Cornwall’s back-to-basic charms are impossible to resist
You can now fly direct from Dublin to England’s sunny south west
“Checking in, I’m flanked by surfers heading beachward, families studying walking maps and couples cozying up beside a blazing fire.”
Cornwall is a rather cool place to holiday in the UK these days. The oversaturated and eye-wateringly expensive Cotswolds have been replaced with Cornwall’s friendly, laid-back appeal, not to mention the surf that draws an international crowd all year long. The former country-bumpkin county in England’s sunny south west is abuzz in even in the darkest of winter months. And now that Aer Lingus Regional offers flights directly from Dublin to Newquay airport, Cornwall is an attractive holiday - and long weekend - option from Ireland.
Up until now, I had always put Cornwall on the long finger – who has the time to spend getting there? – but, a short 40-minute flight from Dublin and I am in Newquay, the distinctly English countryside whizzing by me, as I travel from the airport a short distance to my first port of call. The sun is playing hide and seek in the sky, the air is fresh and smells of the sea and I’m ready to see what Cornwall has to offer.
Cue the lovely Headland Hotel (headlandhotel.co.uk) which I am calling home for the night. A holiday destination for monarchs of yore, a one-time second World War hospital and the setting for the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, the Headland is the gem of Newquay’s coast, towering imperially over Fistral beach.
Checking in, I’m flanked by surfers heading beachward, families studying walking maps and couples cozying up beside a blazing fire. Staff are warm and friendly and behind the reception two small dogs are snoozing – the hotel is pup-friendly, and they offer a day-care service while guests relax in the lounge. The Headland is decorated with antique furniture in the foyer and adjacent rooms, while the bar and bistro have bright contemporary artwork and comfy sofas made for plonking down with a Cornish gin and the papers.
The spa here is state of the art, complete with a Cornish salt sauna and ocean-inspired treatments including an Algae facial.
Afternoon tea is served in the drawing room (expect the classics: cucumber sandwiches, freshly baked scones and free flowing piping hot English tea). The bedrooms are simple and warm, but the star of the show here is the view. All I can see from my window is ocean, save for the few bobbing heads of surfers on the horizon, and a seal or two. The rolling waves – in particular the waves made by the infamous Cribbar reef, also known as “The Widow Maker” – crash on these shores and are what make Newquay and Fistral beach one of the UK’s finest surfing spots.
There are plenty of cliffside strolls along Fistral, but I choose the longest route toward Lennik Lodge, a sophisticated eatery and guesthouse – formerly a smuggler’s den – that offers fresh fish dishes, sweet treats, endless beach vistas and a cool clientele. Walking to the tip of this head gives you a split view; to the right, Fistral beach and the Headland, to the left, the River Gannel and, on a clear day, West Pentire.
After a day’s travel, sea air and a cliffside hike, I have an appetite for dinner. Thankfully, there is an abundance of excellent restaurants throughout Cornwall, with some of the UK’s top chefs at the helm. I try Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s Italian-influenced restaurant, nestled in a cove on nearby Watergate beach (fifteencornwall.co.uk). The vibe in this neighbourhood is a little more affluent than Fistral, and all profits at Fifteen goes directly to training young locals in the restaurant trade. The menu includes some very good Cornish brill and woodfired monkfish with wine pairing, while the cocktails are dangerously moreish, including a very good Trevethan Martini, a local interpretation on the classic infused with Cornish gin.
The next morning I’m up and at ‘em for a light breakfast before donning a wetsuit and heading to meet Dom, owner of the Surf Sanctuary surf school (surfsanctuary.co.uk), which is right under the hotel on the beach. A quick tutorial on the sand and then I’m in the waves with my instructor Tom spurring me on while world-class surfers and small children put my attempts to shame. That’s the joy of the sport – no matter what age or capability, it’s exhilarating and well worth a go.
