Cornwall

Thanks in part to PBS' hit show Poldark, U.S. travelers are discovering the scenic U.K. peninsula where it's filmed. Head there yourself and you'll find centuries-old sites commingling with chic new hotels, cultural diversions, and Michelin-starred restaurants.

By Andrew Sessa | Photography by Ian Kingsnorth

Click here for a gallery of Cornwall's must-see sights.

Like an across-the-pond cousin to the beloved, all-American summertime escape of Cape Cod, the county of Cornwall reaches out from England's southwest corner into the wild Atlantic, beckoning vacationing locals looking for old-fashioned family fun. This narrow, pristine peninsula of craggy shores, charming stone fishing and farming villages, and rugged, rolling moorland extends west into seas so turquoise and sapphire they practically scream Caribbean. As if this weren't enough to tempt sybarites, Cornwall's position on the Gulf Stream also means it's blessed with warmer temperatures and more clear days than most of the U.K. 

But this county - unlike most beach retreats - offers far more than just fun in the sun. In addition to its nearly 300-mile coastline and 300-plus beaches, Cornwall boasts a rising gourmet culinary scene; rich and growing contemporary art enticements; wild seas and inland hills that cry out for swashbuckling escapades; about 70 gardens, many historic and horticulturally important and most open to visitors; and the greatest concentration of ancient ruins in Britain.

On a recent five-day trip crisscrossing Cornwall, I set out to discover and explore the best of all of these aspects of the destination, with much of what I encountered being newly arrived or recently updated, and all absolutely ideal for Americans looking for a new favorite vacation getaway.

For although city-living Brits have had reason to vacation here for more than a century, in the last few years Cornwall's international profile has grown, and mightily so. Not only has the region gone increasingly haute, with a fresh crop of posh new hotels and top restaurants, it has gotten easier to reach, too. The five-hour-plus train or car journey from London often kept Americans away, but ongoing upgrades of roads and rails and significantly increased domestic airlift into the local airport in the town of Newquay are improving the situation.

Then there's the Poldark effect. Author Winston Graham set his historical potboiler series amid the trading ports, copper mines, and family farms of 18th- and 19th-century Cornwall, capturing the trials, tribulations, and amorous dalliances of aristocrat Ross Poldark. These novels inspired a British TV show in the 1970s, which the BBC rebooted and PBS picked up to much acclaim in 2015. Now, with the new series' third season set to debut later this year, its swoon-worthy cinematography will capture even more of the region's lush landscapes - and the oh-so-attractive cast's even lusher eyelashes. All of which makes come-hither Cornwall more alluring than ever. 

Other than Ross Poldark, the character who most put Cornwall on the map may be Rick Stein. The now-celebrity seafood chef set up shop in the harbor town of Padstow, in the middle of Cornwall's north coast, 40 years ago, ushering in a locavore revolution that swept through the county. Today, Stein has 19 food, beverage, and hotel outlets in this region, several opened in the last few years, and 11 in Padstow alone, where offerings include his original restaurant - the prime proponent of his "fresh fish, simply cooked" philosophy - as well as 40 guest rooms, a cooking school, and a recently opened bar named Ruby's. His acolytes have won raves of their own and, in some cases, Michelin stars, throughout Cornwall: master chef Nathan Outlaw, for one, who moved his eponymous spot - Cornwall's only Michelin two-star - to a venue in Port Isaac, just up the peninsula's coast from Padstow, in 2015. Paul Ainsworth, another local star chef, meanwhile, expanded his holdings a year ago. His new small, six-suite hotel, Padstow Townhouse, occupies an 18th-century, stone-walled edifice near his contemporary one-star restaurant, Paul Ainsworth at No. 6.

