I'm hunkered down in a rubber boat that's bucking like a bronco as it slices through the choppy waters of Portland Harbour and Weymouth Bay, my thighs gripping the bench I'm straddling like Xenia Onatopp in the Bond flick GoldenEye. While I'm turning green beneath my construction-orange waterproof jacket, Jacqui Gisborne, a native of Portland who has been racing sailboats for 14 years, grins into the wind.
"Hold on for the ride of the century," she declares, adopting the booming delivery of a circus emcee. "Scream if you want to get wetter!"
Squinting through the sea spray, I gaze wistfully at the distant – and endearingly dry – banks of Nothe Gardens, where 4,600 ticket holders each day will jockey for space to watch the Olympic and Paralympic sailing events July 29 through August 11 and Sept. 1-6.
"Sailing has never been a good spectator sport," admits Ms. Gisborne, head of Weymouth and Portland 2012 operations team marketing and promotions. But that is about to change, with cameras on ship masts and helicopters capturing close-up images of the races, which will be broadcast on big screens set up on the shore. "The sailors will be able to hear the roar of the crowds, with the people up in Nothe Gardens cheering them on," she says. "So 'stadium sailing' will be hosted for the first time ever in 2012."
This British seaside town is a popular destination for kayakers and windsurfers, too, but it also offers plenty of less strenuous attractions for folks who have never surfed anything more challenging than the web. Weymouth's sandy beach, set against a backdrop of beautifully preserved sherbet-coloured Georgian buildings, is chock-a-block with donkey rides, a kiddie carousel, trampolines and swings. Bolder souls dip a big toe in the chilly waters, surrounded by a bevy of soggy dogs bounding about in the shallows.
For those who like to keep their feet on terra firma, there are some spectacular hikes
nearby along the Jurassic Coast, England's first natural World Heritage Site. Windswept walks meander past horseshoe bays, dramatic stone arches whittled by winds and waves, and ancient rock formations twisted over millennia into surrealistic sculptures. Further inland, travellers can explore the moody ruins of Corfe Castle, which towers over the undulating patchwork of the Purbeck Hills, before settling in for a pint and a hearty lunch at the Greyhound Inn – the most photographed pub in England, thanks to its scenic location at the foot of the castle.
A short drive due south of Weymouth, the island of Portland is a sober sister. Instead
of brightly painted houses,
Portland's buildings are made of locally quarried grey limestone, as immovable as mountains born of the rocky, inhospitable soil.
Ms. Gisborne reckons the stark contrast between the two towns is down to "Mad" King George III, who put Weymouth on the map back in 1789, when he began taking therapeutic dips in the bay. Portland, however, was always a military location.
"Portland doesn't have the facilities or the chintz or the colour of Weymouth – but that's the best thing that could have happened to it," Ms. Gisborne argues. "It's quirky, natural, rugged. There are days the water can lie as quiet as a lamb. Other days, waves hit the rocks and shoot a hundred feet in the air, like a geyser, and the wind is so strong, you can't stand. Every day, this island gives you a different view, a different experience."
At the Cove House Inn, on
the northern tip of the island,
I strike up a conversation with a trio of local men, huddled over pints by a window, watching a fiery sunset extinguish itself in the sea. Asking them what they think about the Olympics, Simon Richmond, a stubble-cheeked lookalike for actor Corbin Bernsen, offers this oblique reply as he hand-rolls a cigarette. "Thomas Hardy called this the isle of slingers, because if strangers came to this island, the people would throw stones at them," he says with a mischievous grin.
Things have changed, it seems, since Hardy's days. You're welcome here – especially if you bring your sea legs.
Weymouth is about three hours by train from London Waterloo train station.
For BritRail passes, see www.acprail.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Go to visit-dorset.com/accommodation for a handy search tool to help you find available accommodations.
Summer Lodge, Evershot:This 24-room country house hotel, nestled upon four acres of gardens, is further removed from the Olympic action. But the village of Evershot offers charms of its own, with miles of sleepy country lanes and public footpaths to explore – and the hotel can supply Wellington rain boots, bicycles and picnics. 44 (0)1935 482000;summerlodgehotel.co.uk; from about £363 ($585).
WHERE TO EAT
The Greyhound Inn, the Square at Corfe Castle (above):Choose from such
offerings as home-baked baguette sandwiches, venison or beef burgers, fish and chips and vegetarian risotto, ranging from about £6 ($10) to £10.50 ($17). 44 (0)1929 480205; greyhoundcorfe.co.uk.
The Cove House Pub,
91 Chiswell Portland:There's an emphasis on seafood, with crab, whitebait, scampi and fish and chips, but other options include burgers,
steak and ale pie, and lasagna, averaging about £8.50 ($14).
44 (0)1305 820895; thecove-
To learn more about the area, go to visitengland.com, visitlondon.com/2012,london2012.com/sailing.