Cornwall: a slice of the Med on the British Isles
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
Cornwall had been high on my list of places to visit for a long time. My dad always said it was one of the most beautiful places in the world. He wasn't wrong. We spent four glorious days here last October as part of our honeymoon and fell completely in love with the place. St Ives was our base but as we'd hired a car (essential - public transport links are pretty poor) we were able to explore the stunning coastline and visit the must-see Eden Project (more on that below).
Where to stay:
Your choice of digs can really make or break a holiday but thankfully we chose the most wonderful spot for ours - the Primrose Valley Hotel. What a fantastic place! It is literally two minutes' walk to Porthminster beach and a short walk to the lovely town of St Ives. The location is pretty much picture-perfect though the tiny narrow laneway to get to the hotel can be a little hair-raising in a car.
The place is very chic and modern but with cosy rustic touches. We stayed in Room 4 which was really lovely. It had a separate living room with couch and TV area, a small but cosy and comfortable bedroom and a fabulous bathroom with Jacuzzi bath and rain-shower.
We liked everything about this place, starting with the friendly and welcoming staff who very kindly left a bottle of Prosecco and a hand-written note left in our room to wish us a happy honeymoon. It was a lovely touch and meant a lot to us.
And then there was the food. This hotel is a food-lovers paradise. The breakfast was possibly the best I've ever had anywhere. The first morning I ordered the veggie breakfast and it was so perfect, I ended up getting it every day, despite wanting to try everything else on the menu. Their breakfast buffet has everything you could ever want - the most amazing home-made granola, seeds, yoghurt, compote, honey, freshly baked pastries.... Need I go on. Everything was of such a high standard and they obviously have a lot of pride in their ingredients. Great coffee too so we started every day on a high. Also can I just mention that they provide free cakes every afternoon. All were amazing but the brownies were off-the-charts good. They were without doubt the best I've ever eaten.
The living area is simply but beautifully decorated with flowers and books everywhere. I imagine it must be a gorgeous place to cosy up in winter with the sound of the sea in the distance. It is a little pricier than the average hotel, but then again, it's far from an average hotel. It ticks all the boxes and that's worth it in my mind. It made our honeymoon experience a special one and we will definitely be back.
What to do in Cornwall:
You will be spoilt for choice for things to do in this lovely part of the world but will particularly be in heaven if the great outdoors is your thing. The dramatic coastline is spectacular and the sea in some areas is that stunning turquoise colour usually seen in more exotic parts of the world. I recommend hiring a car and driving south along the coast from St Ives. We followed a loop around the the southern tip of the peninsula, stopping off at Land's End, continuing around to Porthcurno Beach (see aforementioned turquoise waters...) and back up the opposite coast to Penzance. Here we came back inland and headed cross-country to St Ives. It's a perfect day trip and there are loads of things to see en-route, not least the amazing views from the window of your car.
Land's End is the UK's most south-westerly point on the mainland and one of the country’s most iconic landmarks. The craggy granite cliffs are 200 foot high, offering spectacular views across the Atlantic ocean to the Longships Lighthouse and the Isles of Scilly twenty eight miles away. Further afield New York City is only 3,147kms away according to the signpost.
Just a word to the wise: there is a £6 fee to park your car at the site, which is a tad hefty if you're only planning on spending a short time there to take in the nice views and take the obligatory signpost photo. There's no way of avoiding this I'm afraid.
Second thing to note: it's a haven for tourists, as you might expect, but they can mostly be found taking selfies with the signpost. I recommend taking one of the cliff walks if you're feeling active. Actually this is the only thing I'd recommend doing here. The Shopping Village at the Visitors' Centre looked quite charming and Olde Worlde in style on first glance but don't be fooled - it's filled with the usual tourist tat so we didn't bother exploring it. And judging by the reviews on TripAdvisor, it's a complete and utter rip-off - there are charges for everything you wish to do, including having photographs taken apparently. We didn't eat there but again, based on reviews online, it seems that everything is overpriced and not very impressive. I can't vouch for this but I would usually avoid eating anywhere this touristy like the plague. Anyway there are far better places to eat on this route. We found a fantastic spot in Penzance - more on that below under Places to Eat.
I recommend planning ahead and if you want to spend a few hours here, why not bring a picnic, find a nice spot with a view on your cliff walk and park yourself there for a while. I imagine it would be a slightly nicer experience than the Visitor Centre has to offer.
Porthcurno Beach and Minack Theatre:
This is a must-see on any trip to Cornwall. This beach is the one with the turquoise waters and soft white sand, reminiscent more of Sardinia than any British beauty spot I've ever visited. It's breathtakingly gorgeous. I should also mention that the weather in Cornwall is more akin to France than the UK so we happily basked in 20 degree warmth in early October.
