Great Expectations — and Surprises — in Cornwall

September 28, 2009 at 11:23 am | Posted in Europe, value in travel | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

Part of the dramatic ruins of Tintagel Castle, over the craggy Cornish coast.

Part of the dramatic ruins of Tintagel Castle, on the craggy Cornish coast.

More than a few non-Brits have at least vaguely heard of a place called Cornwall — maybe even that its duke is Prince Charles and its duchess Camilla (née Parker-Bowles), and that it’s in the southwest of England. If they’re really up on this 1,376-square-mile region, they know it’s Celtic in heritage; boasts a dramatically craggy coast; has traditionally been big into fishing and mining (fading in favor of tourism); and is known in the U.K. for its pasties (turnovers filled with meat or other savory or sweet fillings). Oh, and let’s not forget The Pirates of Penzance, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and of course Cornish game hens and clotted cream.

With all that cluttering the back of my mind, I’ve always been curious to learn more about this fabled land. So on my last breeze through Britain, I took several days to satisfy my longstanding curiosity. Darned if it didn’t just about blow me away — and I found that Cornwall offers not just spectacular sight s but prices that often compare favorably to the rest of the country. A handful of highlights:

Fowey Pronounced “foy,” this little town at the mouth of the eponymous estuary has built a nice little tourist business on its charming little streets, churches and architecture dating back to the middle ages, and more recently Daphne du Maurier, whose son still lives in the big old house next to the ferry landing across from town. Stop at one of its little hostelries (or the grand Fowey Hall hotel uphill) for a spot of cream tea.

Tintagel If you’re into King Arthur, Lancelot, et al, you’ve surely heard of this town and more importantly this ruined medieval castle perched on a high, windswept Atlantic headland of Cornwall’s north coast. The town itself is cute if now a bit touristy, but you won’t want to miss the hike (or Range Rover shuttle) out to the coast, where you can walk amid jagged 13th-century ruins of the fortified base of the earls of Cornwall. Centuries of embellishment of Arthurian legend made this part of the saga, but in short, proof there’s simply not that this most congenial spot was host to Ca-me-lot.

Boscastle You’ll want to pair Tintagel with a few hours (or even an overnight) in this singular fishing village just down the coast built along a small, very steep valley leading out to a harbor and more headlands with smashing views. Most of the oldest part of town, all stone walls and slate roofs, is given over to shops (pottery’s big), eateries, and B&B’s; an extra pinch o’ magic, as it were, comes from the local Wiccans, who run a couple of shops and even a museum of witchcraft. On a grimmer note, the village had a heartstopping 15 of fame in August 2004, when a dramatic flash flood washed much of it out to sea; thankfully, all the residents were helicoptered to safety. What’s there now is largely rebuilt, though you’d never know the difference.

The Eden Project Looming like something out of a sci-fi movie, this massive, eight-year-old eco-education project carved out of an old china-clay pit mine includes two huge, bubble-shape biomes, one housing a Mediterranean semi-arid biosphere, the other a steamy tropical one. Pretty impressive.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan Also near St. Austell, in the 1990s, overgrown Victorian-era gardens were unearthed and restored, and today they’re more than 200 acres of living, breathing horticultural history, from the antique greenhouses and formal gardens to the Jurassic-looking “Jungle,” with its own microclimate. Nice cafeteria and shop, too.

Newquay Who knew, Cornwall’s Britain’s surfing capital! And this town’s its epicenter, from Fistral Beach (host to September’s national championships) to a downtown crammed with surfer-oriented (and therefore value-oriented) bars, guesthouses, and shops. Plenty of other “soft adventure” options, too, from ziplines and abseiling (aka rapelling) down cliffs to “coasteering” — fast-moving guided tours of the rocky shorelines and sea caves (you’ll need a wet suit). Don’t forget to pop into the Blue Reef Aquarium and down a memorable meal at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall in nearby Watergate Bay.

There’s a lot more I didn’t have a chance to get to. Not one but two old steam railways. The ancient Pendessis and Bude castles. Visitable clay and tin mines.The offshore castle St. Michael’s Mount. Checking out celeb chef Rick Stein’s eateries in Padstow and St. Merryn. The seaside resort town of Penzance. More that’s not even occurring at the moment. All I can say is, stay tuned for “Cornwall Part 2.”  More info: VisitCornwall.com, Cornwall-Online.com.

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