"You know how much that went for last year?" I've just walked up from Polzeath beach after building sandcastles with my two-year-old daughter Lily as the temperature plunged to -6C, and an amateur property consultant is pointing to a Masters of the Universe villa overlooking the bay. "I don't," I reply, shuffling to keep warm. "£1.8m." I exhale appreciatively. "Lot of money round here." There's not much of it on show today but, with its near neighbour Rock, this rugged corner of north Cornwall is the Chelsea crowd's favourite summer-season hangout. And that's exactly why on a crystal clear January day, in England, it's the best place in the world to be. Yes, it was so cold that I had to break through the frozen crust of the sand with a plastic spade as the wind whipped off the Atlantic, but there were no braying hordes spoiling the views up the Camel estuary or jamming the single-track roads with their 4x4s. We had the place to ourselves, and you can't buy that.
Thanks to its exposed coastline, the swell on this stretch of coastline is the best in the country for surfing. And a few miles south in Watergate Bay the wet-suited loons weren't going to let something as trivial as the weather spoil their fun. We had the best seat in the house to watch the tiny black figures being sucked beneath the briny and occasionally even standing up on their boards: cosied up in the corner window seat of the glass box that runs the length of Jamie Oliver's Fifteen restaurant, we were overlooking the bay (and the 10ft-high "Lily" we'd written in the sand below). The locally sourced Italian-themed food was a triumph: flavour-packed lentil and bacon soup, the sweetest crab rarebit, peppery olive oil. Though if you're a two-year-old, the ice-cream course and the balloon-shaped lights are the only things you really care about.
We were staying at Retallack Resort, about six miles inland from Padstow, incongruously next to the American theme park Spirit of the West ("Don't miss it, pardner"). The 52-acre site is owned by the husband-and-wife team of Amy Tucker Brown and Jason Keyter, she a property developer and he an ex-rugby union professional. Their passion for the place really shows through: the lodges are meticulously kitted out, so sparkly clean it feels as if you're the first visitor. There are vast sofas that you can lounge around on (or spend hours jumping on), king-size beds, even a hot tub. And their green credentials are good: an industrial estate 400 yards away fabricates the timber frames of the lodges, and they're superbly insulated, making the prospect of returning to a draughty Victorian terrace all the more uninviting. Glamour and self-catering don't usually feature in the same sentence but when the accommodation is this good it's the perfect family getaway.
There's an indoor swimming pool with a separate children's paddling pool (a big favourite), a sauna and steam room and all the usual spa treatments (the hot stone massage was otherworldly). In season there's a Kids Club. And, despite the economic gloom, they're expanding, and even have plans to build an indoor artificial surfing centre.
Retallack is just short drive away from the Eden Project, which Lily loved – although trying to explain how you can be inside and outside at the same time proved a bridge too far. And, we kidded ourselves, it offers a brief taste of that tropical holiday. With a fraction of the carbon footprint.
All of which left a little time for a stroll around Padstow and more gastrotourism with a diner lunch at Custard – deliciously light black pudding with poached eggs, and lovely child-friendly staff. And it's difficult to come to this fishing town and not part with money at one (or two) of Rick Stein's many emporia: I made a trip one evening for a takeaway from his Fish and Chip shop: battered sea bream and chips, scallops, tiger prawns and mushy peas, which we ate back at the lodge. Not a bad end to the day.
Retallack Resort, St Columb Major, Cornwall TR9 6DE (01637 882400, retallackresort.com)
* Feather Down Farms are a child's, and parent's, dream. Superb locations, animals to pal up with and tents that give camping a good name. New for this year: Higher Lank, a working Somerset farm spread over three valleys. 01420 80804; featherdown farm.co.uk
* Set in around 7,000 acres of prime Perthshire, Kinnard Estate offers nature walks for children along with mushroom picking and fishing followed by a catch of the day cook-up with the chef. Book through Original Travel Kids. 020-7978 7333; originaltravel.co.uk/kids
* The original luxury family hotel Woolley Grange near Bath offers everything you need to keep the kids happy – trampoline, games rooms, heated outdoor pool, a dog (Peanut) for walking plus a great creche and child-friendly restaurant. 01225 864705; woolleygrangehotel.co.uk
* With four locations, each offering a long list of hearty activities amid hundreds of acres of cycle-friendly woodland, CenterParcs is great for children of all ages. Best of all are the flumes, slides and whirlpools of the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. Centerparcs.co.uk