On the Cornish Riviera
Andrew Powell discovers Cornwall's brand-new seaside chic.
That jagged little peninsula at the southwestern tip of England known as Cornwall is suddenly cool. And not because of a change in the Gulf Stream or the notorious unreliability of the climate. I mean "cool" as in trendy, hip, and probably no one has been more taken aback by this rapid transformation than the local inhabitants. Even now there's a lingering sense of collective incredulity.
"The Cornish themselves would all like to leave," jokes Gill Charlton, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph. "People are astonished to see fashionable London arriving en masse." But then Charlton herself four years ago traded her London apartment for Ennys, an exquisite 18th-century stone farmhouse. Having converted the stables and furnished them in a "country house" style, she now provides chic bed-and-breakfast accommodation, while continuing to write a weekly column.
Of course, people still come to Cornwall for the reasons they always came—the golden beaches on the north coast and near Land's End; the world-class subtropical gardens of Glendurgan, Trewithen, and Trelissick, alive with rhododendrons, azaleas, and hydrangeas; and to sail the idyllic Carrick Roads, the vast expanse of calm water at the mouth of the Fal River. But these days they come with greater expectations.
Perhaps the most telling change of climate has been the tale of the fabled Hotel Tresanton. In the decade after World War II, the Tresanton, in St. Mawes on the Cornish south coast, was one of England's most fashionable seaside hotels. The Queen Mother came often with her daughter Margaret. The guest list included actors, writers, the usual. But the good times didn't last. By the eighties the place was almost beyond hope.
"Hardly anyone came to stay back then," says Olga Polizzi, the current owner of the Tresanton, which is now quite possibly the toughest-to-book hotel in England. "If you opened a window it was likely to fall off in your hand. And there was water pouring in everywhere. I looked at the property for about two years before I finally bought it." A slim, slight woman with a bob of brown hair, Polizzi has spent the past 16 years working as an interior designer, supervising projects like the refurbishments of the Savoy in Florence and the Astoria in St. Petersburg, which are owned by her brother, Rocco Forte, and his rapidly expanding company, RF Hotels.
"I first came down to St. Mawes about seventeen or eighteen years ago. The place itself was a revelation—it's so incredibly pretty." I suggest to Polizzi that Cornwall has changed dramatically in recent years and that she herself has played a leading role in that transformation. "Well, I suppose we've been part of it, because we brought down lots of people who would not have thought of coming if the Tresanton hadn't existed. But it was probably the opening of the Tate Gallery in St. Ives that started things off. Now there's the Eden Project in St. Austell and the new National Maritime Museum in Falmouth. Things are happening, and to be honest I wouldn't mind living in Cornwall full-time. Sir Edward George, the Governor of the Bank of England, has just bought a house down here. And of course John le Carré lives in Cornwall."
The new improved Polizzi version of the Hotel Tresanton, which opened in 1998, has been created out of a number of separate buildings, stacked up a steep hillside and linked by a series of narrow passageways and flights of steps. The architecture is unassuming, in keeping with the huddle of neat whitewashed cottages that make up the town. Indeed, strolling along the quiet road that follows the twists and turns of the harbor, it's perfectly possible to pass it by. Once inside, however, you're astonished to find an unbelievably stylish world where contemporary textiles and modern paintings coexist with antiques, prehistoric ammonite fossils, and intricate mosaic floors.
The focal point of the hotel, its all-purpose outdoor salon, is a glorious split-level terrace blessed with a mesmerizing view across the bay to a sculpted headland, a tiny lighthouse, and a shimmering expanse of ocean beyond. Overseeing the dining room is chef Paul Wadham, whose menu is extraordinary: grilled tiger prawns with steamed shellfish and saffron risotto, for example, or roast hake with polenta chips, tomato compote, and leek purée. In between sips of Chablis, one hears the interplay of American, French, Swedish, and Italian accents. Prince Charles, my waiter tells me, had only just left the hotel after a brief vacation. After an interval of 30 or 40 years, it seems that royalty has finally returned to Tresanton.
