Bournemouth, in Dorset on the south coast of England, has been a popular seaside resort since the 19th Century. Its 7-mile, sandy beach, and the revamped seafront attractions in Bournemouth have won TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Awards for two years in a row. And it’s a great destination for Christmas breaks, too. From mid-November to the beginning of January, over 100 trees and illuminations sparkle and shimmer just off the seafront, when Christmas Tree Wonderland Bournemouth takes over the town’s Victorian Gardens. But Christmas Tree Wonderland is just one of the many things to see and do in Bournemouth if you go there for a family Christmas holiday, as we discovered.
(AD): BCP (Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole) Council and Christmas Tree Wonderland invited us to spend a weekend exploring festive things to do in Bournemouth, so that we could share them with you. They compensated us for our time, and all views are my own.
Christmas Tree Wonderland Bournemouth
Christmas Tree Wonderland Bournemouth stretches from the town’s seafront, down through the elegant Lower Victorian Gardens, and via the town centre into the villages of Boscombe, Westbourne and Southbourne. Over 100 illuminations light up the pathways in a jaw-dropping spectacle of twinkly lights and colour. It was such a lovely, festive thing to experience.
Is Christmas Tree Wonderland child-friendly?
We went along the trail at about 7pm. Lots of families were out, with kids in bobble hats and parents stopping to take pictures. Carols and Christmas tunes were piping from speakers along the route, and people wandered along clutching hot chocolates heaped with cream and marshmallows, or glowing balloons in the shape of unicorns or baubles. It felt busy, but friendly, with lots of toddlers and babies in prams. I would have been comfortable taking the children there when they were younger (they’re now seven and ten). Here are some pictures, to help give a sense of the spectacle.
At the seafront end of Christmas Tree Wonderland, a giant Ferris wheel overlooked the gardens. Some of the bigger trees on the route were inspired by cities around the world. The picture above shows the Warsaw Tree – that’s the pink one.
A lotof the more elaborate trees were there with the help of sponsors. Vodaphone sponsored a stunning, spindly red Gigafest Tree of Light, which glowed brightly at ten metres tall. Pay by Phone sponsored a green tree with an accompanying Nativity scene, and South Western Railway sponsored an icy blue tree.
How busy is Christmas Tree Wonderland?
Some of the illuminations were so popular that people swarmed around them. A gigantic Teddy Bear, and a delicate-looking, icy Tree of Life, were big draws. But if you took a different route through the Gardens, on the pathway closest to the Pavilion Theatre, you hit Polar Walk, which was much quieter. My daughter loved getting up close to the friendly-looking polar bears on this route, and it gave you a good vantage point to see the rest of the illuminations from a bit of a distance, away from the crowds.
Everywhere you looked, there was something to catch the eye. Glittering lights tumbled down the Gardens’ Grade II listed Rockery, like elegant mini waterfalls. And the Seattle Tree was made up of a mesmerising tower of globes, which my daughter pointed out were like bird cages.
My favourite, though was the Bournemouth Wonderland Tree. Decorated with 30,000 LED lights, the tree shimmered and shone, changing colour slowly, with reds and greens swirling into pinks and blues. You could walk underneath it, and as you made your way through, the tunnel of lights glimmered around you. It was spellbinging, and at 60 feet tall, it was the biggest tree on the trail.
Information about Christmas Tree Wonderland
Bournemouth Christmas Tree Wonderland 2019/2020 runs every day until 2 Jan 2020. The trees lit up from about 2.30pm, and looked their best after dark, from around 4pm. A small food court area at the seafront end of the trail sold freshly made churros, as well as savoury goodies like raclette and loaded fries. These stalls only took cash when we visited. For a wider selection, as well as the food and drink on sale at SKATE Bournemouth there was an Alpine Market at the town centre end of Lower Victorian Gardens, where you could buy sweet and savoury crepes, hot chocolate spiced up with whisky, wood-fired pizzas, and lots of other warming goods. The Alpine Market also sold gift items like fine cheeses and chocolate kisses. There was even a whole stall devoted to unicorn paraphernalia.
Ride the Bournemouth Big Wheel
If you wanted to see Christmas Tree Wonderland from above, a ferris wheel stood at over 100 feet tall, at the seafront end of the trail. We decided to take a ride in the daytime instead, so we could look out across the creamy coloured sand, and over the frosty blue sea. It was so pretty!
Bournemouth Big Wheel runs until 10pm every day, weather permitting. Family tickets (2 adults and 2 children) are £20. An adult ticket is £6 and a child’s ticket is £5.
SKATE Bournemouth. Don’t forget to try the hot chocolate!
At the town centre end of Lower Gardens, SKATE Bournemouth buzzed with energy and lively Christmas tunes, as people whizzed and stumbled their way round a large ice rink.
We picked a time slot that was advertised as being best suited for younger skaters – 10.30am on a Saturday morning. Although there were lots of adults on the ice, most of them looked as though they were there to accompany children, and the little ones were able to get around with the help of sledge-like skate aids. Compared with some of the ice rinks we’ve tried in London, SKATE Bournemouth didn’t feel at all crowded, and staff were on the ice to help pick up anyone who fell over.
