"We're beginning to see a lot more people holidaying here," said Tim Beauchamp, the friendly general manager responsible for two of Sidmouth's most prestigious hotels.
And there's certainly no doubting that this quintessential Victorian seaside resort is beginning to buck the trend, judging by the amount of holidaymakers enjoying the early summer sunshine when I visited what is truly a quaint South Devon resort for a few days in mid-May.
Proud to be the gateway to UNESCO's World Heritage Jurassic Coast, Sidmouth sadly became something of a holidaying backwater when its links to London and the Midlands were axed by Dr Richard Beeching back in the 1960s after he shut down its railway connections.
With so many of Britain's traditional seaside resorts falling from favour during that period – mainly thanks to cheap foreign package deals – with its wide esplanade, clean shingle and sand beach, Sidmouth seems to have reinvented itself.
Boasting magnificent views across Lyme Bay, instead of playing second fiddle to the likes of its larger west country neighbours Torquay and Paignton, it is both lively and bustling and is now a magnet for holidaymakers and day trippers alike.
It's more than 50 years since my last visit to the town but when I was invited to see what Sidmouth has to offer nowadays by the family-owned Brend Hotel chain – www.brendhotels.com (08455 760 760) – I jumped at the chance.
The Brend Group own two of the grandest and most striking four star residences along the whole of England's south coast – The Victoria and The Belmont – while both are located almost side-by-side close to the seafront towards the western end of the town's wide esplanade.
The Belmont and its car park are reached through an ornamental stone archway and, having been booked into a deluxe sea-facing double room overlooking both the beach and a nine hole putting green, we were met by Mr Beauchamp, Brend's General Manager, who arranged for our cases to be collected and taken to our room.
Built as a private residence back in 1817, the Brend family purchased The Belmont in 1987 and since then it has become a firm favourite with guests. "We get clients returning year after year," said Mr Beauchamp who joined the Brend group in 1996 and was originally based at The Victoria.
"There are plenty of people nowadays who don't want to travel abroad but they want luxury accommodation and we try our best to make sure they get it. Brexit could make a difference as some people just want a 'staycation'. I tend to stay at The Belmont and leave Matthew Raistrick (the company's area manager) to look after the day-to-day running at The Victoria," he added.
With its 50 en suite rooms (eight of which are singles), accommodation at The Belmont is impressive. It's traditional in terms of old-fashioned service but it certainly offers all the modern comforts you would expect from a top quality hotel.
Meanwhile guests have a three acre garden to explore which is a real delight, for besides an immaculate lawned area and some colourful planted flower beds, there's a peaceful and almost hidden woodland trail beside which runs a small stream… sheer tranquility indeed!
Superbly decorated throughout, our spacious comfortable bedroom with its French door and balcony was extremely well appointed with free Wi-Fi and the usual tea/coffee making facilities… and the en suite was simply enormous.
"In total we've got 220 members of staff across the two hotels," explained Mr Beauchamp, adding "the maintenance people and gardeners are naturally shared."
There's a sun terrace and two restaurants, the Belmont and the Horizon with it's huge picture window, the latter created just 12 months ago from a little used lounge which now consists of just seven tables. Evening dress code in the Belmont restaurant means a suit and tie are requested to be worn while the Horizon is far more casual.
The same evening dinner menus are available in both restaurants while the choice is huge – a superb six-course Table D'Hôte Menu being priced at £40 although each course can be ordered individually.
"Our head chef at The Belmont is Andrew Slater and he's a local," said Mr Beauchamp. "He's been with us since 1996 and there are ten others in the hotel's kitchen. They use local fresh ingredients whenever possible while we also grow some of our own herbs and vegetables.
"We often have non-residents dropping in. They are often here for breakfast meetings or luncheon parties and it's no surprise to see the same people several times a year," explained Mr Beauchamp.
There's a lift and an extremely comfortable lounge area while the staff are very attentive, always friendly and make you feel welcome.
