Night comes softly to St. Mawes in late July, like an illustration out of a children’s book. The sky is a dark navy, pinpointed with stars, and the moon hangs comically low, casting St. Mawes Castle—built by Henry VIII in the 16th century as part of a defensive chain of fortresses—in a lunar glow. Falmouth Bay shines to our left just past a tiny curve of sand as my sister and I walk back to the Hotel Tresanton along Lower Castle Road after dinner in the village. During the day the cerulean sky is marked with big puffy clouds; the water is a blue-green with patches of turquoise, filled with bobbing sailboats and their colorful sails; and the scrawny beach is host to energetic families outfitted with towels, pails and shovels, and sun lotion. Now all is quiet except for the sound of clinking halyards and an occasional dog barking. Along the way we pass palm trees, originally imported from China, and a row of attached cottages painted in pastel shades that front the water and have winsomely nautical names such as Seaward, Bay Cottage, and Tavern Rocks. My favorite one, after much study, is Seacliffe Warren: it is covered with vines, like the house in Madeline, and has two thatched-roof bay windows paned with bottle glass. Finally we come upon the sign deliveries to the kitchen of hotel tresanton, which signals we have arrived at the cluster of higgledy-piggledy whitewashed old buildings that make up our destination.
There are places that speak to you unexpectedly, exerting a lure beyond the geographical, calling up a vision of who you might be in a different setting than you’ve known, living an alternate life to the one you lead. One such place for me, ever since I first laid eyes upon it eight years ago, is the southwestern tip of England: Cornwall, where the country narrows into a shape approximating the human foot, the air smells briny, and the climate is uncharacteristically warm. I had come here to search out the lighthouse that played such a key role in To the Lighthouse, my favorite of Virginia Woolf’s novels. Although that novel is set in the Hebrides, it is based on Woolf’s memories of blissful childhood summers spent at St. Ives, on the Cornish coast, and the lighthouse she writes of is the Godrevy, situated on an island of its own at the head of St. Ives Bay. It was on that trip that I became enamored of the narrow, winding (and mostly two-way!) roads overhung with foliage and the bursts of wildflowers that mark the landscape, as well as the shimmery quality of light the area is known for. I loved stopping in the cozy pubs that dot this part of England, even in a slip of a village like Portloe; looking at the art galleries in St. Ives and Newlyn; and watching the ornery seagulls as they flapped around the beaches, letting out their indignant cries. It was also on that trip that I discovered the timeless allure of St. Mawes, a gentrified fishing village about 1 1/2 hours east of St. Ives in the lush section of Cornwall known as the Roseland Peninsula, and the casual glamour of the Tresanton, a 30-room hotel owned by Olga Polizzi.
Polizzi, the daughter of hotelier Lord Charles Forte, is director of design for the Rocco Forte chain of international hotels run by her brother; the Tresanton is one of two hotels (the other is the Endsleigh, in Devon) that she owns. She was introduced to St. Mawes by her husband, the writer William Shawcross, who vacationed here from boyhood on, and in 1997 she began a two-year redesign and restoration of a former sailing club that would become the Tresanton. The memories of my stay here, in an airy room with a large terrace that seemed like it might have belonged in a particularly tasteful but not too “done” summer house, as well as a wish to see if St. Mawes still beckoned in the same way, had brought me back for a week’s stay at the hotel. Last time I was here I actually daydreamed about moving to the village, trading in the overstimulated atmosphere of Manhattan for something more spare and close to nature, a place less dependent on the hum of the present moment. It was the sort of town, as I was told repeatedly, where “everybody knows what everybody is doing,” which appealed to me after the steadfast anonymity of the city. I sensed that there might be an undertone of desolation to this removed part of the world, especially during the winter months, but even that seemed appealing to me. I saw myself writing for hours at a desk overlooking the water, then stopping to take a walk and perhaps get a cup of coffee at one of the sleekly designed food emporiums that had recently opened. I could envision myself making a few friendships among the locals, who managed to combine an air of affability with a kind of dignified reserve. I was curious to see if the relaxed charms of the area would hold up on a second visit—or if they had grown mythic once I was back on my familiar urban turf.
This visit I booked the Garden Room in Rock Cottage, a building slightly behind the main one that you get to by way of a short path that is illuminated with wall lights and lanterns at night. Done up in Polizzi’s trademark declarative style, it has exquisite black-and-white hand-printed wallpaper in a pattern of palm fronds and birds as well as touches of color via pillows, blankets, and a strategically placed Fontana Arte orange-framed mirror from the 1950’s. The room is smaller than the one I stayed in years earlier and lacks a view of the water, but more than makes up for it with the enchanting private garden it opens out on. It is possible to sit in this garden of a summer morning or late afternoon, as I did with my sister, who flew from Jerusalem to meet me, and feel like you have arrived at just the spot—one that radiates a spirit of “luxe, calme, et volupté”—that you have dreamed of being in. We have tea here once or twice, and one morning we take our breakfast here, although most days we choose to have our eggs, fresh-baked croissants, and coffee at the hotel’s sparkling white restaurant with an unobstructed view of the water.
