Harry Cragoe has created a chic beach hideaway, inspired by the motels of the Pacific Coast Highway in California, hidden behind the dunes of Camber Sands in East Sussex. Janet Harmer checks in
Need to know
The one-time Blue Dolphin motel, dating back to the 1970s, has morphed into a shabby chic beach hang-out that would not be out of place on the coastline of California or Cape Cod. It has come a long way since the single-storey property was acquired by Harry Cragoe for "a good price" in 2009.
"Guests only ever tended to stay one night as there was no reason to stay longer. And it was very seasonal - while it filled up in July and August, the rest of the year was challenging."
Located across the road and a short walk from Camber Sands - a magnificent seven-mile stretch of beach and sand dune splendour - the renamed Gallivant today attracts clientele all year round.
"It was a somewhat emotional decision to buy the property," he says. "I had a house in nearby Rye and thought the beach at Camber Sands was extraordinary and greatly undiscovered. There was a real opportunity to do something special here."
A key focus of the turnaround has been the repositioning of the former motel as a restaurant with 20 rooms, with the locally sourced food playing a major part in attracting people to stay. Today, 95% of the ingredients on the menus, created by head chef Oliver Joyce, are bought from within a 10-mile radius. With dishes featuring the likes of fish landed at nearby Dungeness and Romney salt marsh lamb, the business has joined the exclusive club of hospitality outlets holding three stars from the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
Cragoe - the founder of the UK's first smoothie company, PJ Smoothies, which he sold to Pepsico in 2005 - was new to the hospitality industry when he bought what later became the Gallivant. However, he is a passionate foodie, who started cooking at the age of 10 and has always prepared family meals.
The change of emphasis of the business has, of course, gone hand in hand with the creation of an intimate, stylishly designed hotel where guests can eat well and stay in relaxed surroundings.
From the outset, Cragoe wanted to create a restaurant and place to stay that completely exceeds people's expectations. While Camber Sands, out of sight and beyond the dunes, is spectacular, the immediate surroundings - of Pontin's and caravan parks - are anything but.
The exterior of the Gallivant is far from beautiful, but improvements have been made with wood cladding and the planting of coast-resistant shrubs and perennial flowers. However, the real transformation of the property is evident as soon as you walk thought the door of the small reception, which opens onto one large room, divided into a bar, seating area and restaurant. Here the look is California meets Scandinavia, with plentiful rustic wood and top-quality, organic fabrics in evidence.
Cragoe's wife Sigrid, a former stylist in the film industry, has overseen the interior design. "We lived for a time in California and we were inspired to create the kind of rustic motels that you see as you drive north towards Carmel along the Pacific Coast Highway," he says.
"Everything in those places is very well-considered, along with a totally relaxed vibe. We basically wanted to design a beach house which served great food."
There is definitely a coastal ambience about the place, but the Gallivant is not heavily seaside themed - and all the better for it. Instead, guests are reminded where they are courtesy of contemporary seascape paintings, enlarged old postcards of Camber Sands and vintage wall-mounted swimsuits sourced on eBay.
The Cragoes didn't want to spend too much money - around £800,000 has gone into transforming the property - and they have been careful not to make the wrong decision. So, they undertook little work during the first three of years to ensure they knew exactly what the customers and guests wanted, which, they quickly discovered was the beach, good food and the opportunity to relax.
While the overall feel is certainly laid back, Cragoe points out that all the key touchpoints throughout the Gallivant are luxurious - there's top-notch cutlery (Margolis Silver), glasses (John Jenkins), beds (Hypnos) and bathroom taps (Barber Wilsons & Co).
"We've also installed a new kitchen to attract good staff and put measures in place to ensure there is always great water pressure and an abundance of hot water for guests," he adds.
The restaurant and bar
Previously there was nowhere for guests to chill out, but now the restaurant space includes a seating area with squishy sofas for lounging as well as a simple but glamorous marble-top bar designed by Cragoe.
The main restaurant area features bespoke driftwood tables made by Stewart Walton of Hastings & Bexhill Wood Recycling, which has also created a marble-topped side table and a selection of furniture in the bedrooms. Practical but comfortable black wooden chairs are from Satelliet UK.
The restaurant terrace
Twelve of the 20 bedrooms have been refurbished so far this year, with the rest following shortly. All of the bedrooms are individual and fall into categories, ranging from the light and airy deck rooms and wood-clad snug cabins up to the baby Hampton and luxury garden suites.
The stand-out sleeping spaces are the snug cabins which, although small, are the quirkiest and cosiest. Lined in recycled wood, they are the ideal bedroom to hunker down in after a windy day on the beach, with brightly coloured velvet cushions ensuring they are far from utilitarian. The wet rooms add to the beachy feel.
For a touch of luxury and extra space, the luxury garden rooms are the favoured choice. The key feature here is the roll-top baths, which can be kept hidden away in the bathroom or opened up to the bedroom via a sliding door. The original windows have been replaced by French doors, which open out to a newly created shingle garden, beautifully designed by Marcus Foster, based on Cragoe's layout, and planted by Tony Howard.
Shelving with a wide selection of novels, old-fashioned Bakelite telephones and antique mirrors create a personal touch, and heavy linen curtains, edged in velvet, inject a luxurious element. But when it comes to creating a homely environment, it is hard to beat the generously stocked honesty larder in the bedroom corridor. Here, guests can help themselves to a wide selection of drink and snacks, any time of the day or night.
Cragoe is planning a Beach Massage Hut in the coastal garden, which is being built from recycled wood by Noah Construction. Further ahead, Cragoe would like to buy a second hotel, ideally in another coastal location.
"It would need to be within an hour or an hour and a half of here to allow department heads to move between the two properties," he says. "And next time I would like something a bit larger - say 30 to 35 bedrooms - but I would still like it to retain the restaurant with rooms feel we have created at the Gallivant."
Contact and details
Dining room tables, sidetables and bedroom furniture
Hastings & Bexhill Wood Recycling
Barber Wilsons & Co