From the viewing point at Porthcurno you can access the amazing Minack Theatre - as you can see from pics below this is an outdoor theatre built into the cliff-face overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It reminded me somewhat of Taormina in Sicily with its ancient amphitheatre and stunning backdrop. I was convinced it had been here for hundreds of years but it was in fact the brainchild of one Rowena Cade who, alongside her trusty gardener in 1931-32, actually physically hauled rocks and earth to create this fantastic structure you can see today. Her vision was to create a place for local thespians to perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Her vision became a reality in August 1932 when the first performance of this play took place. What an experience that must've been. It's been a thriving professional theatre ever since with improvements made as necessary by Rowena throughout the years. Engraved on the tiered seats you can see the names of the plays that have been staged since its creation and the years in which they were performed. It's run by a charitable trust which is now managed by Rowena's family. What an outstanding achievement and what an impressive and determined woman. It's well worth a visit.
This is probably the most famous thing about Cornwall and I'll be completely honest, I'd never heard of it until I arrived there. Located pretty much in the middle of nowhere on the north-eastern part of the peninsula, the Eden Project is a fantastic eco-community on a grand scale. It's situated in a huge crater and is made up of a series of massive Biomes: domes which house distinct biological environments, for example one is home to the largest rainforest in captivity while another has a Mediterranean climate and showcases its beautiful plants and array of fruits and vegetables. From the viewing platform the domes look quite otherworldly and space-like.
It really is a fantastic day out and there is so much to see. It's quite expensive at £27.50 per ticket but it's actually a pass for a year so if you lived close by it would be great value. I still thought it was worth it for a one-off visit as we spent the entire day there at our leisure. There are some great places to eat in the main visitor area which surprised me. I was expecting to be underwhelmed but they have loads of options such as a juice bar, coffee house, burger bar, Mediterranean terrace restaurant and a café selling lots of healthy but tasty food options such as salads and sandwiches. Something for all tastes and it's not too overpriced either.
The highlights for me were the Rainforest and the Mediterranean biomes. Outside it was a chilly October day but inside these two domes the climate was exactly as advertised. They have recreated the exact environmental conditions you would find in a rainforest - hot, humid and clammy. The lens of my camera steamed up after just a few minutes. Inside there are trees and plants native to tropical rainforest. It was here I learned that pineapples do not grow on trees, but grow from the ground up as a plant. We saw bunches of bananas growing on trees as well as cacao and coffee bean plants. They have put in place a canopy walkway high above the trees which gives great views of all going on below. Relief from the dense humidity and heat can be found at the waterfall which cascades from the top of the dome through the South American part of the rainforest. The cool spray feels very good indeed as the heat can be a bit overwhelming, especially in a winter coat. It's such a great experience though and they have done such an amazing job at recreating a tropical world so far removed from what's going on beyond the dome.
The Mediterranean biome is a little easier to tolerate for a long period as the climate is pleasantly warm but dry. The smells are incredible as you walk around the dome. The air is filled with the scent of herbs, plants and flowers and the colours are remarkable - exactly as you'd see in southern Spain or France. You can wander in the citrus grove where you'll see lemons, limes and grapefruits hanging from the trees. As you can imagine, the fragrance is incredible. We saw all types of chillis growing, as well as olive trees, vines and herbs. There is also a Moorish-inspired perfume garden with scents of lavender, thyme, sage, rosemary and bergamot heavy in the air. It's truly fabulous and such a feast for the senses.
Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, St. Ives
Barbara Hepworth is an internationally renowned painter and sculptor and one of Britain's most famous artists of the twentieth century. She resided here at Trewyn studios, now the Barbara Hepworth Museum, from 1949 until her tragic death in a fire in 1975. The museum falls under the ownership of Tate St Ives, the main building of which unfortunately was closed for refurbishment while we were there. However this museum is a little gem. I've loved her work since I was in college and had a particular interest in the St Ives School, a group of artists working in this part of Cornwall in the mid 20th century. After the second world war, St Ives emerged as a prominent artistic centre for developments in modern art, in particular abstract art, and this whole movement was kicked off by Hepworth and her husband and fellow artist Ben Nicholson. You can read more about the museum and the artist here:
The museum houses a fabulous collection of her work, showcasing her paintings and drawings alongside examples of her sculptural work in bronze, wood and stone.
It's the most wonderfully Zen space to spend an afternoon, especially the garden. I love seeing sculpture in an outdoor setting, integrated into the natural environment, and this is perfectly done here, with views of the sea in the background. I've read that most of the sculptures were placed in-situ by the artist, which makes perfect sense as they all work together as a coherent whole. The house itself is simply beautiful with white walls and wooden floors and I love the placement of the work. It's not a huge space so you won't develop 'gallery legs' like I do at some of the bigger museums.
One of my favourite things about the museum was an unexpected one: in one of the outhouse spaces was a series of postcards from children who had visited the museum and who were invited to write a postcard to Barbara with their impressions of her work or of the museum. We spent about half an hour reading them; some were so endearing like the one below, and some just made me laugh out loud. A lovely idea and very entertaining to boot.
Places to eat:
Cornwall is known for being a haven for foodies so we were not disappointed. St Ives has some fantastic places to eat and drink but beware, everything closes verrrrry early. This is not a town for party animals. Now perhaps this is because we were here out of season in early October - I'd be very interested in hearing other people's experience. In Dublin we're used to going for dinner at 8:30 or even 9 in the evenings, but in St Ives restaurants were emptying out at this point. Getting a drink any later than 10:30 was nothing short of a miracle.
But aside from that, we enjoyed all of our evenings out. We just learned to start them a bit earlier. One place in particular stood out and that was the very cool Blas Burgerworks whose tagline is 'burgers for people who give a damn'. I definitely give a damn about a good burger though not the red-meaty kind. But happily they cater for all fuss-pots and have chicken, vegetarian and even vegan burgers. The menu is huge so it took me a good ten minutes to narrow down my choice to just one. I ended up going for the chilli bean burger and it was bloody amazing. Martin went for a full-on meaty delight and was raving about it too. Even better - they come with chips. Their hand-cut chips are described on the menu as made with a 'labour of love' and it definitely shows. They come doused in Cornish sea salt & served with aioli and are so tasty.
We loved this place, so much so that I actually forgot to take any photos - eek! Must've been starving. We could tell from passing on a few occasions that it was a popular spot as it was packed to the gills at all times. It's all very low-key and casual with long benches to share with others, as well as smaller tables, but has a great atmosphere and the staff are extremely friendly and knowledgeable. They have a nice choice of wines too and very reasonably priced. Their French red, a light one from Languedoc, was only £19 a bottle and was very good. I couldn't recommend it more highly and it was our favourite spot on the entire trip. If you're in St Ives it's an absolute must. Sorry about the lack of pics but you can check out their mouth-watering Instagram page here.
This was a spot we stumbled upon one evening while out for a stroll on the the sea-front. It's situated right on the harbour - you can walk on the sand within about one minute of exiting the restaurant and hear the waves crashing onto the shoreline from their front door. It was dark when we ate there so I could only imagine how cracking the views from the terrace or from the huge windows must be in summer.
The place was absolutely packed to capacity on a Tuesday night in October - always a good sign - though it had emptied out by 9pm. "Everyone's gone home to watch Doctor Foster", we were told by one of the waiters. Late-evening dining is definitely not a thing in Cornwall. That said, we had a great meal here. We didn't have starters as we were ordering the fish pie and the steak for our mains but we did have dessert - sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream. When in Cornwall and all that. And clotted cream really does make everything taste better. The staff were friendly and the place was buzzing. A really nice atmosphere until Doctor Foster put a stop to it.
We found out afterwards that this is actually a sister restaurant to the Porthminster Beach café, the place we had lunch the day we arrived in St Ives. This is definitely the place to come for lunch with a view. They have a long terrace with little booths to shelter you from the wind while you're eating. It was quite cold but there were overhead heaters in each booth to keep you cosy. We were looking out on this beautiful beach on a wild October day but snug and protected from the elements. Again I imagine this would be a fantastic spot to spend an evening in Summer if you were lucky enough to nab one of the prime outdoor booths. We both had fish and chips which were really good. But I have to say my favourite part of the meal was the dessert - Eton mess with clotted cream (see above - clotted cream is an essential part of every meal in this part of the world...) It was divine - perfectly crunchy meringue with aforementioned cream, fresh berries and mint. Worth a visit for this alone.
We also paid a flying visit to Penzance on our way back from our coastal trip one of the days and stopped off at Mermaid Alley for lunch. They don't have a website but you can link to their Facebook page here. Their reviews online were very positive so we decided to check it out. They weren't wrong. The food was extremely good with lots of healthy but filling options and the staff were fab. I had the falafel platter which was full of flavour and really good value at under £8. Martin had the less healthy but apparently amazing Philly cheesesteak taquitos.
Other than the restaurant, Penzance itself didn't really imprint itself on my memory. The main parts of the town looked like any generic town in the UK and it has none of the charm of St Ives with its gorgeous winding streets, whitewashed cottages and old English shopfronts.
All in all Cornwall gets my recommendation for a short break. Flights come through Newquay airport in the north-west but it's not served very well by public transport unless you're travelling on to one of the big towns like Padstow. St Ives, though one of the most famous spots in Cornwall, is not readily accessible at all from the airport, though it does have a train line. It's a relaxed and easy place to spend time. People here really love the outdoors and are walking their dogs on the beaches in all weathers. We loved the pace of life and would definitely come back again with friends. We've been raving about it ever since.