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Portsmouth harbour and city
UK seaside spots, Portsmouth has never relied on tourism to support its economy, having also been a busy port for centuries. As such, it hasn’t had to reinvent itself or become weary, competing with package holidays abroad. Its energy is as shipshape and bristling with purpose as it has ever been, and no more so than in the creative enclave of Southsea. Here, vast Southsea Common is home to an annual international kite festival in August, and separated from the sea by a promenade of rock gardens, wrought-iron lampposts and Victorian shelters.
From this sweeping curve, cool detours such as Albert Road lead inland, lined with independent shops and cafés.
The area is also dotted with boutique hotels such as our base, the elegant yet homely Florence House Hotel.
We strolled to Southsea Pier, voted Pier of the Year 2018 by the National Pier Society.
Beautifully restored, with small rides, wooden benches and fish and chips for sale, it is a remarkably uncynical affair.
ROYAL VISIT: HMS Queen Elizabeth at Portsmouth dockyard
A pot of 2p coins lasts all afternoon in the old-fashioned arcade, as our daughter Claudia found out, winning key rings on the shove ha’penny machines while we watched fishermen casting along the pier.
A short walk away, the Scandinavian stylings of the glass-fronted Southsea Beach Cafe sit right on the wide, pebbly beach and offer unadulterated Solent views, along with breakfast.
What’s more, if you pick up a bucket from the café and fill it with rubbish from the beach they’ll let you trade it in for an ice cream.
They’re on to a winner; it’s virtually impossible to find any discarded litter here.
UP POMPEY: Emirates Spinnaker Tower offers breathtaking views
Bring your walking shoes, for this sportingly flat city is made for exploring on foot, especially along the Millennium Promenade running from here toward its historic centre.
On your way you pass Clarence Pier, with its Ferris wheel, mini-golf and the iconic hovercraft, which sails from here to the Isle of Wight.
The 10-minute journey begins with a roar of fans, as it blusters and skitters down the landing stage on a cushion of air.
Judging by the number of people watching it, nerdish excitement at this spectacle wasn’t ours alone.
MOVING: D-Day Story provides an insight into the Allied Invasion
On you go, past monuments to brave seafaring men and women and the new D-Day Story museum.
It is the only museum in the UK dedicated to the Allied Invasion of June 1944.
There are all manner of exhibits: Montgomery’s beret, a carrier pigeon capsule, weathered Union Jack flags, uniforms and moving items from the day itself. It is also a poignant reminder of the strategic importance of the Channel.
Out in the Solent, the four round Victorian armour-plated Palmerston forts, built to defend the eastern approach to Portsmouth – now variously a hotel, private property and a museum – sit like protective punctuation marks in the water.
The Florence House Hotel
Further on, Southsea Castle, built by Henry VIII in 1544 for defence against the Holy Roman Empire, is an austere structure.
There’s a small museum and sweeping views over the Isle of Wight and Solent from the top of the keep.
In the distance, the white ribcage of the Emirates Spinnaker Tower rises up into the sky, marking the modern shopping and eating centre of Gunwharf Quays.
Heading towards the 21st century you pass through Old Portsmouth, a warren of cobbled streets, higgledy-piggledy houses and maritime legend.
Once infamous for attracting sailors to its taverns and brandy shops on their runs ashore, today it’s not the shore but the ships that are the biggest attraction.
HMS Warrior at the Historic Dockyard
You’ll need a whole day, maybe two, to see everything in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, which lies behind the Spinnaker Tower.
Smaller than in its heyday, this working dockyard is still a base for the Royal Navy and Royal Marine Commandos.
Pioneering Victorian battleship HMS Warrior sits just inside the Victory Gate, the remains of the Mary Rose and Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory lie ahead.
You might even see the UK’s newest aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth here when in port.
These are the star turns, but there are lots of other draws – my husband headed for the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, while my daughter opted to pilot a Merlin helicopter simulator for hours in the Action Stations area.
For me, the working boatbuilding sheds were fascinating, offering insight into the skills of boatbuilding – as apprentices learn techniques, overlooked by the modern Boathouse 4 restaurant.
Regrouping, we strolled back to Gunwharf Quays for a sundowner – the water glittering before us in a way that would have made Venice proud.
As if on cue, a Japanese destroyer cruised past, its sailors waving back at children on the dock.
Can Venice compare to that spectacle? Of course not. Pompey is its own masterpiece.
D Day Museum
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard (0203 928 39766/ historicdockyard.co.uk). Tickets from £31 per adult/£18.50 per child. The Florence House Hotel (023 9200 9111/ florencehousehotel.co.uk) offers family rooms from £99 (three sharing), B&B. South Western Railway (0345 6000 650/ southwesternrailway.com) offers direct services from London to Portsmouth Harbour from £40 return.
Portsmouth tourism: visitportsmouth.co.uk