Pretty seaside villages and stylish inns are among the attractions on a driving tour of southwest England.
It’s a wild and blustery afternoon as I step off the train at Penzance. A brisk wind whipping off the Atlantic buffets me along the platform and out onto the street. We Brits love talking about the weather, and the warm microclimate in this part of Cornwall means there is much to be said. Storms come up, blow through, and clear, leaving behind bright sunshine. And so, by the time I reach my hotel—it’s a seven-minute walk from the station—a warm evening light has made its way through the clouds.
After checking in, I rendezvous with my photographer friend Emily Mott. Emily’s just wrapped up a shoot in the area and we’ve arranged to spend the next four days together exploring the coastline and seaside towns of West Cornwall, a ruggedly beautiful region on Britain’s southernmost tip.
Penzance was once a thriving fishing port and is still a working quay. Boats come and go; intrepid, wetsuit-clad swimmers emerge from the water like tall, black seals. The town fills with revelers in June and December when it holds its summer and winter solstice celebrations; also popular is Penzance’s annual pirate day (the port was once a smugglers’ hub, best known as the setting for Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Pirates of Penzance). But on a quiet afternoon in late spring, all is quiet.
Emily and I step out onto historic Chapel Street. Among the mystic shops and second-hand bookstores that dot the road, there is sophisticated shopping to be found: No. 56 for carefully curated stationary and homewares; &Living for Scandi-style chic; Cornwall Contemporary for works by leading local artists.
Our hotel, the Artist Residence, perfectly fits Penzance’s eclectic vibe. It’s part of a small husband-and-wife-run chain and is über-hip and utterly gorgeous, all oversize table lamps, giant copper bathtubs, and art-filled walls. Dinner that evening is delicious: Middle Eastern–spiced scallops, a roasted beetroot salad with feta, an enormous sea bass fresh from the nearby fishing port of Newlyn, and a decadent chocolate tart. Next morning, after a gut-busting full English breakfast, we are reluctant to go.
But our next stop is the artsy coastal town of St. Ives, a 20-minute drive north across the neck of the Land’s End Peninsula. We arrive and check in to West by Five, an Edwardian guesthouse perched high on a hill overlooking the bay. Owners Neil and Sheila Gribbin are generous hosts who clearly love living here—it shines through their eyes. Plus the beds are comfy and Sheila’s homemade granola (as we discover the next morning) is perfection.
St. Ives’ particular quality of light has drawn artists since Victorian times, and a visit to modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s former home and studio—now a museum and sculpture garden—is a must. It’s a calm, meditative space that has changed little in the 43 years since its namesake’s death, with a pretty walled garden out back that is dotted with Hepworth’s abstract sculptures in bronze and stone. And just a short walk uphill is the Tate St. Ives, which sits across the street from a lovely stretch of sand. Reopened last October after an impressive refurbishment and extension project, the gallery houses a fabulous collection of modern art; I particularly like the work of Cornish fisherman and famed naïve painter Alfred Wallis.
Culturally sated, we wander into the old town center to get lost among bakeries and tourist shops. On foodie-friendly Fore Street we pick up some sweet souvenirs at Roly’s Fudge and chat to Allotment Deli owner Laura Holdsworth, who grew up here and has the local landmarks tattooed across her arms to prove it.
The tide is out and the sun is setting as we stroll across a beach filled with dog walkers, children playing Frisbee, and lifeboat rowers coming ashore. Our destination is Blas Burgerworks, a burger joint tucked away on a quaint back street called The Warren. The place is lauded by the press and loved by locals, and rightly so. It’s fun, funky, and draws an eclectic crowd. We take our place at a communal wooden table and order: a vegan sunflower burger with tofu and roasted peppers for me, and a blackbean burger with cheddar cheese for Emily. They’re both terrific.
You could easily spend a week in Cornwall just eating—the region is bursting with local producers and exciting restaurants, cafés, and pubs. Thankfully, the surrounding countryside provides plenty of opportunities to walk off all those extra calories, providing you’ve brought along a sturdy pair of hiking boots. And that’s what brings us to the moorlands of West Penwith. It’s bright with yellow gorse at this time of year and studded with ancient standing stones including a trio called Mên-an-Tol, whose middle stone has a perfectly round hole in the center, making it look like a giant granite donut.