While the Belmont doesn't have a swimming pool or sporting facilities, when we checked into magnificent Victoria next door, we were spoilt for choice. However Belmont guests can simply pop across the road and have complete use of all the facilities including two swimming pools – the outdoor one being really impressive – a sauna, hot stone beds along with spa treatment areas, tennis courts, snooker and games rooms and an 18 hole putting green.
The Victoria was the first purposes built hotel in Sidmouth and stands in five acres of beautifully manicured gardens. It's sheer grandeur and opulence is of another age and when this magnificent building opened in 1903, it was naturally named in honour of the reigning monarch.
An elegant red brick building, The Victoria offers award-winning first class service to its guests in 64 bedrooms, 12 of which are singles.
Once again we were spoilt as we were checked into a huge sea-front State room (No.107) with its enormous bed, 50 inch television, mini bar, settee, balcony and every conceivable comfort imaginable.
There's plenty of car parking, a well stocked bar, lounges and sun terraces plus an AA Rosette Awarded Jubilee Restaurant in which guests are expected to dress for the occasion.
However we dined in the White Room where no dress code (as at the Belmont) was requited even though I had made the effort! The White Room was created three years ago and consists of just eight tables and once again, the menu choice is huge.
Under the Victoria's head chef Stuart White, there are 18 other chefs in the hotel's three kitchens and once again, just as in The Belmont, the quality and presentation is quite magnificent. A five-course dinner is offered at £42 while the staff are polite, attentive and very respectful, especially as some of the guests were less able when it came to getting around.
Brend Hotel's Area Director Matthew Raistrick is justly proud of both hotels and explained that they cater for many different events. "We have a loyal following and are proud that guests recommend us and enjoy our facilities," he said.
"We offer quality and give guests luxurious accommodation in a range of rooms including suites which are located either in the hotel towers or by the poolside."
Traditional Devon cream teas or an afternoon cocktails in the sun lounge can be enjoyed by the guests while one important feature is that a lift provides access to all the hotel's floors.
Both hotels are approximately a five minute stroll along the sea front to reach the town centre, parts of which have been designated a conservation area. Sidmouth began to really expand during the Georgian and Victorian periods while today a number of impressively preserved Regency buildings remain.
The pedestrianised High Street has plenty of independent shops – the usual mix of charity, food and coffee – while there's a small cinema (The Radway) plus an excellent free to enter museum featuring relics from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods while there's a special feature regarding local women's suffrage, 100 years of the RAF and the town's maritime past.
The aforementioned esplanade walk is actually the town's seafront road which runs from the foot of the enormous red cliffs of Salcombe Hill to the east towards Peak Hill and Jacob's Ladder beach in the west.
We climbed both hills and enjoyed the magnificent views back over the town which dates back to the 11th century when Sidmouth was then known as Sedemuda which means the 'Mouth of the River Sid'.
The Sid which runs down the valley beneath Salcombe Hill trickles out onto the beach close to where the inshore fishermen keep their boats while those red-coloured rocks – which indicate the arid conditions of the geological Triassic period – are slowly being eroded by the sea and it is beginning to seriously threaten many properties close to the South West Coastal Path.
The creation of several artificial offshore islands have helped in a bid to protect the town's seafront – especially opposite the Victoria and Belmont hotels – but it's the erosion just along the coast that is becoming a nightmare for the Environment Agency.
The wooden white painted steps heading from Jacob's Ladder beach up to Connaught Gardens have undergone some serious repairs over the years while the Sea View Gardens themselves, with their traditional bandstand, were actually renamed after Queen Victoria's third son, the Duke of Connaught, who officially opened them in 1834 – at the age of 84!
One thing that has put Sidmouth on the map is music and its annual week-long Folk Festival takes place in August. It attracts musicians and visitors in their thousands who flock to specially-erected marquees in Blackmore Gardens and The Ham. However the main action now takes place in the hamlet of Bulverton on the edge of town, close to the main campsite.
Places to see around Sidmouth
Located in the heart of some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain, the two Brend hotels are close to the stunning, unspoilt scenery of Dartmoor National Park with its dramatic moorland landscape. And close by is the lovely 12th century cathedral and excellent shopping which can be had in the county town of Exeter which also boast a popular racecourse, a top notch rugby team and is home to the annual Devon County Show which takes place this week (May 18-20).
