England’s southwestern coast is in the midst of a quietly sophisticated transformation, with the opening of numerous new hotels, inns, and restaurants. The Cornwall, Devon, and Dorset countryside, wild as it is, has long been a magnet for artists—including the preeminent sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who lived in St. Ives starting in 1949—and more recently, restaurateurs like Mark Hix, who opened the Hix Oyster & Fish House in Dorset a few years ago. Accompanied by my boyfriend, Olly, I spent a week hotel-hopping, one tiny port town at a time.
London to St. Ives (300 miles)
We exit off the A30 at St. Ives, an idyllic seaside resort with winding narrow streets. It is something of an art mecca among the old tin mines of Cornwall. Pulling up to the Salt House, on a street lined with traditional rendered cottages, you might think you’d taken a turn for Palm Springs.
The inn is a contemporary cube constructed out of concrete, wood, and glass high above the Atlantic—the work of stylish London transplants Alan and Sharon Spencer. Our room (one of only two) is decorated with a pair of cherry Ligne Roset mini-Pop chairs and a red, hand-shaped bag hanger giving the A-OK, with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto St. Ives Bay. We spend the evening on the room’s private terrace, watching the sun disappear.
A coastal path leads from the B&B to town, full of art galleries. Compared with its London counterparts, the gleaming-white Tate St. Ives is small and easily navigable—and across the street from a pristine stretch of sand. Not far away, we stop to take in Barbara Hepworth’s namesake museum and garden, which is dotted with her abstract sculptures in bronze and stone.
St. Ives to Mousehole (15 miles)
“The remarkable pagan landscape” is how Hepworth once described the tip of Cornwall. Driving down Route B3306 toward Land’s End, England’s westernmost point, we can see why. The road is a swirl of black in an expanse of green as we cut through pastures of grazing cattle toward the Gurnard’s Head, a “dining pub with rooms” in Zennor. Over a plate of fresh fish and potatoes, the friendly barman tells us that the owners have just taken over the Old Coast Guard hotel in the fishing port of Mousehole, 10 miles away.
For a place the size of Mousehole—a speck of a village with a tiny walled harbor—the Old Coast Guard is huge. Still, it feels intimate. After dinner in a dining room with distressed oak and pine tables framed by a large stone fireplace, the general manager clears our plates; the housekeeper tells us about the local art that’s for sale at the hotel. As for the 14 rooms, they are cozy with warm yellow walls and thoughtful touches, such as old-school Roberts radios and Cornish tea.
Mousehole to Fowey (60 miles)
We swing by St. Michael’s Mount—an isle off the town of Marazion with a legendary medieval castle—then get back on the main roads through farmland toward the historic harbor town of Fowey.
There is an annual festival here celebrating Rebecca author and former resident Daphne du Maurier, and hotelier Angelique Thompson, who greets us wearing a silk frock and fishnets, seems to capture the Gothic mood. Thompson opened the quirky Upton House with her husband last spring. The Snow Bubble room, ours for the night, is a study in whites—a bejeweled cream leather headboard here, a sheepskin rug there—with a dose of kitsch. (There’s even a silver glitter ball suspended from the ceiling.) Olly settles into the bubble chair as I peek into the bathroom, with its egg-shaped tub and Bossini shower, which is illuminated from the inside and pours out beams of light with the water. Like everything else, it can be bought in the downstairs boutique.
Fowey to Salcombe (60 miles)
After crossing the river Tamar and into Devon, we reach Salcombe—a sailing resort in the South Hams.
The South Sands hotel sits on a golden beach and has 27 airy rooms and a nautical-chic blue-and-white décor that calls to mind the hotels of Nantucket. Waiters clad in checkered crew shirts and khakis serve us mussels from the river Exe before we take the property’s ferry over to Salcombe’s high street for some shopping. Inspired by the hotel’s preppy-chic style, I buy stripes at both Quba & Co. and Jack Wills, two U.K. clothing companies influenced by the South Hams’ sailing heritage.
Salcombe to Bridport (80 miles)
The scenic route on the A379 toward Dorset passes through Slapton Sands, an unusual stretch of beach (and road) that’s flanked by water on both sides. No major motorways run into the county, so it feels more remote than Devon and Cornwall.
But thanks to such restaurateurs as native son Mark Hix, there’s been a recent influx of foodies. At Hix Oyster & Fish House, a glass-walled restaurant overlooking Lyme Regis’s harbor where we stop for house smoked salmon, staffers forage for ingredients daily.
Along Dorset’s shoreline is the Jurassic Coast, England’s only natural Unesco World Heritage site. Another highlight in the area is Bridport, a tiny market town nicknamed Notting Hill on Sea for its thriving arts scene and abundant antiques shops. At the center of the action is the Bull Hotel, a 16th-century coaching inn; one-of-a-kind gems such as a restored Indian cane sofa and a stained-glass window fill the 19 rooms.
Before checkout, we walk along the edge of the nearby cliffs, passing a few cows and sheep and two white mansions. One belongs to the singer Billy Bragg; the other was recently bought by Mary-Lou Sturridge (of London’s exclusive Groucho Club), who plans to eventually turn it into a hotel. It’s yet more evidence that this coast is becoming one of Europe’s next great beach escapes.
Christine Ajudua is a London-based writer.
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