Dramatic coastal scenery, hedge-lined country roads and plenty of diverting pitstops make southwest England a dream to drive around, especially when seen from behind the wheel of a classic convertible sports car, as Jill Starley-Grainger discovers
When planning a holiday, I like to co-ordinate every last detail – shoes, handbags, automobiles. After all, what’s the point in looking fabulous if you’re seen stumbling out of an ungainly 4X4?
For my trip to southwest England, I’d found the ideal set of wheels: a two-toned 1965 Austin Healey 3000. With its aqua and cream colouring, it would be the perfect complement to the region’s crystal clear waters and sandy beaches – and my holiday wardrobe. One of the Sixties swishiest cars, it was designed by Donald Healey, a famous rally driver and auto engineer from Cornwall. Made in strictly limited numbers, the Healey was the car of choice for some of the era’s glitziest playboys and girls.
On my flight into Newquay, I could picture the drive from the airport to the swanky yachting town of St Mawes -¬ top down, wind in my hair, sun on my face. Shortly after landing, I was introduced to my gorgeous mode of transport for the week. Unfortunately, my glamorous image soon turned to a comical reality as I sank into the seat. Sports car manufacturers of the 1960s weren’t too fussed with catering for the fairer sex. No matter how much I stretched my five-foot frame, I couldn’t reach the pedals, and the top of the steering wheel was obscuring my view of the road. I was feeling more like Miss Marple than Marilyn Monroe.
A small pillow procured from my luggage soon resolved the pedal problem, and Rob from Cornwall Classic Car Hire made a hasty adjustment to the steering wheel. Before long, I was on the road, zipping down country lanes at a handsome pace. Or so I thought. When I looked at the speedometer, it said 20mph.
As squirrels scampered past and blackbirds flitted across the bonnet, I thought it was time to kick it up a gear, and soon I was doing a breathtaking 40mph. The roar of the engine and the wind in my hair made the car feel fast and dangerous even at this speed. By the time I arrived at tres chic Hotel Tresanton (doubles from £175;, www.tresanton.com) in St Mawes, I was in need of a G&T to steady my nerves.
Hotel Tresanton spills down a hillside on a tiny peninsula on Cornwall’s south eastern coast. From almost every vantage point – its elegant bedrooms, lush gardens, sunny terrace and cosy bar – guests have majestic views of the sea and a distant lighthouse. Each bedroom in the hotel is individually designed with beautiful furniture and unique works of art. A subtle seaside theme runs throughout, hinting at Tresanton’s past as a yacht club. Dinner is served in the light and airy restaurant halfway up the hill, where diners can keep an eye on their boats in the harbour below.
Garden of England
I woke up the next morning expecting to see the sun streaming through the windows, but a peek through the curtains revealed grey clouds all around. Ah, England. As I zoomed off in the Healey, I started getting to grips with its quirks, and soon I was having great fun whizzing up the A390. The car’s gears seemed less sticky today and driving on straighter roads meant the lack of power steering wasn’t a problem.
Before long, I arrived at the Eden Project, www.edenproject.com) taking refuge inside its glass domes just as the rain started pelting down. Stepping into the sultry paradise of the humid tropics biome, I was transported to a magical rainforest where British robins hopped between towering travellers’ palms, vibrant blooms of torch ginger and gushing waterfalls. An afternoon in the nearby Lost Gardens of Heligan, www.heligan.com) provided a different view of nature, with bobbing bluebells and showy rhododendrons sharing space with kitchen gardens and nesting owls.
Off to see the Lizard
The following day, the sky held more promise, so I followed Cornwall Classic Car’s suggested route from Falmouth to Lizard Point. I met my first classic car buff on the short ferry ride across the Helford River. As he admired the 3000’s slinky lines and sophisticated detailing, he told me how he’d once owned the car’s ‘little brother’, the Austin Healey Sprite.
After driving the car off the ferry, I was soon whizzing along the coast towards Lizard, Britain’s most southerly point. This part of the Cornwall is much wilder than the rest of the county. It’s also home to Cornwall’s most famous ice cream maker, Roskilly, www.roskillys.co.uk). A visit to the company’s farm near St Keverne is well worth a detour for its excellent lunches, cream teas and organic ice creams as well as nature walks and farmyard visits.
Soon the shorelines became more dramatic, with rocky cliffs alternating with hidden, sandy coves. Quaint seaside villages, such as Cadgwith and Coverack, popped up occasionally, with adorable thatched-roof cottages lining the streets and sailboats bobbing in their harbours. After the short walk to the spectacular Lizard Point to gawp at its imposing moss-covered cliffs and crashing waves, I returned to the car park to find a guy snapping dozens of pictures of the Healey, clearly unimpressed by the natural beauty nearby.
For a more cultured outing, I popped over to the western coast the following day to the Tate St Ives, www.tate.org.uk/stives) and Barbara Hepworth, www.tate.org.uk/stives/hepworth) museums. St Ives has a reputation as an artist’s colony, and the back streets are full of shops selling quality artworks made by local residents. After all that culture, I deserved a treat, so I hopped in the Healey for the short 15-minute drive to Penzance. I’d heard of a hidden gastronomic gem here, and The Abbey, www.theabbeyonline.com) didn’t disappoint.
Diners at The Abbey can start their meal with an aperitif in the sexy red bar before climbing curvaceous stairs to the relaxed dining room, where chef Ben Tunnicliffe serves some of the region’s finest cuisine. A starter of cream of asparagus soup was rich and flavourful, with fresh asparagus tips hiding in the bottom, and a main course of oven roasted tomato tart with braised fennel and roasted pepper compote was utterly delectable. Dessert included an orange flower mousse so evocative it was like walking past a mimosa in full bloom, rounding off a truly extraordinary meal. With his simple but expert use of local, seasonal food, Tunnicliffe has made The Abbey a restaurant worth going out of your way to find.
To check out The Abbey’s competition, I headed to northwest Cornwall, where Rick Stein has created an epicurean epicentre in Padstow, with top chefs such as Jamie Oliver opening restaurants in and near the town. Young chef Paul Ainsworth has thrown his hat into the fray at No. 6 Padstow, www.number6inpadstow.co.uk). The tables are situated in separate rooms throughout an old Georgian house, giving an intimate, refined atmosphere. The cuisine is equally upmarket, with every plate as carefully crafted as a work of art. The Jerusalem artichoke risotto with parmesan, thyme and Welsh rarebit was particularly tasty, while a refreshing pink grapefruit sorbet held a surprise ¬in the sprinkles on top – cracking candy that popped in your mouth.
Sniffing out the scenery
My final scenic tour took me over the border into Devon, where an all-encompassing fog on Dartmoor made it nearly impossible to drive. Creeping through at a snail’s pace, it was easy to imagine Sherlock Holmes’ Hound of the Baskervilles bounding along the moor, and a walker with a loud dog nearly made me jump out of my skin. As quickly as the fog descended, it dissipated, allowing me to pass through to the gorgeous sunny, sandy beaches of the South Devon Heritage Coast, including tranquil Torcross and glorious Blackpool Beach. As I pulled over to admire the views, a man ambled over to take a closer look at the Healey, telling me about his own classic car, a Morris Minor.
I stopped off for the night at Kitley House (doubles from £109;, www.kitleyhousehotel.com), a stately home between Dartmoor and the beaches that offers reasonably priced accommodation on a 300-acre private estate. Guests can wander around the hotel’s grounds or lakes, but beware the stalking pheasant, who nearly caught up with the Healey as it chased it up the drive.
As I handed over the keys at Newquay Airport the next day, I reluctantly said goodbye to England’s gorgeous southwest coast and the stunning Austin Healey 3000. It might not be the easiest car to get to grips with, but thanks to its head-turning good looks and amazing powers of magnetism, it made me more popular than a blonde bombshell. To my mind, that’s worth a little extra effort.
Cornwall Classic Car Hire:, www.cornwallclassiccarhire.co.uk Cars from £169 per day, £676 per week; Austin Healey 3000 from £239 per day, £798 per week
Just a few minutes from Newquay Airport is one of Cornwall’s most venerable institutions, at least among the surfing set – The Extreme Academy. Whatever wacky seaside sport you’d like to try, chances are it’s on offer here.
I signed up for a morning Waveski session since I was assured it’s easy enough for even an unfit journalist to grasp. Five of us were on the course, and before we entered the water, our excellent instructor Dave briefly explained the basics. A waveski is a cross between a surfboard and a kayak, with a small indented area for you to sit on. A paddle helps propel and steer the craft, with the waves doing the majority of the work for you.
I gamely lugged my cumbersome waveski into the shallows and hopped on, only to be tossed upside down by the teeniest of swells. After gulping a refreshing pint of seawater, I hopped back up and managed to propel the beast a bit further out, turning it around just in time for a gentle wave to roll me back into shore. Out and in I went until exhaustion set in and I made for the academy’s Beach Hut restaurant, where the Extreme Hot Chocolate gave me enough energy (read: calories) to hop back in the car for the rest of the day’s adventures.
Extreme Academy, Watergate Bay, Cornwall.
Half-day introduction to waveski £25
PERFECT PIT STOPS
Tearoom at Carnewas & Bedruthan Steps, St Eval: The fresh, fluffy scones are good enough to tear your attention away from the fabulous clifftop scenery
King of Prussia, Fowey: have a drink overlooking the town’s picturesque harbour
Falcon Inn, St Mawgan: relax in the garden of this quaint pub near Newquay Airport
Earl of St Vincent, Egloshayle: if you’re short of time, stop here for a quick drink amidst more than 200 ticking clocks
Rose & Crown, Yealmpton: The Good Pub Guide’s Devon Dining Pub of the Year is also a fine choice for a pint