If you were creating a perfect holiday haven from scratch, you’d probably come up with Cornwall. This rugged wedge of rock offers impossibly pretty beaches, improbably quaint villages and impressively craggy cliffs. Beloved by the bucket and spade brigade for generations, these days the entire county is in the midst of a renaissance that ranges from cooking to culture.
Sample Rick Stein’s foodie empire at Padstow or Jamie Oliver’s cooking-cum-community program just along the coast. Indulge in an adrenalin sports frenzy at party-town Newquay or explore global habitats at the Eden Project – the planet’s biggest greenhouses. Bed down amid styles that range from backpacker basic, via brushed-up B&B, to full-blown boutique chic. Hang out at funky festivals or chill out in the exotic gardens at Heligan, Tresco and Trebah.
Go all mystical at Arthurian Tintagel or sit in a stone circle as the sun sets in the far west. Pack an easel, pick up a paintbrush and immerse yourself in art at St Ives, or kick off your shoes, grab a knapsack and go island-hopping around the enchanting Isles of Scilly. Better still, do it all – and in one trip. In Cornwall you can. It really is rather wonderful way out west.
Whatever you do, make sure you visit St Michael’s Mount. Looming up from the waters of Mount’s Bay, this island abbey is one of Cornwall’s iconic landmarks. Set on a collection of craggy cliffs and connected to the mainland by a cobbled causeway that’s submerged by the rising tide, there’s been a monastery here since at least the 5th century. After the Norman conquest the island was given to the Benedictine monks of Mont St Michel in Normandy, who raised a new chapel on the site in 1135. The mount later served as a fortified stronghold and is now the family home of the St Aubyns, and under the stewardship of the National Trust.
Highlights include the rococo Gothic drawing room, the original armoury, the 14th century priory church and its subtropical gardens which teeter dramatically above the sea. You can walk across the causeway at low tide, or catch a ferry at high tide in the summer.
Stretching along the glittering sweep of Mount’s Bay, Penzance has been the last stop on the main railway line from London back since the days of the Great Western Railway. With its hotchpotch of winding streets, old shopping arcades and its grand seafront promenade, Penzance is much more authentic than the polished-up, prettified towns of Padstow and St Ives, and makes an excellent base for exploring the rest of west Cornwall and Land’s End.
For the ultimate English theatre experience, visit the Minack theatre. At the Minack the actors are constantly upstaged by the setting. Carved directly into the steep cliffs overlooking Porthcurno Bay, this alfresco amphitheatre is the legacy of Rowena Cade, an indomitable local woman who came up with the idea in the 1930s, helped with the construction for 20 years and oversaw the theatre until her death in 1983. From the original production of The Tempest in 1932, the Minack has grown into a full-blown theatrical venue, with 750 seats and a 17-week season running from mid-May to mid-September. The cliffs provide the scenery, the sea provides the back drop, while basking sharks and the moon rising over the waves provide charming distractions. Regulars bring a bottle of wine, umbrellas and lots of blankets.
Flung far into the sea past Land’s End of England, the captivating Isles of Scilly is the closest place that England comes to the Mediterranean. The archipelago is scattered 28 miles west of Land’s End where, washed by the Gulf Stream, they enjoy a comparatively balmy climate.
Only five of the 140 islands are inhabited; St Mary’s is the largest and busiest, closely followed by Tresco, while only a few hardy souls live on Bryher, St Martin’s and St Agnes. Traditionally farming, fishing and flower growing were the key industries, but these days tourism is by far the biggest money spinner. Whether enjoying the laid-back lifestyle, island-hopping or some of the best beaches in England, many visitors find themselves Scilly addicts – drawn back again and again by the subtropical gardens, barefoot beachcombing and castaway vibe.