to the New World, and four hundred years later the city is starting to wake up to its historical heritage.

Cape Town beware. Southampton’s on its way. 

The De Vere Grand Harbour Hotel is offering reduced-rate rooms through an affordable blast of five-star luxury. And maybe, with time, they’ll turn their attention to the cuisine.

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