The following morning I wander down to the quayside to meet up with Richard Williams and Robert Geddes-Brown, the captain and crew, respectively, of Pinuccia, the Tresanton's classic 1930s eight-meter racing yacht." 'Pinuccia' means 'little pine cone,' " Robert explains as he steers a skiff across the crowded harbor to the yacht. "It's a pet name, a term of endearment." Forty-eight feet long and just eight feet wide, Pinuccia was built originally for an Italian team to race in the World Cup of 1938. Sleek and elegant, with a towering wooden mast, she is as beautiful a boat as it is possible to imagine: a kind of marine Ferrari. "After the war she got lost," Richard says, "and when Olga and her husband found her, she was in a yard on the border between Belgium and Holland, in a fairly poor state of repair."
Having hoisted the jib and the mainsail, Robert casts off the mooring buoy and Pinuccia accelerates smoothly, heeling over immediately as she comes out from the shelter of the headland. "She's in the water from April to October," Richard says. "The Carrick Roads are some of the best sailing grounds in the country and perfect for Pinuccia. She's a coastal racing yacht, really. We can't take her very far out to sea as she's hopelessly overpowered. Look at the height of that mast. In her day, when she was fully crewed, she'd probably do fifteen knots. Even today, with just two of us, we can often give the St. Mawes-to-Falmouth ferry a run for its money."
Beyond the urbane comforts of the Tresanton, the Roseland Peninsula is a miniature lost world, crisscrossed by country lanes scarcely wide enough for a single car, over which tower hedgerows 15 feet high. Roseland is one of those places, only too rare in contemporary England, where time seems to lose its sense of strict chronology and you find yourself pitched headlong into the atmosphere and landscape of another era.
In the tiny village of St. Just-in-Roseland, for example, at the bottom of a steep footpath beside a tranquil pool off the Carrick Roads, stands one of the most exquisite religious buildings in the world. A tiny church, founded in a.d. 550 and named in honor of a local Celtic saint, is surrounded by ancient gravestones and half hidden by rampant vegetation. Exactly why St. Just-in-Roseland should possess such an overpowering atmosphere of preternatural calm is hard to say, but even those of a firmly secular cast find themselves moved nearly to tears.
Another place in Roseland that seems to have escaped the clutches of time is the fishing village of Portloe, squeezed into a tiny fissure in the southern cliffs. Cornwall has many such hamlets, once hotbeds of smuggling: places like Polperro, Mevagissey, Mousehole, and Cadgwith. Portloe, however, is the defining example of the genre, with its impossibly narrow outlet to the sea, through which the tide surges up onto the sand-and-shingle beach, where half a dozen brightly painted fishing boats unload their daily catch of lobster and incomparably delicious local crab.
"I just loved this particular place. We looked at a lot of hotels, but I always wanted to be in Portloe." I am sitting in the bright, remarkably elegant restaurant of The Lugger Hotel, watching the fishermen at work out of the corner of my eye, and listening to Sheryl Young, originally from Oklahoma, explain how she left a successful career on Wall Street, moved to London, and wound up as a Cornish hotelier, in partnership with her English husband, Richard. "So when this place came on the market, we just had to have it," she continues. "The building itself has been a hotel for a long time, but we were determined to bring it up to a contemporary international standard." Despite Sheryl's confidence, I'm still amazed to find guestrooms stylish enough to grace any major European capital and bathrooms superior to those in many top hotels in Manhattan.
"I hope that you enjoyed your lunch," Sheryl says. "We are quite proud of our chef. He trained at Mosimann's for a while." Mosimann's is London's most exclusive private dining club, the personal fiefdom of Anton Mosimann, who established his reputation back in the 1980s as the head chef of The Dorchester hotel, where he was awarded two Michelin stars. Cornwall has indeed changed.
Little more than 15 miles from the Arcadian serenity of Roseland, the landscape of central Cornwall changes abruptly. Here it is austere, treeless, and dominated by strange white conical hills, which are actually spoil heaps from the many china-clay quarries in the area. Just outside the town of St. Austell, in the vast crater of an abandoned mine, lies Cornwall's most ambitious redevelopment program. The brainchild of the indefatigable Tim Smit, the Eden Project opened in March 2001. Smit first came to public attention when he restored a Victorian estate in Cornwall known as "The Lost Gardens of Heligan," a task documented in a popular British TV series. The central idea of the Eden Project was to create the world's largest and most technologically advanced greenhouse, as both a refuge for endangered botanical species and a showcase for biological diversity. Today the project's series of immense transparent biomes (designed by leading British architect Nicholas Grimshaw) bring an animated and otherworldly atmosphere to what was once a grim scene of industrial desolation.
