Hamptons-grade beach, gourmet food, fluffy pillows and dog treats – what more do you want? Wunderdog‘s editors went with Pippa’s BFF, Pearl the minature schnauzer
Where salty sea air drifts over the sandy dunes and mixes with the wood smoke of a fireplace, you’d better turn left into the parking lot. You’ve arrived. The Gallivant hotel in Camber Sands, a short drive from Rye in East Sussex, thrives on the mix of coastal setting behind one of the UK’s top 10 beaches and a cosy sense of discreet luxury. It does not even like to call itself a “hotel”, but rather a “restaurant with rooms”, emphasising its aspiration as a foodie destination. It works for us – Wunderdog has been three times in less than a year. If in urgent need of a Hamptons-grade beach, locally sourced gourmet meals and a huge bed with 300-count linen sheets, we call The Gallivant.
Happiness is a dog on the beach
The place is the brainchild of Harry Cragoe, an entrepreneur and dog owner from London whose mission for the hotel is very simply “to make people happy”. Having taken inspiration from coastal motels in California, the small hotel has 20 rooms at street level. The Gallivant has recently undergone a facelift and now offers dog owners two rooms with a private deck and wooden floors. The main dining room is divided into the restaurant and a general hang-out area, complete with a little fireplace, sheepskins and beachy shades, with a bar and sofas. Dogs are allowed in the informal half outside meal times. The terrace is covered and offers welcome shade in the summer and heaters in the winter, and a little garden corner invites to relax after a tough day of relaxing.
For Wunderdog this has become an indulgent second home because it is luxurious yet informal. For humans, the kitchen is sometimes handed over to Michelin-starred chefs for one-off dinners. Even on ‘normal’ days, the food hits the spot perfectly: at least 90% locally sourced (fish from Dungeness, local vegetables, lamb from the surrounding marshes), served with English wines — the Chapel Down Winery is 30 minutes away by car, in Tenterden. Although there is no room service, a small pantry behind the reception is stocked with all sorts of treats, from fancy popcorn to home-made cookies, alongside drinks. Tea and a cake from the kitchen are always included in bookings, and guests can help themselves while reading or playing games in the main room. For dogs, treats are available at reception, and beds, bowls and toys are at the ready — just order what you need when you book.
One fine beach
And so to the beach. Climbing over the sand dune opposite The Gallivant sets the scene: as the dogs run down on the other side towards the sea, this is a picture of happiness. Provided it is not stormy, the water is shallow enough for the dogs to dip in and out, and random sandbanks offer an incentive for a short swim. While Wunderdog co-editor Pippa loves the water, even her friend Pearl, a miniature schnauzer who is wary of the waves, goes for a paddle. The dunes are a heavenly spot to sit down in for a picnic or to marvel at the sunset, and the dogs can never get enough of all the beachgrass smells. Pooches are always allowed on the beach going west from The Gallivant towards Rye harbour. Having reached the harbour-mouth of the River Rother, if you don’t want to walk back along the beach, ramblers can walk inland along the river and turn into a golf course on the marsh, which has a walkway back to the hotel. We got lost here twice and ended up going back to the beach, but for those with intermediate map-reading skills, this is a nice change of scenery.
There are also a few walks through the marshes from The Gallivant that are awfully idyllic. A little lake here, a happy sheep there – it is hard to believe central London is only two hours away. Camber is otherwise a strange little village, bookmarked by a posh golf club and a caravan park whose biggest attraction seems to be a pylon. The rest of the beach is not always dog-friendly, depending on the season. But Camber is surrounded by towns for different tastes; these are the nearest options to explore on your weekend away.
About a 10-minute drive to the east, Dungeness is a Marmite destination. Some people love it, some hate it. This shingle headland is a Special Area of Conversation and Site of Special Scientific Interest with a third of all British plants making an appearance in the national nature reserve. Oh, and it’s overshadowed by a huge nuclear power plant. The water around the ness means it has got that light arty types rave about. The blueprints for the black-tarred cottages scattered across the landscape are taken either from the dream-house diary of a minimalist genius or the fridge art of a depressed five-year-old, depending on your point of view.
Lovers of Dungeness hail its air of brutalism and praise its barren serenity. They also talk about it being an artists’ community, although the list of resident artists often begins and ends with the late film director Derek Jarman, whose Prospect Cottage is perhaps the most famous address here. Dungeness is also a destination for bird watchers and anglers. But protected shingle desert is not uplifting. It thrives on being disturbing with the odd boat, shed or train carcass rusting in the sea air. Drive onto the ness with EDF’s Dungeness B nuclear plant looming large, it is impossible not to expect your trip to be interrupted by an apocalypse.
Even for dogs Dungeness it is a Marmite thing. The flora here excites the nose, but the shingles are terrible for paws. Pippa had a hard time walking on them, and I carried her back from the water across the pebbled beach. We passed a few labradors who seemed ok with it, but labradors are ok with anything. There is a Noddy train in Dungeness though if your dog is one of the native English breeds with a penchant for steam engines.
A 10-minute drive west from The Gallivant takes you to the delightfully quaint town of Rye. There is nothing controversial here: it is cute, ancient and full of tea shops. The 900-year-old St Mary church overlooks the town and is open for visitors and dogs. Part of 1066 country (Hastings is nearby), Rye has a rich history of being either ransacked by the French or visited by the Royals. Its checkered past has resulted in an eclectic place with medieval, Georgian and Victorian homes, Dutch influences, remnants of defence walls and towers, cobbled streets and tiny alleyways. Walk slowly — there is so much to see.
Wunderdog’s only reservation about Rye is that few cafés and restaurants are dog-friendly. We found three, however, and had a fabulous time in all of them. One is the Mermaid Café by the Quay antique market at the foot end of the old town. The second is Fletcher’s House, a tea room set in a 15th century Tudor building right next to the church, which features an open fireplace and vintage cups hanging from the beams. The Cream Tea here is enough to cover your lunch or dinner as well, with full-sized sandwiches, a huge scone and a generous piece of cake. For dinner, the Standard Inn pub on The Mint, the high street of Rye, offers all the classics made with seasonal, regional produce alongside a well-curated wine list and craft beer.
Half-way between Camber and Rye lies another lovely walkies option: the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, on the opposite side of the river to Camber towards the seafront. The paths are great for pooches, but most fields are fenced off to ensure the birds can do their bird things in peace. If you are true beach bums though, you will just look across the Rother towards the sand dunes of Camber and wonder why you left. And then, like us, you will come back very soon.