I’ve wanted to go to Cornwall for a long time, but as I approached, I realised I knew so little about what to expect. I didn’t know there would be cliffside theatres with sharks basking in aquamarine water below, or that there would be wildflowers in abundance, pirate bays and bars, accents with an endearing drawl at their strongest, modern hotels opposite centuries old buildings where seafarers have been raising tankards of ale for centuries. All this I didn’t really know.
Our introduction was via St Mawes, where to arrive at the coast we found ourselves driving down one of the steepest and surely narrowest streets I’ve ever driven on (in a manual – eeeee!), so by the time we parked I was frantically looking for an alternate exit route, gulping at the thought of terrifying(ly embarrassing) hill starts. When I took a few deep breaths and looked around, I saw an endearing seaside village, where every building was white-washed, only the roofs differed in colour, and only a little. Two hotels draw a sophisticated crowd here: The Idle Rocks and the Hotel Tresanton, but I hear there is a newer re-opening that would be my pick: St Mawes Hotel. But alas, this was not our end destination, so we merely stopped for a seaside lunch and took a wander around this town on the Roseland Peninsula. Further along there is a thirteenth century church and a lighthouse, but I was keen to get back on the (flatter) road and make for our final destination of the day.
We exited town via the chain-led King Harry Ferry from St Mawes to Falmouth, driving further South-West, in fact on our most South-West adventure – to Penzance on the Penwith Peninsula, just shy of Land’s End.
On the outskirts of Penzance, you should swing by St Micheal’s Mount, a small tidal island with a castle and chapel atop, that has been in the St Aubyn family since around 1650 – and the earliest buildings on the island date to the 12th Century! Less than 15 minutes down the road is Penzance, a port town famed for the comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, which was first performed in 1879. Cornwall is also famed for pasties, ice-cream and cider, not to mention Poldark, so the place was already pretty alright with me…
We wound through some late afternoon traffic, past thrift stores and bakeries, and round onto our destination of Chappel Street in the old town.
STAY: Artist Residence
Just the name evokes a seductive bohemian enclave you should be staying at, and we certainly didn’t regret our decision to stay in this quirky abode. Sunday Times Travel recently voted it in their Ultimate 100 British Hotels feature. Located in the old quarter, Artist Residence is smack bang across the road from the Admiral Benbow (more on that below), so while the setting is convenient for seeing Penzance, this is the kind of hotel where you needn’t leave the grounds if you felt like having a rest. It has an on-site casual diner, a bright courtyard with ping pong and a barn-style bar (that serves local drinks), and the rooms are stylish and cosy.
We stayed two nights in the hotel, but we booked them separately (we decided to indulge in another night and found a good deal on booking.com), so it was switched up with a move to another room, with a totally different aesthetic as well.
TASTE: Bakehouse Restaurant
Tucked in a leafy courtyard off Chapel Street, basically meters from Admiral Benbow and The Artist’s Residence, Bakehouse ‘and Steakhouse’ is surprisingly wonderful for vegetarians. The starters: for Skymie a falafel dish with harissa, yoghurt and salad and for me, a baked goats cheese with a strawberry sauce (which was outrageously good – but is baked goats cheese ever a bad idea? I’ll never understand people that don’t like goats cheese – that’s a thing!?!). The spiced dahl main, with char grilled cauliflower and eggplant (or aubergine if you’re from these parts) and lime pickle, served with a puppodom won both of our hearts – it was creamy, smoky and warm. I highly recommend a meal here, even if the interiors could use an update, the food is truly smile-inducing.
Don’t forget to top off the evening with drinks at the kitschy pirate enclave that is The Admiral Benbow, one of the oldest pubs in the area – dating all the way back to the 17th Century. Filled to the brim with nautical knick knacks and genuine artifacts from ship wrecks (apparently from the last 400 years) this is definitely a Cornwall institution. Settle in to a cosy wooden booth and order ye a tankard!
The Cornish Barn smokehouse and bar, in the front of the Artist Residence, has finger-licking meals (try the chicken wings – though I recommend you share them, or like me, you’ll be trying to palm off the excess to everyone you meet) and tasty breakfasts (at least our slightly hungover selves thought they were – we enjoyed a bit too much Cornish cider the evening before with some local lads we met in the courtyard).
Guyssss…perhaps you knew about this place and didn’t tell me, but why wouldn’t you?! I would say it is definitely a bucket list destination in itself. Perched high in the cliffs, watching a 60s version of As You Like It (love me some Shakespeare – especially to a soundtrack of Beatles tunes) while huge sharks navigate the turquoise waters below on a sunny Cornwall afternoon (OK, it was a little chilly in the ), I’d say I was pretty content with my on-tour lifestyle.
This was another travel experience that had me questioning whether or not I was in the United Kingdom. Like, I knew it would be beautiful, but sharks and crystal waters – was I in Aus? I’d recently read Simon Armitage’s Walking Away, about his experience as a walking troubadour, hiking by day and reciting poetry in local towns at night, so I was a little excited to see that the Minack was right on the path of England’s South West Coast Path – the same hiked by Armitage. But I hadn’t pictured this postcard beauty while reading. Perhaps I was just lost in the beauty of his prose. Sigh.
There are some seriously stunning beaches in these parts – especially Porthcurno beach which is visible from the Minack – and we wished we had a bit more time to explore. Britain’s most South-westerly point Land’s End was also on the agenda, but alas, will have to be for next time, “as I was going to St Ives” (lyrics from a truly creepy nursery rhyme).
Coming soon: Cornwall Part 2: St Ives, Newquay (and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Restaurant!) In the meantime, why not check out my posts on nearby Lyme Regis or the wonderful Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove – both essentials for a South West England road trip!