Of course, the English have always seen their whole country as a kind of vast garden, but nowhere is the metaphor more apt than in Cornwall. Were it not for the warm Gulf Stream, the landscape of Britain (and northern France) would more closely resemble that of Scandinavia or the eastern seaboard of Canada. The weather in Cornwall is noticeably milder and sunnier than in the rest of England, and in sheltered valleys it's possible to grow an extraordinary range of subtropical flowers and shrubs.
Thanks to 19th-century British plant hunters, who traveled the world in search of exotic new species for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, the gardens of Cornwall now contain the greatest variety of Himalayan rhododendrons outside their countries of origin. Perhaps the most spectacular displays are those at Trewithen, an estate halfway between St. Austell and the town of Truro. In March and April these gardens are a firestorm of color. The almost unbelievable profusion of blooms here forms one of the botanical wonders of the world.
Inconveniently, Cornwall's gardens are at their best in early spring, with camellias and magnolias flowering in February, followed by azaleas and rhododendrons in March and April. By mid-May the glory is mostly past, and not until the arrival of the hydrangeas at the beginning of July do Trewithen and nearby Trelissick recover something of their splendor.
Fortunately, some Cornish gardens are so intrinsically romantic that the season is unimportant. The gardens of Glendurgan and Trebah are situated next to each other in dramatic, thickly wooded ravines that run down to the tidal estuary of the Helford River, southwest of Falmouth. Having seen Glendurgan on a previous occasion, I push on to Trebah and find myself standing on the sunny front lawn of the house, gazing over the treetops down to the black water of the Helford. Once I enter the ravine, however, the mood changes quickly. Everything becomes still, and only the faint trickle of a stream disturbs the eerie calm. Although Trebah is a Victorian garden, it can feel at times strangely prehistoric, and after a few minutes immersed in its silence I find myself thinking that I wouldn't be surprised to stumble upon some Jurassic herbivore quietly munching the rampant palm trees, bamboos, and century-old tree ferns.
Farther down the ravine, beneath canopies of ancient oaks and beeches, a stunning two-acre carpet of blue-and-white hydrangeas is just coming into bloom. After about 15 minutes I arrive at the Helford, which laps against a pebble beach and a small slipway covered with seaweed. I rest there for a while, gazing at the anchored sailing boats, lulled by a feeling of profound tranquillity. It strikes me as a place that has been at peace for thousands of years. It's only when I begin to make my way back up the path that I notice an engraved stone plaque that reads: "In memory of the officers and men of 29 U.S. Infantry Division who embarked from Trebah in June 1944, for the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach, Normandy."
Cornwall's northern coast, which takes the full brunt of the Atlantic swells, is another world entirely, where windswept cliffs are interspersed with majestic surfing beaches of golden sand. Unfortunately, long stretches have been spoiled by tourist development; such places as Tintagel and Newquay are best avoided. Padstow, however, is a charming old town on the estuary of the Camel River, and home to Rick Stein's celebrated Seafood Restaurant. This is an establishment with such a legendary reputation that it might easily have become complacent, but happily it still serves superb fish and shellfish, from which the salt tang of the sea has not been obliterated by rich sauces or overly elaborate preparation.
Ten minutes away by passenger ferry, on the northern bank of the Camel, is the sleepy and unassuming village of Rock. Sleepy that is, until the summer weather hits and young people from England's affluent southeast arrive in droves to sail, or to surf at nearby Polzeath. Nowadays the editors of Tatler (Britain's leading glossy society magazine) stage their photo shoots on the beach at Rock, against the backdrop of the shimmering sea and the gilded youth that annually assembles here.
"It really is Chelsea-sur-mer in July and August," says fashion journalist and girl-about-town Kinvara Balfour, the granddaughter of the Duke of Norfolk. "I have been going to Rock since I was five years old, but lately it has been getting posher and posher—especially since Prince William and Prince Harry went there. Mostly it's young kids who go water-skiing and then hang around The Mariners Bar. But it's terribly innocent, and parents like their kids going to Rock because they know that it's safe." In fact, Rock even caters to the parents themselves these days, in the form of the hilltop St. Enodoc Hotel, recently refurbished by leading London interior designer Emily Todhunter.
