Portsmouth has been much maligned, Spike Milligan relegated the whole town to Room 101 and sure, a weekend break in Portsmouth doesn’t have the same ring as 48 hours in Corfu or Majorca. You won’t see minke whales, otters or seals frolicking on the coast like you could, up in Scotland. But Portsmouth has a rich literary and naval history, the first Sherlock Holmes was written here. There is a newly restored and amazing dockyard with Henry VIII’s warship the Mary Rose and Nelson’s Victory.
Moreover, with Brexit and our money worth 30% less than it did a year ago, it’s time to fall in love all over again with our coastal resorts which may be a little grey, at times, but they are “tinted with the hues of history”. Some passionate entrepreneurs and city councils have been transforming them quietly for us to re-discover.
As often when deciding on visiting a large English city, the choice of accommodation may be reduced to B&B’s of unknown quality or to the blandness of hotel chains. But, in Portsmouth something happened about a decade ago.
First of all, let’s get the geography conundrum out of the way; to put it in context, Portsmouth/Southsea is the most densely populated town in England, it’s vast and has no centre. So, you’ll need to decide where to book and Southsea, the touristy sea front, with its Mercer Collection is a good option.
The Mercer Collection
The first Boutique hotel in the Mercer Group was Florence House Hotel, renovated and opened in 2005 with seven bedrooms. The first of its kind in the area, the hotel aimed to cater for guests looking for individual service, stylish design and comfortable rooms. In 2006 Somerset House Hotel opened, now with another 8 bedrooms, including a large Bridal Suite, perfect for special occasions.
Six restorations later, in 2016 the collection added a new project in the form of The Florence Arms Pub in 2016. The Mercer Collection restored the venue into a Boutique Gastro Pub ideal for guests and locals and is set to open a fine-dining restaurant in The Florence during March 2017.
The Florence Gardens Hotel
I stayed in the Florence Gardens Hotel, 5 minutes walk from the sea-front, on a glorious sunshiny day. First impressions may be overrated but they are important. The Florence’s reception is palatial, all glass and light that doesn’t imply cold on the contrary, our receptionist was graceful and welcomed us warmly. She showed us to our room. Talking about personal greetings: even the phone had my name in the LCD rectangle.
Do you remember the days before Tripadvisor and the likes? The Mercer Collection has kept that era very much alive. There is a person dedicated to booking, she will take time to explain the individuality of each room. Ours had an en-suite with a bath and the original Edwardian tiles. A large comfortable space and a table with plenty of plugs for all the equipment a TripReporter writer carries about. I couldn’t help thinking that this was as nicer a place as it got. I could start relaxing thoroughly.
And, in order to do so, after a quick detour by the shoreline, we headed for the Florence Arms for dinner. We had well in our sights a fish and chips dinner, with a platter of fish so fresh that I could have sworn, I had seen them at the fish market that very afternoon. But the waitress had other ideas, she kindly ask me about my day and decided I needed a cocktail, she went as far as asking my approval to bring an “Aviation” cocktail, a delicious glass of gin, maraschino liqueur, crème de violette, and lemon juice. My enthusiasm left her with a large grin.
There was no mention of cocktails, at the breakfast table, thanks goodness, though it was the same waitress and she was still smiling. The Mercer Collection offers a full breakfast with a buffet of cereals and fruits to start with.
I was sad to leave the Florence Gardens Hotel, I could have stayed another day or two and I now fully appreciate why the rooms are very much in demand. “We are very lucky” the manageress told me, “Our clientele is very faithful”. In my opinion, it’s not the clientele which should be complimented, it’s the collection.
Tell me more about the Florence Gardens Hotel and Portsmouth.
Portsmouth has several train stations, the main one is Gunwharf Quay in the city’s harbour. An important transport hub with ferries to the Isle of Wight and buses interchange. For the old city, alight at Portsmouth and Southsea.
To contact the Mercer Collection, follow the link or call on 02392 009009. Double rooms start at £57 including breakfast. Prices vary depending on demand.
Portsmouth Museum can be found on Museum Road. Entrance is free. It showcases the largest collection pertaining to Doyle and his creation Sherlock Holmes in the world. The gallery explores Doyle’s early life as a doctor in Portsmouth, his sporting activity and later interest in spiritualism as well as Sherlock Holmes as depicted in film, theatre, advertising and elsewhere. It includes a Sherlock Holmes mystery and a narration by Stephen Fry, patron of the collection.