The southern county of Devon has all the ingredients for the perfect family holiday – one in which you can recapture those halcyon days of the past, spending hours idling in a boat à la Swallows and Amazons or lazily eating ice cream on a harbour wall, watching the world go by.
The whole of Devon lends itself to outdoor adventures, with pristine sandy beaches and many a great pier for crabbing. There’s 138km of coastline including all the inlets and creeks any wannabe pirate could hope for, so plenty of activities are based in, on or around the water, from the simple toddler-friendly pleasures of shrimping and paddling to teen-pleasers such as boating, water-skiing, swimming, canoeing and wind-surfing.
Venturing inland, time slows down as you uncover beautiful winding lanes, green rolling fields, twee but thriving villages, castles, and National Trust properties. Explore animal centres, adventure parks, famous Dartmoor and its ponies, and the cosmopolitan and historic city of Exeter.
Hit the beaches. Some of our favourites for family holidays in Devon are Bigbury on Sea with its great surf school, Mattiscombe (worth the walk to get there) and Bantham. All are big, sandy and perfect for all ages. But there are plenty of other wonderful beaches all along the south and north coasts; most are very tidal and you’re advised to get a local tide timetable from a newsagent.
Roam around Dartmoor, one of England’s great untouched portions of wilderness, for hiking, canoeing on the River Dart, horse-riding, rock-climbing or just plain yomping. This is the kind of place where all thoughts of computer screens and TVs are banished and kids can work up an appetite through good old-fashioned exercise! The River Dart Adventure Park is a good place to start. You’re bound to spot ponies out in the open but there are even cuter ones to be seen at the Original Miniature Pony Centre. Dartmoor Prison can be used as a veiled threat for unruly kids, but while still functioning as a prison it also has a museum of interest to all ages.
Take kids impressed by the fact that real soldiers play on Dartmoor to Castle Drogo and Okehampton Castle. In Exeter, those with a head for heights will enjoy the Go Ape treetop adventure course.
Head for Plymouth to take a boat trip into the Plymouth Sound and up the River Tamar, past the Devonport Royal Dockyards, where you’ll see frigates and nuclear submarines. A trip to the National Marine Aquarium is also a must.
Discover the south coast of Devon, dubbed the English Riviera and chock a block with beaches, cafés and restaurants. Though it’s busy in summer, it’s all the more fun for that – teens gravitate to each other on the piers and young children bond over buckets brimming with crabs.
Savour countless villages and the many opportunities to step back into the past. See how the other half lived at Cockington Court & Country Park then let off steam in the gardens. At Brixham, step aboard a replica of Drake’s ‘The Golden Hinde' and visit the Heritage Museum. Paignton has some great beaches and also the country’s only outdoor waterpark. Paignton Zoo is brilliant, but you might also head to Woodlands Park for more animals, plus rides and other attractions.
Pennywell Farm is another place to get up close and personal with animals, including ridiculously cute miniature pigs, while Devon Wildlife Centre and Hospital combines education with fun for a good day out.
Take all ages on a guided canoeing trip in a Voyager 12-seat canoe between Totnes and Dartmouth with Canoe Adventures. Young kids might also like Digger Land, where they can drive real JCBs. Alternatively, Crealy Great Adventure Park has a seemingly endless array of rides.
Don’t miss Dartmouth, a small but bustling town, packed with cafés and pleasant shops and a great place to get on the water – contact Dartmouth Boat Hire Centre, hop on the car or passenger ferry to the other side of the estuary, take sailing lessons or enjoy a cruise between Dartmouth and Totnes.
Explore Salcombe, which has become trendy of late – a fact reflected in the prices – and is a great place to amble around before taking the small ferry to East Portlemouth Beach facing the town.
Catch a steam train ride: the South Devon Railway chugs along the River Dart between Totnes and Buckfastleigh. At beautiful Berry Pomeroy Castle, scare yourselves silly with ghost stories. Powderham Castle is also worth a visit.
Devon prides itself on its regional produce, such as seafood, home-made jams, locally reared meat (including ostrich) and organic veg. The county is also spiritual home to the cream tea, and has some fantastic locally made ice creams and yoghurts.
In Exeter you’ll find the usual family-friendly chains that come in handy on family holidays, including Pizza Express, Café Rouge and Giraffe. The beaches at East Portlemouth and Bigbury on Sea have cafés with organic local produce
As with the rest of the UK, Devon is at its best for family holidays between Easter and October. July and August are busy but generally not unbearable, and there are always hidden corners to discover for yourself.
Devon has a mild climate but can be wet. Generally, in the summer months the rain doesn't last for too long, but come prepared for wind and rain at any time of year.
Winter can be dramatic, especially on Dartmoor and along the coast.
It’s around 5hrs by car from London to south Devon, with the M5 a good, generally fast route. Within the country, roads are being improved all the time and pretty much everywhere is easily accessible.
Devon is 2hrs 30mins–3hrs 30mins hours from London Paddington with First Great Western trains. Virgin Trains runs two routes into Devon from the north-west, north-east and Scotland.
If you’re coming from far away or are very short of time, you might consider flying to Exeter and a set of wheels is the only really viable way to explore Devon in depth, especially on family holidays.
Devon is a good-value place for a UK family holiday, with self-catering cottages available for about £200-700/wk depending on time of year, size of party and proximity to the coast. Beware of spending too much money on days out – on sunny days, the beach will keep you entertained for hours for free.By Rachelle Keyes
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