Whenever I pull out my maps to plan a new trip to England, I find myself wanting to return to Cornwall. This most southern and western of English counties isn't always easy to fit into an itinerary. Separated by the river Tamar from the rest of England, it is surprisingly remote. Many first-time visitors make a mad dash into Cornwall's long, narrow, jagged peninsula for a mere day or two, crowd into the determinedly picturesque ports of Polperro and Mevagissey, buy postcards at Land's End, and hurry back north, probably to Bath, Oxford, or the Cotswolds.
What they miss is an ancient, often mysterious, and always intriguing area that reveals itself best to those who linger for a week or more. Only then can a traveler penetrate some of the villages tucked between cliffs and sea, walk a few stretches of the Cornish Coast Path, and wander in some of Cornwall's magnificent gardens.
I sometimes think that my husband, James, and I return so often to Cornwall because we are under a kind of spell. If so, I know exactly when and where it was cast: 12 years ago, on a sunny June day, when I first caught a glimpse of St. Michael's Mount. A towering, turreted structure whose stone ramparts rise abruptly from a rocky island opposite Marazion, St. Michael's Mount looks like a child's dream of a romantic castle. It reigns in spirit over a very special patch of Cornwall: not only the wide curve of Mount's Bay, with its coastal villages and secluded beaches, but also the granite peninsula of Penwith, from Land's End to St. Ives.
On that long-ago afternoon, James and I parked near the wide, sandy beach at Marazion. Because the tide was high and the causeway was flooded, we hopped aboard one of the small motorboats that ferry passengers across the bay in minutes. (Now we try to wait and catch the turning of the tide. I like to pick my way across the wet, uneven cobbles, watching the ocean reluctantly slip away on either side.)
As befits a stronghold where, according to Cornish folklore, Jack the Giant Killer once tricked and slew the marauding owner, St. Michael's Mount makes everyone pass a test of endurance— slogging up the hill to its entrance on a long flight of uneven, giant-size stone steps. Inside the forbidding Tudor doorway, I was surprised that the stern granite castle had an inviting, even cozy interior. I paused in Sir John's Room, a small parlor with pink-washed walls, and wished I could sit beside one of its small-paned leaded windows and look out over the tossing sea for hours. I also loved the library, snugly outfitted with fireplace and window seats, and the magisterial dining room, enlivened by a 17th-century plaster frieze of hunting scenes.
The history of the Mount is long and complex. The St. Aubyn family, whose head carries the title of Lord St. Levan, has lived at the Mount since 1659, but even before that it was home to a Benedictine priory founded in 1135 by the abbot of Mont-St.-Michel in France. Destroyed once by an earthquake and rebuilt, then almost wiped out by the Black Death, the priory survived until Henry VIII dissolved England's monasteries. A natural citadel, the Mount has been armed, defended, captured, and recaptured over the centuries.
Despite its sometimes violent history, the stately castle now floats peacefully in Mount's Bay. When I emerged onto the sky-swept terrace that day, it seemed as if I were on the prow of a ship heading out to sea. I peered dizzily down over the wall into lush gardens, which fell in a series of narrow ledges to sloping shelves of rock that disappeared into the surf.
On the landward side of the Mount, I found myself standing above seemingly all of Cornwall. The view unfolded beyond Mount's Bay and Marazion, past hundreds of small, hedged fields and pastures to hills on a hazy horizon. I felt as if I were surveying an enchanted kingdom ruled from these high ramparts.
Over the years I have returned many times to that kingdom, not only to visit the Mount but to explore the nearby countryside. During each week we spend around the Mount, we face difficult decisions. Should we hike the cliffs near Lamorna Cove?Search out Godolphin House, deep in the woods near Helston, to admire its carved Tudor fireplaces and linenfold paneling?Dig our toes into the beach at Praa Sands?Meet the new patients at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek?And how much time should we splurge on St. Ives?
St. Ives is a small, sparkling gem— sometimes with a rhinestone gaudiness— in this kingdom's crown. Just a half-hour drive from the Mount, its steep-roofed cottages cluster along a small bay. Art galleries, ice cream shops, and souvenir stores elbow one another companionably on twisting cobbled streets. Fishing boats moor in the small harbor while windsurfers hoist colorful sails offshore and families pitch row after row of sun shelters on Porthmeor Beach.
Known for the almost Mediterranean quality of its light, St. Ives has long attracted artists. In 1993, its artistic tradition found a spectacular home in a new branch of London's Tate Gallery, a curving, crenellated, modern white building that somehow manages to fit into its surroundings. The paintings inside are not as dazzling as the architecture, but the framed view from the top-floor tearoom alone is worth the price of admission.
A short walk away, the Barbara Hepworth Museum& Sculpture Garden is my favorite small museum in all of Britain. In two cluttered sheds, Hepworth's stained work jackets still hang on a wall; an unfinished block of stone sits on a bench, tools to one side. A small garden serves as a showcase for her polished, elegant sculpture. Abstract metal and granite shapes hover around a lily pond and among lavish clumps of daisies, palms, and ferns. Walking under a green canopy of trees, I catch glimpses of St. Ives Bay. This is the only art gallery I never want to leave.
But we do eventually move on, for James and I intend to ramble once more in the brooding, desolate countryside that lies west of St. Ives, a land of heather and bracken, stone circles, and abandoned mines.
If we haven't yet been to Porthleven, 18 miles southwest of St. Ives, I make sure we arrive on our last afternoon. A busy fishing port with a long pier and a boatbuilding yard, it is the gateway to Loe Pool, Cornwall's largest natural lake. The easy half-mile walk to the Loe gives us a continuous and mesmerizing view of sea and sky. Returning to Porthleven, we sometimes stop for supper at the portside Crab Pot, an unpretentious café that serves the freshest of plaice, skate, and lemon sole from the fish market across the harbor. Although I cannot see the towers of St. Michael's Mount from our outdoor table, I know it isn't far. Just around the next curve of the coast, or the next, it is sailing serenely into the night, bewitching a traveler into returning.
Susan Allen Toth is the author of England As You Like It and England for All Seasons (Ballantine).