No longer just about the pasties and the fish and chips (though it does these well!), Cornwall has oodles to offer for family holidays or breaks: mile on mile of beautiful coastline (both stunning beaches and cute coves and creeks for shrimping and crabbing), a thriving watersports community allowing kids to try their hand at swimming, surfing, sailing, body-boarding and so on, fantastic gardens, museums and a thriving arts centre based around St Ives. Facilities just about everywhere seem to have had a makeover, so shops, cafés, harbours… you name it!… are generally more chi chi than ever before.
Due to the shape of Cornwall, nothing’s too far away (meaning less back-seat whinging) – it’s possible to visit a garden in the morning, have lunch in a pub and spend the afternoon on a beach before returning home for some crabbing if you’re lucky enough to be near a seaside wall and a shop that sells bacon. But this all comes with a price tag attached, and with more 2 million people visiting each year, Cornwall can also get very crowded in summer.
Despite the overwhelming choice of attractions (of which we give the highlights below), Cornwall itself and its beautiful villages and beaches, each with its particular charm, should remain the main focus of any family holiday. It may come as a surprise to find that despite offering so many things to see and do, Cornwall’s pace of life remains reassuringly slow.
Keep the family busy in Falmouth – enjoy the views from Pendennis Castle or take a boat-trip in the bay. Ferries operate year round and can take you over to St Mawes with its castle or up the Malpas river to Truro. The boat-trips themselves are enough to keep youngsters happy and the ferrymen are used to lugging buggies up and down the steps. There are five main beaches round the town, with Maenporth and Swanpool popular with families with young kids as the beaches are small and the water shallow. As on lots of Cornish beaches, you’ll find watersports facilities, lifeguards in summer, and cafés to keep the little ones from flagging. Gyllingvase is popular, with a great café year-round and lovely views. The National Maritime Museum has a pool where kids can try their hand at sailing wooden boats and holiday arts and crafts (the presence of its own café plus a Pizza Express and Rick Stein’s Fish and Chips outside in the square make this a popular choice).
Falmouth and its hamlets are surrounded by gorgeous gardens, most exceptionally child friendly, though some of the terrain makes it hard going for buggy-pushers. Trebah has a private beach to stroll down to; kids will enjoy the adventure play areas and children’s trails on the way. Trevarno has a vintage toy museum and a great play area in the woods. Also worth a visit are Trellisick (catch the King Harry Ferry afterwards and head to Smugglers Cottage for a cream tea, with the kids in full view below you on the beach), Glendurgan with its maze, and Trewithen.
You can happily spend a day at The Eden Project eco-attraction whatever the weather. The Lost Gardens of Heligan will delight kids with its woodland pathways dotted with sculptures, as well as its farm.
Discover St Ives, an artists’ retreat with terrific galleries, a branch of the Tate (reopening in 2017) and the Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden. With its picturesque and lively harbour and great restaurants, it gets very busy but is bearable if you are just visiting for the day. Of the beautiful beaches, Porthminster has the added bonus of its famous Porthminster Café.
Head to the north coast of Cornwall for better waves for surfers – Fistral Beach at Newquay is where the surfing championships are held, and older kids love the hive of activity that surrounds the beach, full of nightclubs and entertainment. There’s the great Blue Reef Aquarium at Towan Beach. Cornwall’s Crealy Great Adventure Park and Dairyland Farmworld, both near Newquay, are good to have up your sleeve for bad weather.
Venture to Fowey (pronounced Foy) – like other towns along the southern coast, it has a rich history. One of the most expensive towns in which to own property in the UK, it's brilliant for family holidays, with great restaurants and the famously child-friendly Fowey Hall Hotel, which inspired Toad Hall in Wind in the Willows. Fowey Regatta is very popular for the spectacle of the giant pasty being rowed from Polruan to Fowey, the Red Arrows making a daredevil appearance and the Carnival Parade, which kids can enter.
Pack a picnic and head to the Minack Theatre for an unforgettable experience in this amphitheatre hewn out of the rock (bring cushions and blankets). There are daytime and evening performances. Close by is St Michael's Mount, which you get to by boat if the tide is in, or by foot along the causeway when it’s out (popular with kids but make sure you’ve got the tides right!).
Take the family to the Charlestown Shipwreck and Heritage Centre with its artefacts recovered from lost ships. Poldark Mine and Geevor Tin Mine are popular spots for learning what life was like underground for a Cornish miner.
Experience what life was like in the Blitz at Flambards, a popular attraction that also boasts a Victorian village. Another unmissable is the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, which gives kids the chance to see seals close up as they recuperate before being released back into the wild.
Cornwall is a haven for food-lovers, with great local produce and some internationally renowned eateries. You can enjoy everything from pasties from the local corner store to Michelin-starred restaurants, and, of course, fresh fish galore. No family holiday here is complete without at least one meal of fish and chips – they’re good all over but you won't regret making a trip to one of Rick Stein's eat-in or takeaway fish and chip shops in Falmouth and Padstow (just don't try to fight your way into the latter in high season).
Rodda’s is famous for its clotted cream, ice-cream and fudge, and a famous Cornish cream tea is a must – Roskillys does a great one on its farm near Helston.
If you’re not put off by the crowds, summer is a great time to visit, with no end of regattas and carnivals (Falmouth Week and Fowey Regatta are both in August).
But if you’re after a quieter family holiday, take advantage of the fact that the Gulf Stream means autumn, winter and spring in Cornwall are milder than anywhere else in the UK, yet the beaches will often be empty – and the cost of accommodation will be lower. May half term can be wonderful, especially around Falmouth with its annual Fal River Festival.
Gone are the days of hours sitting in overheating vehicles with little ones asking 'Are we there yet?' – Cornwall now has excellent road, rail and air links from all around the country. London–Falmouth is about 450km or 5hrs by road, or about 5hrs 30mins by train, usually with one change, at Truro. If you’re coming from northern England or Scotland, you might want to check out flights to Newquay Airport.
Cornwall can be a very expensive famly holiday option if you choose to splurge and stay at one of its many splendidly family-friendly upmarket hotels. Parking costs can also mount up in high season.
Aim to self-cater if you’re on a more restricted budget – and think about coming outside of summer too. Expect to pay £300–700/wk to stay in a cottage, depending on time of year, size and proximity to the coast.By Rachelle Keyes
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