Hotelier Grace Leo’s latest venture, the four star 45-room Relais Cooden Beach on the East Sussex coast, showed no signs of infancy other than the fresh interiors when we arrived on a blissfully sunny weekday in early September. The guests out on the terrace or relaxing in the public areas of the hotel looked as at home as if they’d been visiting for the past ten years, while the assured front of house team echoed the impression that the new Relais hotel was a well established fixture of scenic Cooden Beach. Opened in late 2022, the cool blue and terracotta-toned décor by French designer Pascal Allaman creates a contemporary yet timeless appeal with understated nautical hints and nostalgic seaside glamour. Think zig-zag striped bedroom carpets and vintage-style wicker seats in the lobby that look like they came from the set of a period drama.
Although the mock-Tudor property has been a hotel for almost a century, it was once the home of the aristocratic De La Warr family, a glamorous outpost where the family hosted notable guests including King George VI and his family, including the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret who loved playing on the beach. Other guests of the extremely well connected De La Warrs included Winston Churchill, the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson.
Gilbert Sackville, 8th Earl De La Warr put Bexhill on the map as the home of British motor racing when, in May 1902, he organised the first British automobile race in the town with the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, thereby attracting international attention. With much of Bexhill then owned by the Sackville family, Gilbert was appointed Mayor of Bexhill the following year and continued championing improvements to the local area. Notable De La Warr influences that can seen today include the De La Warr Pavilion, the result of an architectural competition initiated by Gilbert’s son and heir Herbrand Edward Dundonald Brassey Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr, along with the Cooden Beach train station which the family were no doubt keen to introduce in order to make their home more accessible.
But there are obvious drawbacks when it comes to converting the De La Warr’s former home into a boutique modern hotel due to the period limitations of the building, something guests should be conscious of when selecting their room. For example, the Seascape rooms at the rear of the property offer lovely views of Pevensey Bay, but without the luxuries of air conditioning or balconies, while the ‘signature’ Verandah Suites have less than wonderful views. Our ‘Pevensey’ Verandah Junior Suite, which is owner Grace Leo’s favourite room so a member of staff informed us, besides being one of the few to boast air conditioning has a disappointing outlook facing an apartment block and railway bridge, highlighting the hotel’s convenient proximity to Cooden Beach Station, just a two minute walk away. Coupled with the less than pleasing sights and sounds of trains were the passing cars, with our ground floor verandah situated beside a pavement offering no privacy for an al fresco room service breakfast. An estate agent might say there was a sea view, but you’d have to stand up and crane your neck over the car park.
That said, the room itself was spacious and pleasantly furnished, with armchairs in a jazzy 1930s-style print, striped cushions on the bed, an extremely comfortable mattress, and a smart if snug black and white tiled bathroom (the toilet was separate for some reason) stocked with Aromatherapy Associates. Fortunately the unexpected early autumn heatwave meant that we could spend the majority of our time on the beautiful pebble beach, with a row of loungers and parasols marking out the hotel’s designated private area and where bar staff were happy to deliver refreshments. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be content to spend the entire day on the beach with only a pause for lunch at the hotel’s aptly named Terrace on the Beach, an idyllic spot for al fresco all day dining and where the holiday vibes were completed with a spritz and steamed Thai style mussels in a fragrant white wine, shallot, garlic, chilli, coriander and coconut broth.
Both the hotel and beach are dog-friendly, making the Relais Cooden Beach an ideal seaside destination to enjoy with your four-legged friend, while families and groups will find it an excellent base for exploring other historic East Sussex seaside towns such as nearby Hastings where you can take in sweeping views from the famed West Hill Cliff Railway or Eastbourne with a walk along the spectacular 4 mile promenade. Or then again, why not borrow one of the hotel’s courtesy bikes and head inland to the Pevensey Marshes Nature Reserve? Guests preferring to stay around the hotel will find a pool table, a newly opened gym and the Sea Cottage Spa. But don’t be misled by the term ‘spa’, there is just one treatment room so it’s wise to book when you’re making your room reservation. And a visit to the hotel’s Sea Cottage is a must; offering a good range of well priced beauty and wellness treatments, many of which use premium Aromatherapy Associates products like The Ultimate Aromatherapy Experience and Essential Rose Facial.
The open-plan bar with elegant seating centred around the circular fireplace merges effortlessly with The Rally restaurant (named in honour of the 8th Earl De La Warr’s passion for motor racing) and out onto the large terrace, while restaurant diners can enjoy views of the glittering English Channel on one side or the pretty lawn and bandstand with striped deckchairs on the other. The Rally, serving breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner offers an a la carte menu focussing on seaside classics, from crispy fried squid with black garlic mayonnaise to baked lemon sole, crab fishcakes with a Thai-style curry sauce and the ever-popular fish and chips highlighting locally-caught cod. The honeycomb or chocolate brownie ice cream sundaes are another further welcome nod to the childish delight we all take on being by the sea.
The helpful staff, from the restaurant to the reception, ensured that our stay was as restful and restorative as we’d hoped. We might not have had a room with a view but the fact that the main areas of the hotel, not least the private beach itself where a sun lounger is ready and waiting, offers guests nothing BUT views meant that our yearning for the sea was well and truly satisfied by the time we left.
The Relais Cooden Beach, Cooden Sea Rd, Bexhill, Bexhill-on-Sea TN39 4TT. B&B doubles from £194. For more information and reservations please visit the website.
Hotel images by Gregoire Gardette.