Cornwall’s three most-visited destinations are on the north coast – Newquay, St Ives and Padstow – and the next most-popular places are Falmouth and Penzance, in the south. Jutting down between these last two towns is the Lizard peninsula, the southernmost part of mainland Britain, where far fewer tourists venture.
My partner and I were prompted to make the journey by the reopening of a coastal hotel, the Polurrian on the Lizard (formerly the Polurrian Bay), just outside the village of Mullion. It has been revamped in a modern, relaxed style, but its USP is unchanged: the fabulous clifftop setting. Our room has spectacular sea views, especially at sunset, as do the terrace, bar, dining room and gardens, and it is a short walk to the nearest beach, Polurrian Cove. We arrived in time for a rich afternoon tea on the terrace – four desserts as well as sandwiches and scones – then set off on a much-needed walk.
The South West Coast Path, a 630-mile trail from Minehead in Somerset to Poole harbour in Dorset, runs right past the hotel. We turned right, heading north for a two-hour stroll along the cliffs. We passed a monument to Marconi, who sent the first transatlantic wireless signal from here in 1901 (he stayed at the Polurrian), then headed to uncrowded Poldhu Cove, a sandy beach with a surf school and cafe. Further on, at Church Cove, another quiet sandy beach, we called in at medieval St Winwaloe’s – the “church of the storms” – tucked behind the dunes. From here, the path climbs again towards Gunwalloe village and our walk’s end, the 15th-century Halzephron Inn. This well-known pub was packed with tourists and locals, so we headed back to sleepier Mullion for dinner (by taxi as it had started to pour with rain). We ate homemade steak and ale pie at the thatched Old Inn; the best table is in the huge inglenook fireplace.
The next day, we set off on a driving tour of the Lizard’s highlights (many of them can also be reached on the L1 and L2 bus routes). The roads are narrow and winding, but we were untroubled by traffic jams – the only holdups were caused by the odd tractor. Our first port of call was the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek, which rescues, rehabilitates and releases about 70 seal pups a year. It also has some permanent residents, including grey and common seals, sea lions, otters and penguins, and a daily programme of talks and feeding times.
Tearing ourselves away from Squidge, the baby penguin, we took in Helford, a picturesque riverside village with a ferry carrying passengers between pubs on either riverbank; St Keverne, with its pretty village square; and Coverack, a fishing village with a lovely little harbour and a rocky beach. Our final stop was Cadgwith, a picture-postcard fishing hamlet with a shingle beach, brightly painted boats and thatched cottages. We sampled the Curio gin – distilled in Mullion and flavoured with foraged rock samphire – at the Cadgwith Cove Inn, an old smugglers’ haunt where the Cadgwith Singers still perform sea shanties every Friday night.
Dinner was at the hotel, in a glorious sunset. “Cornish tapas” starters (three for £15) included potted crab, and while the fish stew (£14) was underwhelming, the shellfish platter (£26) more than made up for it: a pile of crab claws, scallops, prawns and mussels, all caramelised in the wood-fired oven.
The hotel has indoor and outdoor pools, gym, treatment rooms (I had a deep-tissue massage, £35 for 30 minutes) and weekly yoga classes. It can also organise wild swimming sessions and surf lessons, or sea kayaking, paddleboarding and coasteering with Lizard Adventure. We stayed on dry land and ventured out on our second coastal walk. A left turn out of the hotel took us down to Mullion Cove and its tiny harbour. After a steepish climb up the other side, the path mainly hugs the clifftops, with a few dips down to beaches and inlets. The cliffs were carpeted in Cornish heath (pale purple heather), campion, hairy greenweed and wild orchids, and buzzing with bees and comma butterflies. We kept a keen eye out for the red-billed, red-legged Cornish chough, which were spotted in Cornwall in 2001 for the first time since the 1970s, but weren’t lucky enough to spot one. We did, however, stop to watch two young peregrines practise their flying skills, play-fighting and dive-bombing unimpressed gulls.
One of the main draws on this stretch of coastline is Kynance Cove. Our first glimpse of it from the cliffs was breathtaking: white sand, turquoise sea and serpentine rock stacks. But closer up, we had a taste of the overcrowding that plagues other parts of the county – the beach was packed. Still, we found a patch of sand and swam in the deliciously cool, clear water. It would be far better visited out of season and at low tide, though, when the caves and islands can be explored. September is perfect, as it is still warm enough to swim.
Lizard Point, as far south as you can go in mainland Britain, is two miles further on. With less than a mile to go, we noticed something in the sea: a seal! We watched as six heads appeared, and the occasional lazily rolling body. The sanctuary was great, but nothing compares to seeing animals in the wild.
On reaching Lizard Point, we couldn’t resist a Cornish pasty in Polpeor Cafe, “Britain’s most southerly cafe” – even if it was twice the price of one in nearby Lizard village. Visitors can climb Lizard Lighthouse, built in 1751, though not, strangely, on Fridays or Saturdays (adult £8.50, child £5.50, trinityhouse.co.uk). We were tired after our four-hour walk, but thankfully there is a bus back to Mullion from Lizard village.
Next we headed up the coast to Porthleven, a delightful fishing port near Helston, the only town on the Lizard. (Helston has seen better days, but is well worth stopping for a Spingo ale at the Blue Anchor Inn, where it has been brewed for 600 years.) Porthleven is a lively little place, but with a fraction of the crowds that flock to St Ives or Padstow. Like Padstow, it is a foodie destination, with several good places to eat, such as the Mussel Shoal, a laid-back new spot on the harbour head serving moules-frites, squid and chowder. There’s also a handful of pubs, including the 17th-century Ship Inn; and a food festival each April. A controversial Rick Stein restaurant opened in late 2014 – apparently residents boycott it because he doesn’t buy the local fishermen’s catch. Porthleven is good for shopping, too: there is a craft market on the harbour (Tuesdays, Thursday and Sundays from Easter to October) and a great little gallery, the Customs House, showcasing Cornish artists such as Ben Taffinder.
Our accommodation here was at Kota, a Michelin-listed restaurant with rooms. The 300-year-old harbourfront granary building has two bedrooms upstairs and a new one next door. We were in the bright new room, which has a mezzanine level for kids and a bathroom with a blissfully powerful shower. Dinner was the best meal of the trip: a seven-course tasting menu (£60pp) of Cornish produce with a subtle Asian twist – Kota’s chef, Jude Kereama, is half Maori, half Chinese (Kota means shellfish in Maori). One oyster was served with a zingy cucumber rice wine granita; another came tempura-style with a wasabi tartare sauce. Scallops were paired with ginger and slivers of pork belly; an oxtail raviolo was flavoured with star anise and fried shallots. The next morning, we breakfasted on home-smoked salmon at Kota Kai, Kota’s informal sister restaurant.
Penrose, a 1,500-acre National Trust estate, is about a mile from Porthleven. We walked through woodland along the Loe, Cornwall’s biggest freshwater lake, to Loe Bar, a stretch of shingle and sand separating lake and sea. It is too dangerous to swim here – which perhaps explains why we had such a huge expanse of beach to ourselves. Who says Cornwall is crowded?
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