Cream teas, whitewashed fishing villages, surfboards, sandcastles, a generous slice of Celtic culture… You’d be churlish to deny Cornwall’s unique appeal. After all, our southwestern-most county has a special place in many people’s hearts, its awe-inspiring landscapes forever entwined with memories of summer escapes. It’s a long drive for most visitors who flock here in the summer, but the rewards are famously great: that dazzling, turquoise coast; hikes in the grassy, village-dotted interior and some of the finest seafood the country has to offer.
Cornwall is all this and more, and its place as a magnet for British visitors has never been more apparent than over the past 18 months: the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has forecast that tourist expenditure in the second half of this year will reach as high as 83% of pre-pandemic levels in the South West.
With this in mind, those after a bracing dose of the British coast might want to try somewhere different this year. This is a nation shaped by the sea, after all, and there’s no shortage of windswept, culture-soaked coastlines to enjoy. Stray from the South West, and you’ll discover picture-perfect villages, blissful beaches, historic sites and brooding landscapes across the country that give Cornwall a run for its money. As for the weather — well, that might be a little more unpredictable.
1. Northumberland Coast
As anyone who’s taken the train north of Newcastle will attest, this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in the country. But England’s northernmost county has more in common with Cornwall than good looks: this is a landscape similarly rich in history and legend. It was here that sixth-century Celtic saints converted the Anglo-Saxons to a nascent Christianity, and for those intrigued by the area’s religious past, a visit to Holy Island (also known as Lindisfarne) is a must — the tidal isle and wetland is dominated by its dramatic, ruined priory. The whole coastline is dotted with similarly historic sites, with Bamburgh Castle perhaps the most spectacular of them all. Head further north — right up to the Scottish border, in fact — and you’ll find Berwick-upon-Tweed, a town that, given its location, has seen its fair share of conflicts and conquests, and whose streets were immortalised by the works of artist L S Lowry. Pretty Alnwick, meanwhile, makes an excellent base for exploring the region, and has its own titan of a castle, which doubled as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films.
Where to stay: Luxury meets cosiness at The Cookie Jar, in Alwnick. Housed in a former convent, the 11-room hotel is full of plush furnishings and original features, and there’s a simple, well-executed bistro, too. For an especially heavenly place to bed down, splurge on The Chapel suite, where rooms come complete with an oversized bath and stained-glass windows. From £175, B&B.
Given its proximity to France, the second-largest of the Channel Islands has always had a French accent. In fact, novelist Victor Hugo felt so at home on Guernsey that he settled here after his exile from France in 1856; his former home, Hauteville House, can be visited in the lively capital of Saint Peter Port. Yet at the same time, Guernsey will feel wholly familiar to British travellers, and its beaches, seaside towns and rolling green countryside are the rival of Cornwall’s. Historically, it’s equally as fascinating, and the island is strewn with Neolithic ruins, including the Déhus dolmen, a burial chamber that dates to at least 3500 BC. Nazi-built fortifications still stand on the island, too, a reminder of Guernsey’s occupation during the Second World War. The beaches, meanwhile, are spectacular; head to the vast sandy crescent of Port Soif Bay or the secluded Petit Bot Bay, nestled in a wooded valley. You can even go island-hopping; it’s just a short flight (or seasonal boat ride) north east to Alderney, a quiet, wildlife-rich island dotted with beachside forts. Alternatively, catch the boat to Sark, the world’s first Dark Sky Island, or tiny Herm — both are free of cars and offer some of the most lush, unspoilt island escapes in the British Isles.
Where to stay: Stacked above Saint Peter Port on a (very steep) side street is Ziggurat, a boutique hotel with beautiful views of the town and the Channel. Bold rugs, soft furnishings and artwork give a subtle North African vibe — a theme that’s continued in the restaurant, which goes big on mezze-style plates. From £70, B&B.
3. Llŷn Peninsula
The drama of Pembrokeshire’s rugged shoreline is well-known, but head up the Welsh coast and you’ll find the less-explored Llŷn Peninsula, clawing into the Irish Sea from the shadows of Snowdonia. This is deepest, most unspoilt Wales, much of it part of an AONB, and with natural treasures aplenty. Any trip should call at Braich-y-Pwll, at the very end of the peninsula, where the land meets the sea with dramatic, heather-swept beauty. It’s where medieval pilgrims once set off to holy Bardsey Island, and you can still enjoy the isle’s peace and rich fauna today (ferries operate between March and October). Similarly soul-stirring is the modest, 12th-century St Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron, which overlooks a glorious, golden beach. Hikers can head east from there along the Wales Coast Path, which runs for the whole 180 miles of the country’s coast. A highlight on any ramble is the resort of Portmeirion, a colourful, scaled-down imagining of the Italian Riviera that sits incongruously in the wildest of Welsh landscapes.