I begin my Cornwall venture in Padstow, tucking into a whole haddock, battered and crisply fried, at Stein's Fish & Chips, a casual, blue-and-white-tiled wharf-side joint, with views over an estuary to the grand homes of Rock, one of England's most affluent beach communities. Exploring after lunch, I discover why Padstow has become known as "Padstein": The chef is everywhere. At his fish store, next door to Fish & Chips - as at all his Cornwall venues - about 85 percent of the offerings come from within the county. At Stein's Patisserie, a five-minute walk away, giant pink-and-white meringues explode with fillings of berries and clotted cream, a county specialty, while the pasties, a sort of Cornwall version of an empanada, come stuffed not just with the usual steak but oh-so-local smoked haddock, too. Quite possibly the county's best-known export, Cornish pasties will get renewed attention in July when Cornucopia, a food hall and cultural center devoted to the humble treat, opens in nearby St. Austell.

I spend the night in Newquay, about 15 miles down the coast, at the Headland Hotel, perched on a west-facing bit of land adjacent to one of Britain's best surfing beaches. Guests in wetsuits, carrying longboards through the lobby, present a sharp but welcoming contrast to the formal Edwardian decor and the 3-year-old Zen-feeling spa. As I take a sunset jog, kicking up sand, dodging beach plum bushes, and gazing at the long shadows of surfers making the day's final rides, I can almost imagine myself on Cape Cod - maybe even in Malibu or Marin.

There's no mistaking Cornwall for Malibu on Day Two, though, when I join Susan Hockey, founder of the cultural tour company Cornish Heritage Safaris, for a time-spanning, full-day romp through five-plus millennia, from eras prehistoric and medieval to Victorian and Georgian, with some Arthurian, too. We start in Poldark country, at the south coast port of Charlestown, where the series films, walking out on the stone quay to look back at antique tall ships berthed in the canals. "Where's Mr. Poldark, Mummy?" I overhear a toddler near me say.

Heading north from the coast, we drive about 8 miles through the narrow medieval streets of the stone village of Lostwithiel to the hilltop ruins of Restormel Castle, which had its heyday in the 14th century when Edward, aka the Black Prince, called it one of his homes. "When people think of Cornwall, they think of the coast, and rightfully so, but there's a lot of history inland," Hockey says understatedly, as we stare in awe at the round castle's crumbling crenelated slate parapet, imagining Edward in residence.

Continuing farther inland, to the wildly beautiful landscapes of scrub-covered Bodmin Moor, another bit of Poldark country, we reach even further back in time, feeling the vibrations of the ancients while visiting Trethevy Quoit and the Hurlers - relatives of a sort to Stonehenge. The Hurlers comprise three of Bodmin's impressive 16 stone circles, thought to be used by prehistoric peoples for religious and funerary rituals. We end the day with more mysticism at Tintagel, visiting the remains of a 13th-century fortified island castle where King Arthur was legendarily conceived, which we reach by crossing a towering footbridge just off Cornwall's north coast. Slate walls crown cliffs that sheer down to rocky shoals, and crashing whitecaps turn turquoise seas foamy. I see enchantment in the air - and Arthurian fiction as reality.

Day Three proves Cornwall's cultural destinations as enchanting as its historic sites. Seeking out its clear northern light and pale blue seas, artists colonized St. Ives, 30 miles down the north coast from Newquay, in the early 20th century. Here, the nautilus-shaped St. Ives branch of London's Tate museum will debut a major redo in late March, with an expansion opening in the fall. Travelers can also visit its sister institution, the intimate Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, a five-minute walk away. Encompassing Hepworth's former home and studio, the space looks largely as it did through the mid-1970s, when occupied by the artist, whose work, rendered in stone, metal, and wood, recalls that of Henry Moore and even Georgia O'Keeffe. Looking at the totemlike pieces in the lushly planted garden, I'm reminded of yesterday's stone circles and ruins. Hepworth was clearly as taken with the local landscape in her day as I am now.

A monolith of a different sort is St. Michael's Mount, an 8-mile drive south across the Cornish peninsula. Another island-top stone castle accessed by foot, this one remains very much intact, occupied by the same aristocratic family since the 1600s. Its causeway disappears at high tide, requiring a short boat ride to the antique wonders of its house museum, which spans styles from medieval and rococo to Victorian. Back on the mainland, I check into the Godolphin Arms, recent beneficiary of a contemporary makeover. From my room's balcony, I take in prime views of the mount, then drive about 15 miles down the coast to a concert at the Minack, an amphitheater cut into the ocean cliffs. A full moon rises over the Atlantic as a brass band plays, and the crowd goes wild for Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" finale, accompanied by fireworks and patriotic Union Jack flag-waving.

