Saturday 24 February 2018

Cool Cornish Cornucopia


Madeleine Keane

Madeleine Keane

Madeleine Keane hops on board a direct flight from Dublin to Cornwall.

My brother-in-law introduced me to the joys of surfing a couple of years ago on a windswept Westport beach. I thought at the time it was the best fun you could have with your clothes on. It's only my second lesson, as I'm claimed by a wipeout wave (so called because it clears the sea in seconds) in Newquay, on Cornwall's Northern coast, and even though I'm being tumbled and battered by the tumultuous sea, I still feel the same.

For sheer joy, exhilaration and fun, it's hard to beat the rush of the surf. 

I'm with a quartet of lively twentysomething media girls on a spring break in Cornwall. With Aer Lingus Regional now flying directly into the county, it's precisely four hours from home to the Headland Hotel, an imposing landmark which deserves its self-appointed 'iconic' label.

The Victorian edifice dominates the bluff on which it majestically sits. Here since 1897, nothing has dented its grandeur: not the blockading fishermen who complained bitterly that the space to dry their nets was rendered redundant, nor the violent storms which regularly batter the cliffs (today guests come for lunch in winter to enjoy the spectacle); even in wartime, this hostelry became hospital and haven for the wounded.

Today, it's a much-loved hotel purchased in the 1970s by the local Armstrong family, who, over the decades have poured money, energy and dedication into maintaining its fabric while adding all the modern accoutrements of a four-star hotel: their spa, for example, where I try to repair the ravages wreaked on my limbs, where no expense has been spared on a small but super pool, a dreamy salt-infused steam room and a bubbling jacuzzi.

The staff here are sweet and solicitous and there's a special welcome for canine customers. Indeed not only can they sleep with their owners, visiting pooches are also greeted with treats, a letter of greeting from the Armstrongs' dog and their own bed. In the morning you'll see some of them behind reception while their parents take breakfast in the very grand dining room with its sweeping vista of the ever changing Atlantic Ocean. There, after an ambrosial dinner (I can still taste my chocolate marquise with salted caramel ice cream and toffee popcorn), we're joined by head chef Chris Brookes, a convivial Canadian who spent his 20s in Dublin cutting his culinary teeth in places like Dish and Odessa.

Cornwall is as well known for its cuisine as it is for its beauty, and so our meals are uniformly good: brunch at Bush Pepper (a laidback eaterie run by an affable Aussie features kangaroo on its menu), a superb seafood lunch at Lewinnick with its exceptional views and, most memorable of all, dinner on Saturday night at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen Cornwall. Nestled in the crook of a cove at Watergate Bay, this place is the quintessence of cool with an intriguing (every dish has to be decoded by our patient waitress) and stunning menu, fascinating fellow guests and an unforgettable ambience. Culinary Cornwall is synonymous too with cream teas, pasties and renowned chefs Rick Stein, John Torode and Paul Ainsworth, so feasts of plenty abound for discerning foodies.

All this gastromony requires lots of exercise. Beneath the hotel the Surf Sanctuary offers lessons and clobber for all ages. Ben, our patient, gallant teacher not only carries my board but gets me from supine to kneeling in an hour. We're at Fistral, considered the premier surfing beach in England and a sunlit morning is spent catching some great waves. Later that day we follow it up with a deeply soothing yoga class at OceanFlow with the well-named Stretch. The original plan was for a session on the beach but inclement conditions dictate we relocate to his studio where, while we stretch (with Stretch), we also watch the daredevil surfers riding the rollers.

All that surf and yoga ensures a chilled out vibe in Newquay, there's no shortage of elegant or quirky places to eat and they even have their own zoo where the recently introduced pride (well three) of lions have added greatly to the gaiety of this charming town. Add in miles of spectacular coastline and you've a great base from which to explore a gorgeous county where everywhere's a 45-minute drive away.

Cornwall's location at England's southernmost tip ensures an often balmy climate and consequently stunning gardens. Newquay's harbour was expanded in the late 18th century to export china clay from the pits in nearby St Austen. Fifteen years ago the barren space was reborn as the dazzlingly imaginative Eden Project. Here two giant biomes house the world's largest rainforest and a Mediterranean garden. The brainchild of rock and opera music producer Sir Tim Smit, who had worked in Cornwall's fabled Lost Gardens of Heligan, the daring vision got Millenium funding. Bond fans will remember it from Die Another Day. Today, it's a super environment for children with a mix of the educational (in fact, you can study a university-level course here) and the fun (Eden's home to the longest zipwire at 660 metres in the country.) Fifteen now, the place is slightly showing its age, but they're constantly adding stuff to the mix. Last summer's big attraction, Dinosaur Uproar, in which life-sized velociraptors and pals prowl the park, was such a success they're repeating it in July and August.

Leaving Eden, I look at the map. There's still so much I haven't seen. I could spend a whole weekend retracing the footsteps of my beloved Daphne du Maurier, whose enigmatic Cornish novels I still reread. There's her home Menabilly (recast as Manderley in her haunting Rebecca); it's located near Fowey where the Du Maurier Society run an annual festival of Arts and Literature which takes place next weekend. There's also Jamaica Inn high up on Bodmin Moor, the Tate St Ives, St Michael's Mount, Olga Polizzi's palace at St Mawes and the Isles of Scilly are but a boat hop away. Indeed,there are many Edens in this rare and lovely place.

Getting there 

Aer Lingus Regional operates four flights per week between Cornwall and Dublin, increasing to daily flights in peak summer times. Prices from €29.99.

See for details

Headland Hotel rates (per night based on two sharing): Prices start at £265 for Best Rooms and Suites down to Courtyard Rooms and Suites which are priced from £95.

Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall at Watergate Bay. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, dinner, cocktails and antipasti

Sunday Independent

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