What do you get for the money? That's what we're wondering as we board the Penzance train, squeezing four young children into the cheap seats for a long journey to the most expensive place they have ever stayed in. The house we are going to costs five grand a week in high season, which this definitely isn't. "Wet and windy down there right now," says the guard, when he hears where we're going. "Lovely. The wilder the better."
That's easy for him to say. The last thing we need with our lively tribe is to be trapped indoors all day, however flash the house. They already think we're going to the ends of the earth, and they're not far wrong – it's on the knuckle of the finger at the end of England, next to Land's End.
Cragford was built on steeply sloping land overlooking Gwenver Beach and Sennen Cove. It looks dramatic on the website of Cornish Cribs, a new company specialising in renting to the top end of the market: "An exclusive collection of the finest holiday homes located in dream destinations throughout our beautiful Duchy."
Note the sneaky enlisting of royalty there, but apart from princes, who can really afford to rent a place like this in a recession? "High net worth individuals," says Julianne Shelton, who fled the City to return to her native Cornwall and start a business three years ago with a former investment banker called Nadia Durrant.
They launched Cornish Cribs earlier this year, after finding it was unexpectedly easy to rent out a £4m property for £7,000 a week, as long as the approach is right. "Some of our clients have not been affected by the economic crisis; they seem to be outside that realm," says Nadia. "They would be coming to Cornwall anyway. They want to cherry pick the best properties, and don't blink an eye at the prices. We do have some clients who want to take up everything we can offer: specialist catering, holistic treatment, helicopter transfers, the lot. We tend to have people who lead very busy lives, in the City and elsewhere, who want escapism and everything to hand."
A housekeeper will come in every day and make the beds, for those too stressed by the high life to pull up their own duvet cover. They will also buy all your groceries in advance, which is actually really handy if you come by rail, as we did, and don't have a car. It must help, also, if you come by helicopter. Some of the cribs have got their own landing pads.
To be fair, these photogenic properties are also popular for wedding parties and family reunions, when the cost can be shared. Either way, it feels natural to find in the fridge – next to the Tesco value chicken we ordered – a bottle of complimentary champagne. There's also a hamper of Cornish delicacies, including fiery ginger fairings, which don't last long.
Exploring the house is like one of those dreams in which you keep opening new doors. We gasp at the luxury of the lounge, with its home cinema projector screen and surround sound, only to discover that it's just a sort of lobby, an add-on to a far bigger room with windows on three sides. Rather than relaxing into one of the many sofas – any of which would have cost as much as our car back home – we actually get a bit stressed, warning the children not to spill anything on the beige carpet (not a clever choice) or knock over any of the objets d'art.
The house used to belong to a local artist, whose works still hang there. I presume they also painted the ceiling of the master bedroom, which is astonishing – an almost 3D representation of what it would be like to sleep on the deck of a galleon on a starry full-moon night, with a sail and flag billowing overhead from the mast.
The flag features the words "vincit amor patria" – love of country conquers all – and a coat of arms including burning candles and herons, each of which has three spots of blood on its white chest. And underneath it, there are three blood-red petals resting on the white towels folded on the bed. That's the level of detail you get at Cragford, as well you might.
Lying under the artificial stars, with the lights off, I slowly become aware of the night beyond the giant arched window. There is nothing to see in the darkness but a blur of white, but there is the eerie sensation of being near something extraordinary. And so it proves the next morning. Never mind the chefs or the helicopter transfers, this is what all that cash buys. Here is the money shot: a panoramic view of the ocean that fills the entire wall, thrilling the eyes as the light shifts in a wide sky and on the silver sea.
I'm looking through an arch that is meant to resemble the back end of a galleon. It feels like we're hanging in mid air, because the gardens outside fall sharply away, a couple of hundred feet down to where the breakers are coming in. These are the westernmost beaches in Cornwall, where the Atlantic swell provides surf as good as it gets.
I've seen some views – and raved about them – but this is beyond them all. It's astonishing. It's intoxicating. It's just outside the window. And I'm not even out of bed yet.
I'd love to stay there and watch the subtle changes, but we need to get out and active. So we put on waterproofs and skitter along the coastal path to Sennen Cove for a pasty in Breakers Café. The irony is that going to a place like this, however absurdly luxurious, can remind you of simple pleasures: scrambling over rocks, running races in the sand, dodging the tide, wondering why so many serious cliff walkers have beards. Even their husbands. And wondering whether you, too, could be a surfer, seal-like in the sea, clambering up on to the board with the top of the wave misting in a beautiful trail behind you.