Culture and castles seem like distant memories the next day when I find myself spotting seals and cormorants from a speedboat whizzing around the Isles of Scilly, a quiet, largely untouristed archipelago of more than 100 rocky islands 30 miles west of the Cornish peninsula's tip, about three hours by ferry from the mainland, out in the Atlantic Ocean. Starting next year, helicopter service will also connect the isles to the mainland. 

I have journeyed here for a bit of rough-and-ready adventure; others come for the subtropical 19th-century botanical garden on the island of Tresco, as well as some of Cornwall's most superlative beaches, aquamarine waters, and of-the-moment restaurants. These include the Crab Shack - the latest addition to the Hell Bay Hotel, where I stay on Bryher, one of the archipelago's five inhabited islands. At this celebrated, no-frills restaurant, servers bring crustaceans to communal tables by the potful, just hours after fishermen bring them up from the sea, and diners wear tailored cloth aprons rather than the plastic bibs of merry old New England.

If Cornwall is Cape Cod, then St. Mawes is its Nantucket: a quietly wealthy, exclusive enclave, situated at a geographic remove about 13 miles from the main highway and known more for posh holiday homes than hotels. I end my trip here, on the tip of the south coast's pastoral Roseland Peninsula. But I haven't just stopped here to bask in the pleasures of a whitewashed seaside fishing village so petite and picturesque it seems the stuff of set decorators' fantasies. I'm in St. Mawes because the village now harbors the county's most alluring hospitality development. Thanks to recent redos by former Aston Martin chair David Richards and his designer-wife, Karen, two historic but down-on-their-ear properties - the Idle Rocks and St. Mawes hotels - have become the places to stay in Cornwall. Combining chic maritime-tinged decor with top-quality food and drink and sophisticated service, the inns make guests feel like they're part of the local scene and the Richardses' social circle.

I also have come for the gardens, another Cornish delight. Rather than visiting the more obvious ornamental landscapes of the county's historic homes (Glendurgan, Trebah, and Trelissick, to name just three), I choose two less-typical locations. A once all-but-forgotten estate, the sprawling Lost Gardens of Heligan now use Victorian techniques to cultivate some 300 varieties of heritage fruit and vegetables, provisioning a gourmet farm-shop café whose field-to-fork distance is measured in yards, not miles. Even more unusual, the massive, thoroughly modern geodesic domes of the Eden Project - a renowned and ever-expanding botanical garden and plant-study center - shelter miniature versions of the world's tropical rain forests and Mediterranean climates, creating a horticultural theme park of sorts, one complete with a recently opened rainforest canopy walk high above the biosphere floor. Expect an on-site hotel to debut next spring.

On my fifth and final day in Cornwall, I force myself out of my plush digs at the St. Mawes Hotel before dawn and walk to the local castle. The 16th-century stone structure feels worlds removed from the futuristic Eden Project, though it's just a few miles away - and the last thing one would ever expect to see on Cape Cod. As the sun languidly rises, I think back on something Hockey said to me as we surveyed the region's history a few days earlier: "It's a slower pace here," she noted. "You can't do it justice in a day or two. You can't expect to rush around and tick boxes. You have to take time for Cornwall."

I'm glad I did.

ESSENTIALS

GETTING THERE
Trains from London Paddington station arrive in the Cornish town of St. Austell in about 4-1/2 hours, with the 275-mile drive taking just more than five hours. Hourlong flights connect London's Stansted and Gatwick airports to Newquay in Cornwall and Exeter in the heart of nearby Devon. 