Where to stay: Lord it up at Castell Duedraeth, part of Portmeirion. Built in the style of a gothic castle, the hotel has a relaxed brasserie alongside 11 rooms and a dozen self-catering cottages. Better still, guests can enjoy out-of-hours access of Portmeirion village itself. From £135, B&B.
4. County Antrim
Local tourism may still peddle the Game of Thrones links, but even without the blockbuster connections, the Northern Irish county has plenty to tempt travellers looking for an epic coastal getaway. It’s almost become a byword for the raw, windswept drama of Northern Ireland — this is, after all, home to two of its most well-known attractions, the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Thrill-seekers can also head to The Gobbins, an exhilarating cliff path that snakes through tunnels and over bridges. Built into the basalt cliffs over a century ago, its setting is just as impressive as its engineering. It’s not all adrenaline, though: sleepy Ballintoy Harbour is a must, the picturesque walled fishing port backed by sea stacks and pocked with caves and rockpools, and the nearby Bushmills Distillery offers tours and tastings of its world-famous whiskey. If you’ve indulged in the local tipple a little too much, blow away the cobwebs with a walk along White Park Bay, a spectacular, boulder-strewn beach whose yellow sands curve around a wild, surf-slicked sea. Elsewhere, Cushendun is worth a couple of hours’ exploration; the pretty village sits in the Glens of Antrim and is maintained by the National Trust. The surrounding area is threaded with walking trails, and many of its picturesque, whitewashed buildings were built, rather coincidentally, in the Cornish architectural style.
Where to stay: Galgorm, outside Ballymena, is a plum spot for a relaxing break. The warm-hued, 125-room hotel is set on the banks of the River Maine just half an hour from Belfast, and its calling card is its award-winning, luxurious spa — perfect for unwinding after a day spent in the great outdoors. From £255, B&B.
5. Isle of Bute
Lying off Scotland’s southwest coast in the Firth of Clyde, Bute is geographically far-removed from Cornwall, but there’s a similarly relaxed charm to this little isle, with quiet beaches and seafront houses lined up like the colours of a painter’s palette. Start off in Rothesay, the island’s main town, for a coffee at guitar shop-cum-cafe Musicker before admiring the ramparts of 13th-century Rothesay Castle. There’s more stately history at Mount Stuart House, a red-bricked riot of towers and chimneys that forms the opulent family seat of the Earls of Bute. But no visit to the island, which is just a 35-minute ferry ride from the mainland, is complete with some time exploring its lovely beaches, and pick of the bunch is Scalpsie Bay, with its terracotta sands. The tranquillity of this beach belies its place in turbulent history; the cottage here was used as a listening post for Cold War submarines lurking in the Firth of Clyde. These days, however, you’re more likely to spot seals drifting through the waters as the Isle of Arran looms in the distance. Alternatively, head to St Ninian’s Bay, a peaceful corner of the island overlooked by a chapel of the same name, its crumbling ruin dating to the 1100s.
Where to stay: Why not splurge on a stay in one Mount Stuart’s properties? Each of the estate’s outbuildings has been revamped to an immaculate standard, from the stylish stone cottage Kennels to the 12-bed Kean’s Cottage, set in flowery gardens beside Loch Fad.
6. East Devon
Devon’s northern coast might have the rolling surf to rival neighbouring Cornwall, but it’s the county’s eastern edge that offers some of its most bucolic appeal. This is where you’ll find the Blackdown Hills, an AONB of dense woodland, valleys, plateaus, stone villages and winding rivers that makes for some of the finest hikes in the region. Head west, however, and you’ll meet the yawning Exe Estuary, a vast, peaceful inlet whose tidal waters draw all kinds of wading birds. It’s not only the birds who flock to this beautiful corner of the county, either: recent years have seen the area become something of a magnet for gourmets. Lauded chef and Devonian Michael Caines has led the charge with his hotel, restaurant and vineyard at Lympstone Manor, and this spring launched his new, all-day venture Mickey’s Beach in the seaside town of Exmouth. It’s here you’ll also find the River Exe Cafe, its focus firmly on sourcing and showcasing the very best local produce. Dishes include moules marinière and Brixham crab. Budding palaeontologists will also be in their element here: Exmouth marks the beginning of the Jurassic Coast, its fossil-flecked cliffs running eastwards from here for over 90 breath-taking miles.
Where to stay: Michael Caines’ Lympstone Manor is the shining pearl of the Exe Estuary, its palatial figure presiding over the river on a vine-stitched hillside. Rooms are luxurious, all chocolate and champagne tones, while the Michelin-starred food, naturally, is first-rate. From £360, B&B.
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