Food and drink at SKATE Bournemouth
After our hour-long session on the ice, we headed to Moguls Alpine Bar. It was cosy, with pine-clad booths, and an enormous Christmas tree in the centre of its courtyard. The bar served all sorts of yummy tipples, from mulled wine through to ale and espresso martinis. The kids and I opted for a luxurious hot chocolate. It was possibly the most decadent I’ve tried! Topped with marshmallows, then heaped with cream. To finish off, a scattering of Maltesers and a Flake turned the lavish drink into a mid-morning meal.
As well as drinks, street food vendors Nosh Box served cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, loaded fries and loaded doughnuts. We were too full from our hot chocolates to try any of these, but they smelled amazing.
SKATE Bournemouth ice rink is open daily until 9.30pm, with sessions that are best suited for younger skaters at the beginning of the day on weekends, from 10.30-11.30am. A family ticket is £38 (two adults and two children, or one adult and three children). Adult tickets are £11.50. Children’s tickets are £9.50. The ticket price includes skate hire. Skate aids are £4.50, and available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Eat brunch or dinner at Urban Garden
New to Bournemouth’s dining scene, Urban Garden overlooked Lower Victorian Gardens and was in a great spot for viewing Christmas Tree Wonderland.
The bar/restaurant’s decor was inspired by nature, with a few ‘urban’ features across its terraces, like artfully rusted signs, and industrial handrails outside.
D nipped inside Urban Garden in the evening, while we were strolling through Christmas Tree Wonderland. The bar was busy with people drinking craft ale, standing under heaters to watch the twinkling illuminations. The next morning, we went there for brunch, and there was a different vibe. Dog-walkers and families had taken up residence, for a relaxed coffee break, or a bite to eat. The menu featured a range of plant-based and meaty options, from a full veggie breakfast to grilled Scottish kippers. I chose eggs Royale, D plumped for eggs Benedict, and the children tucked into banana and oat pancakes, with coconut yoghurt and mango coulis.
Although we were there for brunch, the children had the option of choosing from a children’s lunch menu, and they enjoyed colouring and filling in the puzzles in their kids’ activity packs. The three-course dinner menu looked yummy, and I made a note to go back some time to try it out.
Ride the Bournemouth Land Train
We had some glorious sunshine for our weekend in Bournemouth, so we decided to explore the seafront via the Bournemouth Land Train.
During peak season, this cute vehicle drives up and down the coast at regular intervals. A complete round trip takes around an hour. We took the train from the pier down to Vesuvio Italian Restaurant, and then back again. It was lovely to feel the sun on our faces and watch the waves crashing onto the sand. Even though it was early, the beach was busy with dog-walkers, and in the sea, a brave gang of around 15 surfers was catching the December waves to ride into shore.
Bournemouth Land Train runs from 10am over the Christmas holidays and in the Spring and Summer. There’s a regular timetable, with the next available train showing on a board at the departure points at Vesuvio Italian Restaurant, and outside Harry Ramsden’s near the pier. Ticket prices range from £2.20 for a junior (age 5-16) ticket for one stage of the journey, to £20 a family of two adults and two children to have a day’s unlimited travel.
See the Bournemouth Beach huts. Christmas edit!
On the opposite side of the pier from Vesuvio’s, the iconic Bournemouth Beach Huts spread in graduated pastel colours, ranging from yellows and creams through greens, blues and then on to purples and pinks. They made a really jolly sight.
Four of the beach huts had been through a festive makeover. They were painted in seasonal patterns – and one of them had been turned into a little Christmas grotto.
Inside was Olaf from Frozen and a big cuddly dog. Our two had fun posing in the grotto. There was a delicious scent of hot mulled wine inside. Either someone had been drinking a tipple in there, or (more likely), it was a clever touch to make the Christmas Beach Hut feel super-festive.
I was excited to hear that you can hire Bournemouth’s vintage beach huts – and BCP is running a competition to win a week’s free beach hut hire. You can read about the competition here. I’ve been picturing myself staring out to sea from one of these gorgeous huts!
Have lunch or tea at the Prom Café
Bournemouth’s Prom Café had recently been refurbished, and a pleasingly light-filled arc of a space it was, too. We ate an early tea there, choosing from traditional fare like pie with mushy peas and chips, jacket potato with cheese and beans, or a kids’ meal of chicken goujons and chips. D is vegetarian so he opted for a tasty meat-free curry, and although I chose a pie, I decided on the sweet potato version, rather than the other choice, which was steak. It was all good hearty grub, and we felt very cosy with the Prom Café’s blankets spread out across our knees.
Christmas treats like turkey and cranberry sandwiches, and mince pies with custard and hot chocolate, were on sale from the Prom Café’s special festive menu. They even served doggie ice cream if you didn’t want your canine friend to feel left out when you tucked into your New Forest ice cream. The staff were pleasant and friendly, and I’d recommend this revemped version of the Bournemouth institution.
The Prom Café opens from 8am until ‘late’ (the staff told me closing time might be about 8pm, on the December evening when we visited).