SLEEP
Isles of Scilly
Hell Bay Hotel:
Set among curves of pristine beach protected by windswept headlands on the island of Bryher, the 25 pastel-hued, beach-chic suites of this farm-turned-resort afford stellar sea and sunset views. Several rooms have newly added balconies, and the recently opened Crab Shack restaurant has won national raves. From $177. 011-44-1720-422947; hellbay.co.uk

North Coast
Headland Hotel: With its 96 rooms (several renovated last year), 39 cottages, pools, tennis courts, new spa, and adjacency to Fistral Beach - one of the country's top surfing sites - this century-old Edwardian resort in Newquay caters equally well to families, honeymooners, retirees, and the sports-minded. From $143. 011-44-1637-872211; headlandhotel.co.uk

South Coast
Godolphin Arms: In Marazion, this classic seaside inn - a restaurant with 10 rooms above - offers tasty Cornish food as well as excellent views and access to the castle atop St. Michael's Mount, whose aristocratic proprietors also own the hotel and recently invested mightily in its renovation. From $115. 011-44-1736-888510; godolphinarms.co.uk

Idle Rocks and St. Mawes: Bookending the harbor in picture-perfect St. Mawes, these new boutique hotels are impeccably designed in sophisticated, residential-feeling, maritime-chic style. Each blends past and present, with the Idle Rocks, newly part of Relais & Châteaux, more formal and full-service than St. Mawes, which debuted a new event space and a cinema last year. Idle Rocks from $280. 011-44-1326-270270; idlerocks.com. St. Mawes from $218. 011-44-1326-270170; stmaweshotel.com.

EAT
Isles of Scilly

Ruin Beach Café:
Opened in 2012 in an inlet of turquoise water on Tresco Island, this casual indoor-outdoor restaurant does sandwiches, salads, and wood-fired pizzas by day, with heartier meat and seafood plates at dinner. Its part of a consortium of venues (an inn, pub, café, and rental cottages) all managed by the fancy family that leases the island from the Duchy of Cornwall, part of Prince Charles' estate. 011-44-1720-424849; tresco.co.uk

North Coast
The Fish House: Just above Newquay's Fistral Beach, with primo surfer vistas, this 3-year-old spot from a 14-year veteran of star-chef Rick Stein's kitchens celebrates all things fresh, local, and from the sea; the casual atmosphere belies top-shelf cooking and fine plating. 011-44-1637-872085; thefishhousefistral.com

Paul Ainsworth at No. 6: Ainsworth has run the contemporary, ingredient-focused kitchen and relaxed dining room in an 18th-century Padstow row house for the past several years, retaining a Michelin star since 2012. In December 2015, he added a six-suite townhouse hotel nearby. 011-44-1841-532093; paul-ainsworth.co.uk

Restaurant Nathan Outlaw: This self-titled high-end spot from one of Cornwall's top chefs is the county's only restaurant to earn two Michelin stars. In 2015, it brought its local, sustainable seafood tasting menus to new digs in the town of Port Isaac. 011-44-1208-880896; nathan-outlaw.com

The Seafood Restaurant: Stein's flagship is the poshest of his gourmet venues in Padstow, which also include a fish and chips eatery, patisserie, and cooking school, plus 40 guest rooms. 011-44-1841-532700; rickstein.com

South Coast
St. Ives Bakery: The perfect place for a grab-and-go meat- or veg-stuffed Cornish pasty and something sweet on your way between the Tate museum, the waterfront, and the Barbara Hepworth sculpture gallery and garden. 011-44-1736-798888

Watch House: Don't let the fish and chips takeout window fool you; this St. Mawes restaurant serves more formal, but never fussy, fresh-from-the-sea-and-farm Cornish fare from two floors of dining space inside, the upper story of which looks out over the harbor. 011-44-1326-270038; watchhousestmawes.co.uk

HOW TO BOOK
These three high-end travel specialists have the access and knowledge to ensure custom-crafted Cornwall holidays: 

Black Tomato, a hip, younger-skewing London- and New York-based outfit, has particular interests in adventure and luxury. 646-558-3644; blacktomato.com

LeCompte Travel, based in Virginia, focuses on the U.K. and has great access to the folks who run many of Cornwall's historic and cultural sites. 804-510-0604; lecomptetravel.com

NoteWorthy, based in London, boasts 30 years of eminently elevated experience, impeccable connections, and a founder, Susie Worthy, who keeps a house near Cornwall. 011-44-203-0515165; noteworthy.co.uk

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