Surfing at St Ives in Cornwall. (Photo: David Merrett/Flickr)
The county of Cornwall used to be famous for one thing above all else — the homegrown “bucket and spade” beach holiday. Every summer, families from London and the surrounding environs (mine included) would load up their cars and head west, making their way down roads of steadily reducing diameter, to the land of clotted cream, strawberries, and sand castles.
As much today as when I was a child, Cornwall often feels like an entirely different country from the rest of the U.K. It’s impossible to mistake the area’s unique identity. Partly that’s a function of simple geography. Despite new motorways, the drive from London to Cornwall still takes at least five hours, an odyssey by British standards. Plus, there’s the climate; Cornwall is always a few degrees warmer than London. It’s not exactly tropical, but the residents proudly grow palm trees in their gardens, which adds a dash of exoticism.
Adding to the sense of being abroad is the fact that many older residents still speak Cornish, a Gaelic-origin dialect incomprehensible to outsiders, as their first language.
St Michael’s Mount Gardens, Cornwall. (Photo: ukgardenphotos/Flickr)
But with this welcome sense of foreignness came a definite sense of provincialism in Cornwall. It was hard, to put it frankly, to get a decent meal anywhere, apart from a half dozen expensive hotels and restaurants.
All this has changed in the past few years as a new generation of ex-rat racers — mostly Londoners — have decamped to Cornwall, importing a healthy dash of sophistication and bohemia to England’s most far-flung southern province. Good food is standard in all pubs now. And while the area still retains all of its tradition and heritage, there is a healthy cosmopolitan strand running alongside and complementing the old ways.
Sunset at Polzeath, looking out toward Newland & Rainer Rocks. (Photo: Robert Pittman/Flickr)
The first places to benefit from the national resurgence of Cornwall were the traditional holiday towns of Rock and Polzeath. Both are on the estuary formed where the River Camel meets the Atlantic, and they are much prized for their calm and sheltered waters. They are the beating heart — and economic drivers — of Cornwall’s rebirth. David Cameron, the British prime minister, goes on holiday in Polzeath, which has helped the area’s reputation considerably.
Rock is low-key, rich, and boaty, and the chef Rick Stein has a famous fish restaurant a ferry ride over the estuary in the more workmanlike fishing village of Padstow. Polzeath, a few miles up to the road from Rock, is more chill. Young families claim the beach on the estuary side, while surfers’ battered camper vans trundle around the point to catch the Atlantic waves. Old, posh British families take the same large houses each year for the summer on the beaches and headlands between the two towns, and the right to rent them is handed down through generations with the kind of reverence given to more conventional heirlooms.
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Paddle surfer at Fistral Beach, Cornwall. (Photo: Andrew/Flickr)
Surf culture has been integral to Cornwall’s revival, and the party town of Newquay, which also has a small airport, is the main destination. Off the beaten track, however, there are dozens of fantastic and often deserted surfing beaches. St Agnes, half an hour from Newquay, is the pick of these and also home to Finisterre, the ultra-hip clothing brand for cold-water surfers and outdoorsy types. If you can’t make it to St. Agnes in person, the gear will soon be stocked in the hip Williamsburg surf shop Pilgrim Surf and Supply.
Finisterre founder Tom Kay recommends staying at the Driftwood Spars hotel while in St Agnes: “It’s a stone’s throw from the beach and has good fires, great ales, and a bar to warm up in post-surf,” he says.
Seals in the harbor at St. Ives, Cornwall. (Photo: John Stratford/Flickr)
If surfing is not your thing, head on down the peninsula — but be sure to stop before Land’s End itself, which has yet to be rescued from decades of dodgy development. Visit St. Ives, which has an outpost of London’s Tate art gallery, and the Minack Theatre, an extraordinary open-air theatre carved out of a cliffside. The theatre is open from May to September.
Tintagel Castle (Photo: Peter Sayer/Flickr)
When it comes to natural beauty, Cornwall won’t be found lacking. Helford Estuary — gorgeous sloping green fields and woods that descend to the river — is particularly stunning, and you can even book a stay at the immaculately restored cottage Frenchman’s Creek. Breathtaking Tintagel Castle, the mythical birthplace of King Arthur and an inspiration for great British poets like Wordsworth and Tennyson, should also not be missed.
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The best excuse to visit Cornwall right now, however, is the Port Eliot festival, which runs from July 24 to 27. This festival of music, art, and ideas is held in the grounds of the ancestral home of the St Germans family, near the titular village of St Germans. Alongside the main stages, offering an eclectic lineup of local and international acts, is an array of smaller marquees. Global brands such as Anthropologie have tents hosting workshops with artists and designers like Florence Balducci and Catherine Zoraida, but there is also room for truly local enterprises, such as the local Rod and Line Pub, which runs a mouthwatering food stand at the festival. You can pitch your own tent in the lush grounds of the house or rent a fully-equipped luxury bell tent.
Scones with raspberry jam and clotted cream (Photo: elisabet.s/Flickr)
Whatever you do, before you leave, be sure to sample some of Cornwall’s most famous delicacy — clotted cream. This rich and delicious super-thick cream goes perfectly with a cup of tea or on a hunk of white bread with fresh strawberry jam, and for me and millions like me, no trip to Cornwall would be complete without it.
Tom Sykes is an Ireland-based writer who contributes to a wide variety of publications including the Daily Beast, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Times, and the Sunday Times. He is the European Editor at large of Scene Magazine in New York and European Editor-at large of Man of The World Magazine. He is also the author of three books, most recently the co-writer of “In The Pleasure Groove” with John Taylor of Duran Duran, a New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller.