Old Cornwall sports an upscale look and atmosphere
NEWQUAY, CORNWALL, England -- Off the crisply serrated Cornish coast, today a hazy blue, the surf arched big, rough crescents along the headlands, and a few seals bobbed in the waves. Bright sun glittered briefly on the waves, and as a wave curled, one of the seals suddenly clambered upright on top of a surfboard and headed for shore.
My mistake. A wet suit can make a human look as sleek as a seal, and the surfer striding onto Fistral Beach was perfectly attired for the frigid north Atlantic temperatures.
In fact, wet suits have made this West Country resort one of the few holiday spots where vacationing Brits actually enter the water, and therein lies the town's transformation. Here in Newquay, now a center for water sports, second homes and chic cuisine, surf's up. As in upscale.
When I was young, Cornwall was old. On my last visit here in 1972, its distance from London, a mere 225 miles, seemed vast; the train ride took five hours. (It still does.) Without a single major highway, Cornwall slumbered, its gray stone villages and dying clay and tin mines surrounded by an unspoiled, gorgeous coastline. I never forgot those windswept views, or the villages' reticent charms.
In September, after nearly four decades, I was traveling its narrow, hilly roads once again, finding a landscape unchanged but a culture that's getting younger.
Tintagel, the mythical birthplace of King Arthur 20 miles south of Newquay, seemed a good spot to take the long view. A sixth-century chieftain claimed this island, a few yards from the mainland, as a perfect fortress, a few centuries after the Romans departed. But was that chieftain Arthur Pendragon?
"It's a bit of a clutter and a jumble, unfortunately," my guide Keri Dean explained cheerfully. No matter. Victorian visitors flocked to the site, hailing its intensely romantic landscape. As I faced into the gale, the roar of the wind and the waves sounded like the inside of a magical shell. But after reaching the shore, I time-traveled. I hopped a ride up the cliffside with B.J. Williams, who runs a Land Rover service back in town.
The next day, the gale-force winds canceled my guided exploration of the coast's rocks and caves. Instead I struck out along the South West Coast Path, a 640-mile route that hugs the Devon and Cornish coasts. Fond of country walks, the British have kept the headlands path all-natural. Sheep graze in pastures, farms roll down to water level, and the white-sand coves expand as tides pull the north Atlantic a half-mile or more from shore.
Marking the way past shrub roses and waving sea grass was a white stone shelter known locally as the Huer's Hut. A keen-eyed lookout here would watch the coast for shoals of pilchards. Before these fat Cornish sardines were fished to extinction in the late 1800s, the huer's cry (today's "hue and cry") alerted local fishermen to man their nets. Today's version of the manly huers is probably the surf instructors, who keep watch on the breakers as their classes bob offshore.
The Headland Hotel in Newquay, an ornate Victorian pile with a majestic view, enjoyed a century of dominance as the area's most genteel waterfront hotel. But in the past few years, it's reinvented itself with extreme sports, a surf school called Surfing Is Therapy, and spa treatments. Below the hotel, Fistral Beach cultivates a California-in-Cornwall vibe, with a car park full of old Volkswagen vans, a tiny boardwalk, and a cluster of surf outfitters. Taking advantage of strong breezes, kiteboarders fly across the bay under neon-colored canopies.
The recession has halted local construction cranes, which dangle over unfinished vacation condos, but a few new ventures have flourished. The Scarlet, billing itself as a luxury eco-hotel, offers an infinity pool, an ambitious locavore restaurant, wood-fired hot tubs and absolutely no children.
The biggest culinary splash to hit the coast was the 2006 opening of Fifteen Cornwall, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's latest venture, in Watergate Bay. At dinner overlooking the sea, my companions and I dined in a hot-pink and white pod on fresh lobster ravioli and other five-star local treats.
Cornish gardens like Heligan, where palm trees and other exotic species thrive, have always attracted tourists, and the area boasts nearly two dozen outstanding public attractions. These days the most popular destination is the most unlikely: a brownfield converted into a New Age garden.
As I entered the Eden Project, I was impressed at its 10-year transformation. The former clay-mining site is now lush valley. Its famous biodomes, giant geodesic greenhouses, support a rainforest and a Mediterranean world. But as its fame grows, the Project has thrown hulking sculptures, world music festivals, educational displays and thrill rides into the garden. "Eden is more than a green theme park," proclaim its welcome signs. Well, maybe. The crowds wandering through on a Saturday afternoon, taking in Maasai warrior dances and cream teas, seemed content with just a gloss of P.C. environmental style.
It was a final afternoon in Fowey, the steep fishing village that hosted me years ago, that recalled Cornwall's enduring lure. A tiny ferry still crosses its estuary, and sailboats still crowd its harbor.
These days, it looks like Fowey's tide has come in. Its formerly boarded-up storefronts have been repainted and revived as chic shops and cafes, and the 19th-century Fowey Hall has been restored as a boutique hotel, with the requisite spa. It wasn't the place I remembered, but it wears its makeover with grace.
And that wild Cornish shoreline? No makeover required. That's still, quite naturally, upscale.
First Published October 11, 2009 12:00 am