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.

By Jennifer Howze, Tuesday, Mar 21, 2006, 2:28 PM

The Watergate Bay Hotel overlooks one of the best surf breaks in Cornwall

(Sue Parkhill)

Primrose Valley Hotel, St. Ives

Outside the front door lies a jumble of buckets and spades, brightly colored wet suits, and children's neoprene swimming socks. Just inside, a window ledge is crowded with wedding portraits, baby pictures, and some shots of then-shaggy-haired owners Andrew and Sue Biss taken in the early '90s. "We're slightly embarrassed of those," Andrew says. He needn't be: Primrose Valley is the kind of family-friendly place that lets it all hang out--stylishly. Since buying the Edwardian villa in 2001, the Bisses have ripped up old carpet to reveal hardwood floors, and they've nixed heavy antiques in favor of contemporary oak tables and soft Italian leather chairs. There's a full-service bar and a kitchen where the Bisses and Sue's mother, Rose, whip up full English breakfasts and picnic lunches using local ingredients. The 10 bedrooms come with private baths and vary in size. Four have ocean views--two from covered balconies. Primrose Valley is in a residential cul-de-sac just across a set of raised railroad tracks from crescent-shaped Porthminster Beach. As the hotel's website advertises, it's "bed to beach in under a minute." The nearby town of St. Ives--a five-minute walk--has been an artists' enclave since the 19th century (J.M.W. Turner, James McNeill Whistler, and Barbara Hepworth all lived here at one time or another). Its narrow cobblestone streets are home to galleries, studios, and an outpost of London's Tate collections. 011-44/173-679-4939, primroseonline.co.uk, doubles from $140, includes breakfast.

Old Coastguard Hotel, Mousehole

As its name implies, the Old Coastguard Hotel is a former lookout for the Coast Guard, and as such, it has the best ocean views in the harbor town of Mousehole (pronounced mau-zel). Picture windows look out on the bay in many rooms, which are decorated simply in a contemporary style, with beech and pine furniture and beige and brown fabrics. Of the 23 rooms, eight are in the Lodge, a newer annex down the hill. At the hotel's award-winning restaurant, the catch of the day (brought straight to the kitchen from the fish market at nearby Newlyn Harbour) is jazzed up with Thai spices, tangy salsas, and saffron. Not far from Land's End, the westernmost point in mainland England, Mousehole is a wonderfully typical fishing village--and an old one: Part of its south quay dates from the 14th century. The little cove is surrounded by shops, pubs, and tearooms. A walkway traces the coastline from the harbor, and passes right by the stone steps leading to the Old Coastguard's back garden gate. When the tide is out, large boulders are revealed just below the path. Guests bask on the sunbaked rocks, while children check out the natural tide pools, their long-handled fishnets at the ready. 011-44/173-673-1222, oldcoastguardhotel.co.uk, doubles from $158, includes breakfast.

Trehellas House, Bodmin

Built in 1740, Trehellas House has served as an inn, farmhouse, private home, even a courthouse. Some of its history is evident in the courtroom suite, where there's a cut-glass chandelier, a wood-burning fireplace, and a large bed that rests on what was formerly the judge's dais. (Another remnant of the past is the friendly resident ghost, Mr. Lobb, a farmer who owned Trehellas House 200 years ago.) The 10 other rooms have a comfortable country feel, with patchwork quilts, floral curtains, and iron beds. They're scattered throughout the main building and in a coach house annex across the gravel driveway. The restaurant, in one of the oldest and most striking parts of the building, still has the original slate floor, low-beamed ceilings, and a fireplace that's lit on cold nights. Trehellas House is a good base for garden tours. The hotel grounds are planted with soft grasses, flowering shrubs, and heathers. A stone patio is dotted with deck chairs and potted plants, and there's a large swimming pool--an unusual feature for a historic inn. The property backs onto the Pencarrow estate, a Georgian home with 50 acres to explore. Also nearby is Lanhydrock House, with extensive gardens of its own and a kitchen that would make Martha Stewart swoon: There are separate larders for fish and meat and a marble-countered dairy to keep puddings cool. The hugely popular Eden Project--with two enormous biomes that contain plants from around the world--is a 15-minute drive away. 011-44/120-872-700, trehellashouse.co.uk, doubles from $136, includes breakfast.