Perhaps the most magical stretch of the Cornish coastline lies between the town of St. Ives and Land's End, a region known as Penwith, where ancient stone-walled fields, dotted with enigmatic rock cairns and peopled by the ghosts of a vanished pre-Celtic civilization, drop off precipitously 200 or 300 feet into the turquoise maelstrom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Penwith was a region much beloved by the eminent sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who first came to Cornwall at the outbreak of World War II, settling in St. Ives with her husband, the painter Ben Nicholson. They became central to the St. Ives School, which, though primarily a group of British abstract artists, could boast of a few Continental members, particularly after the war. Even Mondrian briefly passed through on his way to New York. Hepworth's fame also attracted a cast of international luminaries, including Dag Hammarskjöld, then U.N. Secretary General, who speculated about retiring in Cornwall before his untimely death in an air crash. (Hepworth's memorial to her friend still stands at the center of a reflecting pool outside of the U.N. Secretariat Building in Manhattan.)
Today St. Ives remains a strikingly picturesque town of tiny whitewashed fishermen's cottages grouped around two spectacular broad beaches. Although it's become a popular holiday resort (and should therefore, like Padstow and Rock, be avoided on weekends in summer and during the entire month of August), there is still an artistic community, and the narrow cobbled streets are dotted with diminutive galleries. After a delicious lunch of crab cakes at the chic new Porthminster Beach Café, I strolled over to Hepworth's Trewyn Studio, where she worked from 1949 until her death, in 1975. On display there in the ground-floor gallery are letters (including one from Mark Rothko), black-and-white photographs, and some unfinished wood carvings. Upstairs, the artist's studio is filled with polished stone sculptures, while outside, in the white-walled garden, 20 large abstract compositions are set amid small reflecting pools and elegant stands of bamboo. Somehow, despite all the visitors, Hepworth struck me as a strangely living presence. Perhaps it was her chisels, lying casually among rough blocks of marble in her workshop, creating the impression that she had just stepped out to go shopping.
It's a mere five minutes' walk from Trewyn Studio to the Tate Gallery St. Ives, the institution which, as Olga Polizzi told me, has been very much at the forefront of the Cornish renaissance. The whitewashed modern building is seen to best advantage from down below on Porthmeor Beach, over which its curved facade looms like the bridge of an ocean liner. Inside, asymmetrical galleries spiral gracefully upward, flooded with sea-reflected light. When it opened, in 1993, the intention was to showcase the work of the St. Ives School, much of whose output was then languishing in a basement at the Tate Gallery in London. But the museum quickly took on a much broader slate of temporary exhibitions, usually of British artists, such as Richard Long and Ian Hamilton Finlay. Real Life, opening at the end of October, will feature the video works of top art stars like Tracey Emin, Gilbert & George, and Sam Taylor-Wood. It appears that Cool Cornwall has definitely arrived.
Doing Cornwall in Style
British Airways has four flights daily from London Gatwick to Newquay (75 minutes). Trains leave London Paddington for the West country hourly (5-6 hours to Penzance).
When to Go
May-July and September-October are the best months to visit, to avoid the crowds of summer and the often wet weather of winter. All hotels and restaurants (except where noted) are open year-round.
Unquestionably the finest seaside hotel in England, the Tresanton, in St. Mawes, is an exceptional property, with elegantly furnished rooms (numbers 1, 5, and 6 all have private balconies), a restaurant deserving of a Michelin star, and a glorious setting overlooking the harbor and the sea. Rooms, $215-$365. St. Mawes; 132-627-0055; www.tresanton.com.
The Lugger Hotel, in Portloe, is the newest addition to Cornwall's hotel scene and already ranks as one of the finest in the county. The rooms have been furnished to contemporary international standards and would not be out of place in Portofino or Positano. A London-trained chef serves superb cuisine that makes imaginative use of delicious local seafood. Rooms, $370-$430. Portloe; 187-250-1322; www.luggerhotel.com.
Fowey Hall Hotel, a grand 19th-century mansion with a superb panoramic view, offers spacious and well-appointed rooms in the main building and in converted stables. The restaurant's food is good but not memorable, and service is charming but occasionally disorganized. Fowey Hall caters to children (extensive play area; separate dining room) and most of the guests arrive en famille. Rooms, $240-$460. Fowey; 172-683-3866; www.luxury-family-hotels.co.uk.
