Secret Hotels of Cornwall
Springtime on England's Cornish coast means walking along windswept beaches, touring gardens that are just beginning to bloom, and lingering over meals made by some of the country's most popular chefs. Best of all, there are no summer crowds or high-season prices.
British celebrity chef Rick Stein has created a dining empire in Padstow over the last 30 years, turning a once-sleepy fishing village into a destination for foodies. "I've lived here since the '70s and love its sense of timelessness--a little peace and tranquillity in a madly rushing world," says Stein. The narrow, winding streets of the town radiate out from the harbor, and visitors who wander amid the shops and restaurants will inevitably find themselves outside one of Stein's many establishments: The Seafood Restaurant, St. Petroc's Bistro, Padstow Seafood School, Stein's Deli, Stein's Patisserie, Stein's Fish & Chips, and Rick Stein's Café. Dinner at the Café is the most affordable way to experience Stein's way with seafood. The menu changes seasonally but may include entrées like whole deviled mackerel with a tomato and onion salad or deep-fried plaice with tartar sauce. Like any good host, Stein, having fed his guests, puts them up for the night, in four locations around town (The Seafood Restaurant, St. Petroc's Hotel, St. Edmund's House, and Rick Stein's Café). The three rooms above the Café are snug but comfortable. Stein's wife and business partner, Jill, designed the French-accented interiors: wrought-iron beds blanketed in white matelassé; toile and gingham fabrics on the windows and pillows; and ornamental fireplaces. Breakfast is served in the Café and features hearty fare such as bacon sandwiches on homemade bread and parmesan-and-smoked-haddock omelettes. Avoid visiting Padstow in high season (June, July, and August) and during school holidays, when the village turns into a giant tourist scrum. And no matter what time of year you go, be sure to make dinner reservations well in advance to avoid disappointment. 011-44/184-153-2700, rickstein.com, doubles from $149, includes breakfast.
Watergate Bay Hotel, Watergate Bay
The 70-room Watergate Bay Hotel is in a prime location on the cliffs above a wide, sandy beach. Over the years--and after many renovations, including a recent revamp of the guest rooms--the Victorian hotel has morphed into a full-service resort, popular with young surfers who come year-round from all over England. The main building houses a contemporary glass-fronted restaurant and bar, an indoor pool, an outdoor pool, a small spa, a billiards room, and a playroom. A short, sloping driveway just beyond the parking lot leads to the water's edge and to the second part of the complex, which includes a funky beach bar where reggae is almost always playing. It's the perfect spot for a casual lunch--salads, sandwiches, ice-cold beer--especially if you can snag one of the window tables with views of bobbing surfers. In summer, a grill is rolled out to the walkway next to the beach so folks can order burgers without washing the sand from their feet. Naked Chef Jamie Oliver's newest restaurant, Fifteen Cornwall, is slated to open next month above the beach bar. Also in the same building is the Extreme Academy, which offers rentals and lessons for surfing and a bunch of sports most people have never heard of (waveskiing, kite-landboarding, traction kiting). The city of Newquay--a popular spot for destination bachelor and bachelorette parties--is a few minutes down the coast. Skip it and have a sunset drink on the terrace at Watergate Bay, or head 20 minutes north to Padstow. 011-44/163-786-0543, watergatebayhotel.co.uk, doubles from $158, includes breakfast.
Cornwall: When to go and how to get there
A four- or five-hour drive from London, Cornwall gets very crowded and very expensive in high season, generally from June through August. We've listed prices for mid-season (April-May, September-October), which is quieter and therefore much more pleasant.
You'll need a car to get around. Rent a small one, because once you leave the motorways, Cornish roads are extremely narrow. They're often lined with high hedgerows and have no shoulders.
You can also make the trip by train or plane. Low-cost carrier Ryanair flies daily from London Stansted to Newquay (011-353/1-249-7791, ryanair.com, from $28 each way). Air Southwest has four flights a day from London Gatwick to both Newquay and Plymouth, in Devon (011-44/870-241-8202, airsouthwest.com, from $51 each way). Express trains run from London's Paddington Station to Plymouth and take about four hours (no phone, thetrainline.com, from $54 each way).