Trevalsa Court Country House Hotel, Mevagissey

German expats Klaus Wagner and Matthias Mainka have spent the last seven years creating a sumptuous pre-WWII atmosphere at Trevalsa Court, formerly a family home that dates from 1937. They've obsessed over every detail, down to the door handles. The 13 rooms are furnished with Lloyd Loom woven chairs, and the moss-green walls are decorated with black-and-white art. In the main sitting room, light streams through mullioned windows, lemons are piled high in a silver bowl, roses float in a shallow vase, and glossy art books in English, German, and French are stacked on the coffee tables. Dinner is served in the oak-paneled dining room, where tables are set with candles and white tablecloths and windows frame the sea. The German chef, Achim Dreher, sneaks Swiss-German influences into his menus with favorites like apple strudel and potato dumplings filled with prunes. Wagner and Mainka planted the garden with spiky palms, camellias, and flowering bulbs that bloom at different times of the year. "It definitely looks like a Cornish seaside garden," Wagner says. "But you also see palm trees and things to remind you that you're on holiday." Several pairs of Adirondack chairs on the lawn face the sea, and a path at the end of the garden leads to secluded, and highly swimmable, Polstreath Beach. The Lost Gardens of Heligan, a massive garden restoration project, are two miles away. 011-44/172-684-2468, cornwall-hotel.net, doubles from $158, includes breakfast.

Mill House Inn, Trebarwith

In a small wooded valley at the bottom of a steep road, this 18th-century former corn mill looks higgledy-piggledy, with roofs and windows at all different levels. A young crowd whiles away time on slouchy sofas in the reception area, waitresses crack jokes in the dining room ("If you don't eat that garnish, we'll use it again for your main course"), and a few friendly dogs lie at their masters' feet on the bar's original flagstone floor. Visitors feel less like hotel guests than locals who've popped down to the pub for a pint. Make that gastropub: The restaurant attracts diners from around Cornwall with locally sourced seafood and meats. Weather permitting, weekly barbecues with live music are held on the terrace. Upstairs in the nine bedrooms, the thick, whitewashed stone walls are unadorned, setting off the dark wood of the headboards and desks. All rooms have pretty views of the gardens; on a clear day you can just spy the sea from No. 6 and No. 9. The village of Tintagel, three miles away, is home to the remains of a castle said to have been owned by King Arthur. And Trebarwith Strand Beach is a half a mile down the road. 011-44/184-077-0200, themillhouseinn.co.uk, doubles from $140, includes breakfast.

Mount Haven Hotel, Penzance

Orange Trevillion was drawn to Penzance, at the end of Cornwall, because of the town's proximity to St. Michael's Mount, an ancient craggy island that looks a lot like a lopsided volcano. "It's a sacred place," says Trevillion, an eccentric with carrot-colored hair (of course) who believes that four of the Earth's energy lines come together here. Formerly the site of a Benedictine priory and rumored to have once been home to a giant, the island got its name when a fisherman claimed to have seen the Archangel Michael there many years ago. Trevillion and her partners bought Mount Haven in 2001. They knocked down walls and reconfigured the old coach house to maximize views of St. Michael's Mount and the ocean. Most of the 18 rooms look out on the water. They have a distinctly Asian feel, with silk bedspreads and throw pillows covered in embroidered fabrics from Trevillion's frequent trips to India. (Room 6 is the quietest, away from both the front desk and the terrace.) Even the restaurant--where many dishes are flavored with curry and lemongrass--has views of the Mount from one end. But the best seats are on the terrace: You can see the island rising steeply out of the water, a medieval castle on its tippy-top. (Owned by the National Trust, the castle is open to the public.) At low tide, when people stroll across a granite causeway to visit, it appears as if they're walking on water. Beyond Mounts Bay and Penzance--the city made famous by Gilbert and Sullivan--is Land's End. 011-44/173-671-0249, mounthaven.co.uk, doubles from $147, includes breakfast.

Rick Stein's Café, Padstow

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).