After a quick fish and chip lunch in Rick Stein’s fish shop on the beach, it’s off to an evening yoga class at Ocean Flow Yoga (oceanflowyoga.co.uk) with (wait for it) my instructor, Stretch. Yep, that’s his name and he’s sticking to it. We were all set for a beach session but the weather is so changeable here we opt for his studio overlooking the coastline and brooding sky – an equally peaceful spot. He eases me through a therapeutic yoga class which, he promises, will help ease my surf-strained muscles. A quick stroll along the beach and I’m back at the Headland. The fact that you can walk to many of the amenities is a real bonus of a trip to Newquay, and particularly useful on a quick weekend break.
The next day I head south across the county to St Mawes, a tiny harbour town opposite Falmouth, on the Roseland Peninsula. Renting a car is the best way to make a trip here, though you can happily take the scenic route – complete with buses and a ferry if you’re feeling adventurous – through clusters of fishing villages and picturesque bays along the way.
St Mawes is a funny little spot. It should just be just another harbour village but somewhere along the way it become the hideaway for refined holidaymakers. The famous Tresanton hotel, the brainchild of Olga Polizzi, is a big draw here but I’m staying in the town’s newer addition, the super chic St Mawes Hotel. Owners Karen and David Richards fell in love with the village 12 years ago and eventually acquired the run-down hotel St Mawes Hotel and its sister property, The Idle Rocks, converting them into plush hideaways.
The St Mawes is a gem, with a great British pub downstairs with a handful of intimate, individually decorated rooms upstairs. Everything from the soft cotton throws and deep bathtubs, local artwork, salvaged sail-boat oars and striped rugs, to the roaring sea outside my window (the beginning of an electrical storm) make this a cosy stay for the night. The village is all small laneways and nooks, every house and cottage boasts names like Sea Star and Windswept and there are sprouting blooms on every corner, the result of St Mawes’ gulf stream proximity. I stroll to the castle, an artillery fort constructed by Henry VIII, and watch the fishing boats crawl in and out of the bay. There isn’t a whisper here.
The town’s seasonal visitors have inspired a handful of great boutiques. I stop in at Onda boutique (ondarocks.co.uk) and browse their selection of Ekaterini bracelets and Fillipa K cashmeres, and sift through colourful kaftans and dresses in Grace & Favour (graceandfavouronline.co.uk). The area is quite the art hub, with local artists Trevor Price and Rosie Scott on show in The Square Gallery (thesquaregallery.co.uk), run by local Cathy Talbot, while nearby The New Gallery in Portscatho draws serious collectors to works by Trevor Felcey and Chris Insole.
I’m so excited to eat at The Idle Rocks as the restaurant, overseen by head chef Guy Owen. is a bucket list destination for foodies across the UK. I take a front row seat in the ocean-facing restaurant for the storm that has just blown in. As I sample Cornish makerel, wild bream, fresh oysters (from a sensational oyster menu) and sample the local fizz, I watch the waves thrash the harbour, the sky turn from grey to blue and pink and then black and feel utterly relaxed and at home. No fuss or frills, just great food, an endless horizon and a great big bed bed awaiting me. The stuff that great holidays are made of.
HOW TO CORNWALL
Aer Lingus Regional now operates four flights per week between Cornwall and Dublin, increasing to daily flights in peak summer times. Prices from €29.99. See aerlingus.com
The Headland Hotel
The 4-star Headland Hotel & Spa, Newquay with rates for Ocean View Rooms and Suites are start from £155 (€199), see headlandhotel.co.uk for details.
The St Mawes Hotel
The St Mawes Hotel has seven rooms, with rates starting from £145 (€186) . For more information or to make a reservation visit stmaweshotel.com.
The Idle Rocks
The Idle Rocks has 19 rooms, with rates starting from £200 (€257). For more information visit idlerocks.com.
Rick Stein has no less than eight eateries in Cornwall, from his fish and chip shop in Padstow to the St Petroc’s bistro. See rickstein.com for details
Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen is on the beach at Watergate Bay, between Padstow and Newquay. Well worth a visit fifteencornwall.co.uk
Stop at one of the countless piers and harbours along the Cornish coast and buy fresh crab from local fishermen
The annual Boardmasters surf and music festival runs for three days on Fistral beach, Newquay and Watergate Bay to an international crowd of fun-seekers. Expect extreme sports and lots of live entertainment from August 1st to 4th, see boardmasters.co.uk for more.