Portsmouth -- the historic home of Britain's muscular naval fleet -- is adapting to a future with a smaller navy presence and more pleasure craft and tourists. Most people pass through Portsmouth because it's the major port on the south coast of England, busy with ferries heading for France's Brittany. But the city also has amazing maritime history, plus enough candy-floss-on-the-beach fun to make going to Brighton or Blackpool unnecessary.
In London, billboard ads show an exotic harbor skyline with the question: Dreaming of Dubai? Then they break it to you: This is Portsmouth, 90 minutes away by train. Comparing Dubai and Portsmouth is a stretch, but its iconic Spinnaker Tower stands like an exclamation mark above a once run-down military port that is morphing into a pleasant people zone. Just last month, the Dubai-based Emirates airline paid £3.5 million to change the Spinnaker's name to the "Emirates Spinnaker Tower." (Unfortunately, they didn't realize that the plan to paint the tower red and white -- the airline's colors -- would infuriate local soccer fans, as those are the colors of the archrival Southampton team.) Locals tried to convince me to bow to their advertising agenda and add the new "Emirates" name to the listing in my England guidebook. I resist.
Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard is one of the best maritime sights anywhere. This ship is one of many on display. The HMS Warrior was the first ironclad warship -- a huge technological advance. The Warrior was unbeatable, and the enemy knew it. Its very existence was sufficient to keep the peace. But that only lasted for a window of about ten years, until stronger steam engines made ships without sails smarter, and guns on turrets could outshoot anything previously on the sea. The Warrior is in amazing shape because it became obsolete shortly after it was built. The only action it's ever seen are the tourists climbing through it 150 years after its heyday as the most awe-inspiring ship afloat.
The English are experts at enjoying dreary beaches in dreary weather. In Portsmouth, there's a nice beach -- but with the blustery weather, its best feature is what's called "the Hot Wall." This embankment provides a shelter from the breeze, and absorbs what heat there is and radiates it to those gathered (like this group of school friends).
Definitely not Dubai: While many areas of Portsmouth are becoming gentrified, deep down it's still a hardworking port town.