On one of our first days my sister and I pass a little blond girl gardening in the front yard of a cottage on Lower Castle Road with a man who appears to be her grandfather—and I feel in an instant that this sort of poignant, small-town scene is precisely what I have been nostalgic for. We have come back from several hours of poking around the village, with its single pharmacy, post office, Barclays and Lloyds banks, and an old-fashioned-looking “Fashion Centre” with a sign in the window declaring all swimwear now 5 pounds. We also stopped in to check out the tiny St. Mawes Butcher, which closes at 2 p.m. on Sunday and carries haslet (pork meat loaf) as well as ox tongue, black pudding, and an array of local cheeses with names like Cornish Crumbly, Miss Muffet, and Smuggler (a mature cheddar). Farther along, there are various stands selling fish-and-chips and the ubiquitous “cream tea.” Down at the bottom, there is a kind of mini-mall, where we stop in at the Square Gallery, which carries locally made art and handcrafted objets and is run by a lovely woman named Cathy Talbot. I get into a discussion of the charms of St. Mawes with Cathy, who has lived in nearby Falmouth with her husband and four children since 1997. “It’s a leveling place,” she points out, “because everyone wears flip-flops and the seasons have stretched out. People seem to leave whatever’s happening elsewhere behind when they come here. And the generations visit together, providing a sense of continuity.”
The reality behind the picturesque image is, of course, less idyllic and more complicated, as is always true. Cornwall, once a robust fishing and mining area, no longer has much industry other than tourism since its stock of pilchards (a variety of sardines) dried up and the tin and copper mines shut down. There are still jobs to be had in the china clay industry (although a lot of the work is now done in Malaysia) and there is talk of reopening the tin mines. Meanwhile, St. Mawes, with its natural beauty and pacific spirit, has become a second-home haven for wealthy Londoners and other Europeans, which contributes to the ever-rising cost of living. One grumpy longtime resident complained to me about how the rich and famous visitors to the area had pushed the price of dinner in town “up to 50 quid.”
Upon the recommendation of Olga Polizzi, I engage Charles Fox to be my driver and guide for two days. Fox is a garden designer and artist whose family has lived in the area since the early 17th century and whose great-great grandfather created Glendurgan, one of Cornwall’s finest gardens, which was given to the National Trust in 1962 (and about which Fox has written an excellent memoir). He takes me hither and yon, pointing out the sights as well as all manner of flowers—from bluebells and primroses to campion, honeysuckle, and valerian (the late poet laureate John Betjeman’s favorite), some of which I recognize and more that I don’t. After visiting the St. Just in Roseland Church, which harks back to the 13th century and is still in use, with beautifully maintained gardens and a cemetery, we drive all the way to Mousehole, in far southwestern Cornwall, where we pull up at a small hotel called the Old Coastguard that overlooks the English Channel. Outside on the terrace, while we wait for our drinks under a sun that is blessedly temperate, I notice three generations at the next table—a father with two children and their grandfather—playing board games. To my eye, it looks impossibly harmonious and old-world, as if the Internet had never been invented and the extended family hadn’t yet yielded to the isolated nuclear version.
There is more to see: Penzance, where we check out Penlee House Gallery & Museum, built in a converted Victorian house that features work by artists from the area, including Walter Langley, Lamorna Birch, and others of the Newlyn School, as well as an exhibit of the plein-air paintings of Dame Laura Knight. We also make a quick stop at the Abbey, a blue 17th-century town house converted into a hotel and owned by the former model Jean Shrimpton that feels like a step back into the world of Brideshead Revisited. Then we’re off to the quaintest little stretch of beach hidden away in Polkerris, a blink of a village on the harbor; just above the beach is the Gribbin Gallery, which carries, among other local art, some striking wooden carvings by David Moore. At my request, Fox makes a detour to Mevagissey, a little town that I remember fondly from my prior visit, where we pause for refreshments at a beachside hotel, Trevalsa Court. At his insistence, just when I feel I’ve exhausted my sightseeing capacities, we make a last-minute dash for the nearby Lost Gardens of Heligan. Fox gives me a hurried but expert tour of the restored working gardens of this centuries-old estate, where more than 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables are grown and which also includes a subtropical garden filled with exotic plantings from around the world.
And then, inevitably, although time here does indeed seem to stretch out and pass more slowly, the week is up. After a last drink at the Tresanton bar, my sister and I reluctantly pack for our return trips home. I find myself once again deeply, almost magnetically attached to this place and am not surprised to read, midway through our stay, that Cornwall is officially rated as “one of the best places to live in the country,” coming in second from the top according to Prime Minister David Cameron’s first annual “happiness index.” I wonder whether I would be happier here as well, or whether my vision of St. Mawes is simply a sustained daydream, abetted by props courtesy of the Tresanton. What I know for sure is that one of these days I’ll be lured back, for another glimpse of the water and sky and the sound of seagulls cawing.