Catch a show at Bournemouth Pavilion Theatre. We saw Aladdin, the Bournemouth Christmas Pantomime!
Bournemouth Pavilion Theatre was a gorgeous Art Deco building from the 1920s, which overlooked Lower Gardens. The venue had a capacity of almost 1500, regularly hosting top-quality shows from the West End. We saw the Bournemouth Pantomime, Aladdin. The matinée performance was the first of its run, and the auditorium was packed with families, Scout groups and stage school troupes. Richard Blackwood from Eastenders, and Amelia Lily from the X Factor both starred in the show, which was fun and lively. Our two kids loved joining in with the clapping, singing and chanting ‘he’s behind you!’ when a Mummy came along to kidnap some of the characters.
The building was an elegant setting for the show, with Chinese lanterns decorating its art deco ceiling. We emerged to a fantastic view over the seafront end of Christmas Tree Wonderland, and it was lovely to just stumble out into the festive ambiance.
Visit the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum
Bournemouth’s Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum was set in an exquisite Victorian villa overlooking the sea. Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes gifted their house to the people of Bournemouth, after building up an impressive private art collection.
The house remained crammed full of gleaming furniture, delicate statues and paintings that made you want to stop and gaze. It was decorated in Christmas finery, with tall Christmas trees, period greetings cards on display and carols piped into the rooms. We only had a short amount of time to explore the place before taking our train. We did, though, manage to catch an exhibition of beautiful symmetric tiles by De Morgan, see some of the curios that the Russell-Cotes brought back from their frequent travels around the world, and look at paintings and sculptures by artists from the turn of the 19th Century.
Santa was there, finding out what the visiting children wanted for Christmas. The children who had been to see Father Christmas went on to do some Christmassy arts and crafts, with staff dressed up in period costume. There were some enticing aromas coming out of the museum café, and a heap of delicious looking cakes behind the counter. I imagine the Russell-Cotes Museum would be a good place to take afternoon tea in Bournemouth.
A family ticket for the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum is £20, for up to two adults and three children. Adults pay £7.50, and children aged 5-17 pay £4.
Address: East Cliff Promenade, Bournemouth, BH1 3AA
Go a few rounds at Smugglers Cove Adventure Golf
Smugglers Cove Adventure Golf was on the seafront, next to the Big Wheel and on the way to the Russell-Cotes Museum. My 10 year-old son said our turn around the 18-hole course was the highlight of his weekend. It was a fun layout, set out around a central pond, where some rapscallion smugglers were attempting to escape with loot.
The adventure golf course felt very clean and fresh, with friendly staff and festive decorations to enhance the fun.
Smugglers Cove is running a Christmas offer until 2 January 2020. Tickets are £12 for adults and £8.60 for children. The price includes a round of adventure golf followed by a hot chocolate or mocha and mince pie with all the trimmings at the Prom Café.
Smugglers Cove opens from 10am daily, and its opening hours depend on the weather.
Address: Pier Approach, Bournemouth, BH2 5AA
Places to stay in Bournemouth
If you’re looking for Bournemouth accommodation, there is no shortage of luxury, mid-range and cheap hotels near Bournemouth beach. We stayed at the historic four-star Hermitage Hotel, a sea view hotel Bournemouth. It had two on-site restaurants and its en-suite guest rooms and suites included flat-screen TVs, complementary Wi-Fi and kettles with a range of local Dorset teas and coffees. You can read more in my Hermitage Hotel Bournemouth review.
We were comfortable in our family room, which was large enough to fit three beds without feeling cramped. In the mornings we ate hearty breakfasts in the grand chandeliered dining room, from a buffet that included pastries, fruit, a full English breakfast and juices.
For hotels near Bournemouth beach, you couldn’t fault the Hermitage. It was literally two minutes away from Christmas Tree Wonderland, the pier, Big Wheel, Smugglers Cove and just a five-minute stroll from Urban Garden and SKATE Bournemouth. The Hermitage Hotel is consistently ranked as one of the best hotels in Bournemouth for personalised service, and it won a TripAdvisor Award of Excellence this year. Sometimes it’s tiring being out all day with the family. It was nice to be able to nip in through the hotel’s wooden revolving doors mid-afternoon, and head up to our room, so that the children could have a rest and we could all recharge our batteries. We were close enough to all the Bournemouth attractions for that to be an easy thing to do.
Prices at the Hermitage Hotel vary, with prices starting from as low as £55 per person per night.
Address: Hermitage Hotel, Exeter Road, Bournemouth, Dorset, UK BH2 5AH
How to get to Bournemouth UK
We travelled to Bournemouth from London by train. Direct lines run frequently out of Waterloo station, or you can catch a connecting service. Train services from London to Bournemouth can take less than two hours. Coach services also run from London Victoria.
For more information on things to do in Bournemouth, see www.bournemouth.co.uk.
If you’re more interested in Bournemouth holiday apartments than in hotels in Bournemouth UK, my friend Claire stayed in some alternative beach hut accommodation, which you can read about on her wesbite Tinbox Traveller.
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