Destinations

Why Go To Rio De Janerio When You Can Go To Bournemouth?

If you’re after peerless beaches, stunning gardens and the freshest seafood, you don’t have to trek all the way to South America. Nick Curtis soaks up the vibes in beautiful Bournemouth.
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For alliterative purposes I’d love to claim that Bournemouth outdoes or even matches Brazil. But in all honesty I can’t. The former is a town of 400,000 people on the sometimes sunny, sometimes squally south coast of England; the latter is a country of 8.5 million ray-strafed sq kilometres and 198.7 million people on the Equator. What’s more I haven’t been to around 99.7 per cent of it. I have been to Rio de Janerio though, and I can tell you the reputation of its 6.32 million residents for lissom, buttock pulchritude is exaggerated. And you can’t find a decent portion of chips anywhere.

Both places offer peerless beaches, water sports, formal gardens and the promise of a good time. But if I wanted something built, I’d definitely get it built in Bournemouth, a town that only got going in 1810 and is already on its third pier. Rio was founded in 1565 but when I visited to report on preparations for the 2016 Olympics, the city was way behind schedule on refurbishing its football stadia for last year’s World Cup, and the largely impoverished population was rioting over the lack of decent public transport.

"Bournemouth is restrained yet knowledgeable. Ask politely, and Bournemouth will share its secrets in a weekend. And it’s navigable on foot."

Oh, and although it’s true AFC Bournemouth may not have produced a player of the calibre of Ronaldo, guess where Jamie Redknapp chose to invest the millions he made as a player and commentator? Sandbanks in Bournemouth, that’s where – once the UK’s most expensive area of real estate. Sure, Rio gave us film director Walter ‘City of God’ Salles, annoying cod-mystical writer Paulo Coelho, F1 driver Nelson Piquet and pioneering modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer. But Bournemouth was home to those titans of the music world Max Bygraves, Tony Blackburn, and Alex James from Blur. Charles “Blofeld” Grey was born here, Christian Bale was educated here and Amanda Holden rode around here naked on a moped for a £20 bet. It gave us two soviet agents: Sir Anthony Blunt and Melitta Norwood, known as The Spy Who Came in from the Co-Op. It’s where Tony Hancock grew up, where Benny Hill was evacuated in wartime, and where JRR Tolkien spent his retirement.

Rio’s problems are its scale and its obviousness and its yawning inequality. It whacks you in the face with its dramatic igneous rock formations, fabulous beaches and tropical rainforest. It offers sunshine, sushi and samba, but it also rubs your nose in the crushing poverty and violence of the favelas. It’s too big and too much, and impossible to get around.

Bournemouth offers the more understated drama of the New Forest and the Jurassic coast. Its East and West beaches rival Rio’s Ipanema and Copacabana and are more democratic: there are no areas of sand claimed by hotels, no zones reserved for volleyballers and bodybuilders. Instead of beach gyms, there are beach huts.

To put it bluntly: you could spend six weeks in Rio and only scratch its surface, bamboozled by the heady brew of music, sweat and threat. Bournemouth is restrained yet knowledgeable. Ask politely, and Bournemouth will share its secrets in a weekend. And it’s navigable on foot.

You will find no monument in Rio to Heloisa Pinheiro, “The Girl from Ipanema”: when she tried to open a boutique named after the tune that immortalised her, the songwriters’ families sued her. But wander through the Anglican St Peter’s churchyard in Bournemouth and you will find the tomb of Mary Shelley, proto-feminist and author of Frankenstein, in which the poetic heart of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley also lies (the rest of him is in Rome). You could spend days searching for a fabled sushi joint or juice bar in Rio, while restaurants offering almost every cuisine under the sun are ranked along Old Christchurch Road in Bournemouth, including the Little India Curry House – formerly Original Balti – from which rapper Ice-T once ordered £3,000 worth of food to be flown to New York. Rio’s gay scene is vast and diffuse. In the Triangle in Bournemouth, you can find three gay bars and clubs within a few yards of each other. Here you will also find the Mad Cucumber vegan restaurant and the Smokin’ Aces Cocktail Bar and Whiskey lounge, where I had a Martini as good as any I’ve sipped anywhere in the Americas.

Rio has exorbitant helicopter rides that will charge you upwards of £150 for an 11-minute whirr around the bay and statue of Christo Redentor, the vast Art Deco sculpture of Jesus spreading his arms wide as if to say: “Yes, but the one that got away was THIS big.” Bournemouth has a tethered hot-air balloon in the Lower Gardens near the seafront, from which, for £12.50, you can see the pier, the 1920s Pavilion Theatre and Ballroom, and the more recent Bournemouth International Centre (BIC) in a 15-minute, 500ft ascent.

On a clear day, the Isle of Wight is visible to the east, and to the west Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour. Rio has three art museums – breathtaking modern buildings, but with little inside to match their exteriors. Bournemouth has the handsome Russell-Cotes, a bequeathed private house to rival the John Soane museum of Leighton House in London, as expressive of the personality of its eponymous owners as is the eclectic collection they assembled on their travels. Here are antiques, chinoiserie, 20th-century British art, and the pistols and sword used on stage by Sir Henry Irving. In Rio, you can eat undeniably well, but the default dining experience are anodyne buffets where you are charged for food by weight, and unreconstructed macho churrascarias, where waiters bring you grilled meats until you tell them to stop or you have a heart attack, whichever is sooner. In Bournemouth, the two basic tentpoles of the cuisine are: fish and chips, and ice cream. Yet in a city where wealth is stealthy rather than overt as in Rio, there is a dining revolution going on.

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