Above the village of Rock stands the St. Enodoc Hotel, a rather severe modern building with a bright, contemporary interior by Emily Todhunter. The 19 rooms are comfortable and well-appointed; the Porthilly Bar and Grill serves excellent international cuisine; and the hotel has a gym, sauna, and heated outdoor pool (May-September). Request a sea-view room. Rooms, $245-$340. Closed for four weeks in December/January. Rock; 120-886-3394; www.enodoc-hotel.co.uk.
St. Edmund's House, Rick Stein's latest venture in Padstow, comprises six extremely luxurious rooms, all designed and appointed with considerable flair. (Those on the ground floor are slightly smaller, but have the advantage of private terraces.) $ Rooms, $320. Padstow; 184-153-2700; www.rickstein.com.
Ennys, a delightful 18th-century stone farmhouse near the tiny village of St. Hilary, is a superior bed and breakfast. Owned by the engaging Gill Charlton, Ennys offers large, pleasantly furnished rooms with modern bathrooms, both in the main house and in a stylishly converted stable block. Charlton cooks hearty English breakfasts for her guests and dispenses endless wisdom about local restaurants, places of interest, and notable walks along the South West Coast Path. Extensive gardens contain both a heated swimming pool and a grass tennis court. $ Rooms, $90-$185. St. Hilary, Penzance; 173-674-0262; www.ennys.co.uk.
ISLES OF SCILLY
Twenty-eight miles southwest of Land's End lies the exquisite archipelago of the Isles of Scilly. It has the mildest climate in the British Isles, and on sunny days the white-sand beaches and turquoise water seem more reminiscent of Bermuda than England. A ferry runs from Penzance to the main island of St. Mary's, but the most convenient way to reach the islands is by helicopter, which takes 20 minutes from the Penzance Heliport (173-636-3871) to St. Mary's or the adjacent isle of Tresco. Here well-equipped houses and cottages are available for rent from the Tresco Estate (www.tresco.co.uk), and the extremely comfortable Island Hotel offers superior resort-style accommodations (king-size beds; modern bathrooms; private patios). The food is excellent and the service friendly and personal. $ Rooms, $390-$720. Closed November-February. Tresco; 172-042-2883; www.tresco.co.uk.
Cornwall may not be remotely like France and Italy, where virtually every village café can provide a memorable meal, but with careful planning it is possible to eat extremely well. The food at both the Tresanton and the Lugger bears comparison with that on the French side of the Channel, while Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant in Padstow makes a virtue of simplicity, relying not on culinary artifice but on the excellence of the local crab, lobster, mussels, oysters, turbot, sole, sea bass, etc. Advance reservations are vital, especially in summer. $ At Riverside, Padstow; 184-153-2700.
Porthminster Beach Café Another restaurant that does justice to Cornish seafood, the lively and informal Porthminster overlooks a stretch of golden sand in St. Ives. Closed late November through February. $ 173-679-5352.
Cornwall's gardens are truly magnificent. The only problem is that they tend to be at their best in March and April, when the weather is less than reliable. Pack a raincoat and prepare to be amazed. Trewithen (open March-September; Grampound Rd., near Truro; 172-688-3647) is peerless for its rhododendrons and azaleas. Nearby Trelissick (open February 16-November 3; Feock, near Truro; 187-286-2090) also has superb rhododendrons, as well as a wonderful position overlooking the waters of the Carrick Roads and Falmouth Harbor. Both Glendurgan (open February 16-November 2; Mawnan Smith, near Falmouth; 132-625-0906) and Trebah (open year-round; Mawnan Smith, near Falmouth; 132-625-0448) inhabit romantic ravines running down to the River Helford, the latter notable for its July hydrangeas. Out on Tresco, in the Isles of Scilly, The Abbey Garden (open year-round; Tresco Estate; 172-042-4105) contains 20,000 species from 80 countries, a horticultural world tour condensed into 17 acres of protected slopes and quiet gravel paths. The Eden Project, near St. Austell (open year-round; 172-681-1911), is worth a visit, particularly now that its immense biomes have begun to mature. However, be prepared for thousands of tourists.
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