There's the picturesque fishing village of Brixham (home to the replica of the Golden Hind); sailing and windsurfing havens of Exmouth, the lovely mile-long beach atSeaton and the charming and friendly market town of Honiton. Also close by is Budleigh Salterton, one of Devon’s most unspoilt and tranquil coastal towns while Agatha Christie’s cherished holiday home of Greenway (now owned by the National Trust) is set on the banks of the River Dart.
There's some glorious scenery and the ancient Cobb at Lyme Regis, the pretty and traditional village of Branscombe; and the dramatic Geoneedle stone sculpture at Orcombe Point with its beautiful coastal backdrop.
Meanwhile the two Brend hotels are the ideal base from which to explore the amazing Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage site that draws visitors from all over the world and which has been described as a unique ‘geological walk through time’.
Alan and Jo Wooding stayed at both The Belmont and The Victoria hotels. Summer break prices start at £152 per person per night at The Victoria in a standard double room which includes a full English breakfast and five-course dinner. The Belmont's Summer prices are from £132 for a standard double per person which also includes a full English breakfast and a six-course dinner.
Many thanks to Tim Beauchamp, Matthew Raistrick and Sue Bradbury of SBPR Ltd for arranging our stay at both the Belmont and Victoria hotels which are part of the Brend Hotels Group which won the 'Hotel Group of the Year' in the AA Hospitality Awards in 2015 and 2016.
The Victoria Hotel, The Esplanade, Sidmouth, Devon EX10 8RY – Tel: 01395 512651 – www.victoriahotel.co.uk and email@example.com
The Belmont Hotel, The Esplanade, Sidmouth, Devon EX10 8RX – Tel: 01395 512555 – www.belmont-hotel.co.uk and firstname.lastname@example.org
Other Brend Hotels in Devon and Cornwall
The Saunton Sands Hotel, Saunton, Nr Braunton, North Devon EX33 1LQ – Tel: 01271 890212 – www.sauntonsands.com and email@example.com
The Imperial Hotel, Taw Vale Parade, Barnstaple, Devon EX32 8BN – Tel: 01271 345861 – www.brend-imperial.co.uk and firstname.lastname@example.org
The Barnstaple Hotel, Braunton Road, Barnstaple, Devon EX31 1LE – 01271 376221 – www.barnstaplehotel.co.uk and email@example.com
The Park Hotel, Taw Vale, Barnstaple, Devon EX32 9AE – Tel: 01271 372166 – www.parkhotel.co.uk and firstname.lastname@example.org
Royal & Fortescue Hotel, Boutport Street, Barnstaple, Devon EX31 1HG – Tel: 01271 342289 – www.royalfortescue.co.uk and email@example.com
The Royal Hotel, Barnstaple Street, Bideford, Devon EX39 4AE – Tel: 01237 472005 – www.royalbideford.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org
The Devon Hotel, Matford, Exeter, Devon EX2 8XU – Tel: 01392 259268 – www.devonhotel.co.uk and email@example.com
The Carlyon Bay Hotel, Sea Road, St Austell, Cornwall PL25 3RD – Tel: 01726 812304 – www.carlyonbay.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
The Royal Dutchy Hotel, Cliff Road, Falmouth, Cornwall TR11 4NX – Tel: 01326 313042 – www.royaldutchy.com and email@example.com
The Brend Group's Contemporary Restaurants
Sands on the Beach, Saunton Sands Hotel, Saunton Beach, Devon EX33 1LQ – 01271 891288.
Carriages Bar & Brasserie, The Devon Hotel, Matford, Exeter, Devon EX2 8XU – Tel: 01392 259268.
62 The Bank Cafe Bar and Bistro, Boutport Street, Barnstaple, Devon EX31 1HG – Tel: 01271 324446.
Florentinos Italian, The Royal & Fortescue Hotel, Boutport Street, Barnstaple, Devon EX31 1HG – Tel: 01271 3244446.