We pass abandoned farmhouses and fellow walkers, following paths that hug dry-stone walls up and across this rugged, open land.
Three hours later, hot and sweaty, we are back in the car and on our way to Mousehole (pronounced mow-zel), a tiny fishing village south of Penzance. Here, we check in to The Old Coastguard hotel, whose proprietor, Charles Inkin, has just returned from meeting a local grower he’s confident can keep him in asparagus throughout the season. Inkin is passionate about local produce and, as you might expect, the food at his seaside inn is very good indeed. Squid in a thick, sweet, tomato-and-tarragon sauce is delicious. Emily tucks into rabbit rillettes. A rich, comforting gnocchi served with butternut squash is somewhere between dinner and pudding. Halfway through I am completely full but keep going until my plate is clean. The wine list, too, is top-notch, supplemented by local beers and Cornwall-distilled gin.
From Mousehole, the coastal road runs through Penzance and past the fairy-tale castle island that is St. Michael’s Mount—you can walk across the granite causeway to reach it when the tide is out, and we do—before heading cross-country and down toward the Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall’s (and England’s) southernmost point. When it comes to beaches, visitors to the area are spoiled for choice. Its pale, golden sands stretch for miles, and the locals are happy to tell you their favorite spots. Kynance Cove comes highly recommended and a brisk three-kilometer-long cliff-side walk from here takes you to Lizard Point.
Driving north, the scenery changes. Narrow fern-flanked lanes twist and turn as we make our way above the Helford Estuary (immortalized in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Frenchman’s Creek), stopping off at Trebah Garden en route. The subtropical plants in this lush ravine garden thrive in Cornwall’s climate—windmill palms, century-old rhododendrons, cascades of hydrangeas. We follow a path past towering bamboos and gunnera groves down to a private beach; the water, when we reach it, is divine. Standing there looking out across the river toward Falmouth Bay, we relish the feeling of the sand between our toes.
Some 35 kilometers northeast is Tregothnan, a private estate owned by the Boscawen family that also happens to be home to England’s only tea plantation. After a tour of the gardens, we meet with Jonathon Jones, Tregothnan’s former head gardener and now managing director of trading. His enthusiasm for tea growing (and indeed all things horticultural) is infectious. The art of good tea making, he explains, means brewing leaves at just the right temperature—black teas need around 96°C, green teas closer to 70°C—and leaving them to steep for an optimal amount of time. And so, he makes us the perfect cup.
Interior designer Olga Polizzi’s exquisite boutique hotel, Tresanton, is our final stop. Nestled snugly in the tiny, picture-postcard town of St. Mawes, it exudes an understated seaside glamour that, after four days of sightseeing and sampling, comes as a welcome change of pace. Sitting out in the hotel’s newly opened beach club overlooking the water is bliss. The temptation is to not move from this spot—ever—but a five-kilometer stroll takes us past St. Mawes Castle to a pretty 14th-century waterside church in neighboring St. Just-in-Roseland. In the opposite direction lies St. Anthony’s Lighthouse, a whitewashed granite tower that stands at the entrance to Carrick Roads, one of the largest natural harbors in the world.
We more or less sink into dinner that evening, feasting on asparagus soup with sea trout, scallops with asparagus, and halibut with spinach and beurre noisette, all washed down with quantities of champagne to celebrate the end of our trip. A pudding of burnt English custard with raspberries and biscotti rounds things off. As we devour it, Emily and I agree that Cornwall is one of those magical places that, once visited, you don’t really want to leave. I’m already plotting a return trip for next summer.
Penzance is easily accessible by fast trains from London. For overnight travel, book the Night Riviera sleeper train, which leaves London Paddington at 11:45 p.m. and arrives in Penzance eight hours later. For car hire, contact Hertz.
Where to Stay
20 Chapel St., Penzance; 44-1736/365-664; doubles from US$110.
27 Lower Castle Rd., St. Mawes; 44-1326/270-055; doubles from US$280.
The Parade, Mousehole; 44-1736/731-222; doubles from US$180.
7 Clodgy View Way, St. Ives; 44-1736/794-584; doubles from US$98.
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Along the Cornish Coast”).