The answer's no, obviously. You'd need an extraordinary sense of balance, like the barefoot, bare-chested artist in the half-peeled wetsuit who has done enough surfing for the day and is now hefting large, smooth pink granite stones and balancing them on the top of pointed rocks, improbably. Impossibly. It is a beautiful thing, to watch him stand with his bare feet either side of a mini-summit and shift his weight a little at a time until the boulder is balanced, a sentinel stone looking out to sea. There must be a hundred of them.
The standing stones add to the sense of being in an enchanted place, on a beach which is apparently named after the mythical wife of King Arthur. That feeling continues later, when we're back in the house, warm and dry, and I sneak upstairs to sit by that astonishing view again, in one of a pair of revolving leather armchairs that are the size of waltzers.
The children are playing in some distant room. Or three. Space is one of the things that money really can buy. The bedroom is as large as the entire ground floor of our house back home. But Cornwall also provides its own unworldly charm: unlikely as it seems, a large bird of prey who has been riding the thermals on the cliff edge for ages suddenly dips a shoulder and swoops down towards the window, folding his wings to perch on the wooden frame. My son has been convinced all day that the bird is an eagle. Now I see that he's a buzzard, and enormous. There are shivers on my neck as he seems to look in, straight at me, then tilts his head, opens those wings and flies away again. Did I imagine that?
There's nobody else around to say ... except that as soon as he's gone they arrive, with glasses of Cornish apple juice and champagne on a tray, to watch the sunset with me. It's hard to imagine doing this in more luxury and comfort. I sneak a look at their faces, as nature spreads itself out before us, and the following half an hour is as magical as life gets.
It lingers long after they've all gone off to watch Strictly Come Dancing. (And on a big screen, in high definition, let me tell you some of those dancers put everything they have on display.) "Can we live here for ever?" ask several of the children, and of course the answer's no. There is an unavoidable melancholy in staying in a place like this, it's like being allowed to press your face against the window of a palace, maybe even step in for a moment ... and then get thrown out.
We won't ever come back, unless we win the lottery. And if we did, would we spend it on this? The same price could get you a round-the-world plane ticket, a new car, or a decade of school dinners. But that's not the point, perhaps. The reason the super-rich seem so smug is not that they feel protected from life by their wealth, not in this day and age. It's because they can sleep in beds like the ones at Cragford, ease back in those chairs, and watch that astonishing view any time they like. It's normal to them. It's how the world is. Utterly gorgeous, if they want it, every day.
I'm not a greedy man. You can keep the home cinema, and all the rest of it. Just give me the astounding bedroom at Cragford to live in, with that intoxicating view to look at every day for the rest of my life, and I'll be in heaven. Honest. It's not too much to ask, is it?
How to get there
Cragford is available for a week's holiday through Cornish Cribs (0844 800 2813; cornishcribs.com) from £2,000 in low season. It is currently free at New Year, with a 33 per cent discount, for £4,992. Other Cornish Crib properties are available over the festive period. Enquire direct about late availability.
Going ... going ... almost gone – festive holiday lets
You usually need to book early for a self-catering property over the festive period – especially for larger parties. But a mixture of cancellations, tough economic times and more properties coming on to the holiday rental market means it is still possible to find a bolthole this Christmas. The following all report some availability.
West Country: Travelzest's Wow House Company (travelzest.com); Owners Direct (ownersdirect.co.uk); Downe Cottages (downe.asra.co.uk); Helpful Holidays (helpfulholidays.com); Coast & Country Cottages (coastand country.co.uk); Carbis Bay Holidays (carbisbayholidays.co.uk); Toad Hall Cottages (toadhallcottages.co.uk); Classic Cottages (classic.co.uk); West Cornwall Cottage Holidays (westcorn wallcottageholidays.com); Villa Renters (villarenters.com); Beach Retreats (beachretreats.co.uk); Flear Country (flearcountry.com); Cornish Cottages (cornishcottagesonline.com); Breaks in Cornwall (breaksincornwall.com); Holiday Lettings (holidaylettings.co.uk); Marsdens Cottage Holidays (marsdens.co.uk); Dorset Coastal Cottages (dorsetcoastalcottages.com); Ashcombe Country Cottages (ashcombecottages.co.uk); the Flying Boat Club cottages (tresco.co.uk) on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly.
Cheshire: self-catering complex at The Courtyard Helsby (thecourtyard helsby.com). Derbyshire: Barks Holiday Cottage (sykescottages.co.uk ref 3888). Isle of Wight: Wightlink (wightlink.co.uk). Suffolk: Best of Suffolk (bestofsuffolk .co.uk). Wales: Sheepskin Life (sheep skinlife.com); Coastal Cottages of Pembrokeshire (coastalcottages.co.uk); Brecon Beacons Holiday Homes (breconcottages.com). Scotland: Atholl Estates (athollestateslodges.co.uk); Ecosse Unique (unique-cottages.co.uk); National Trust for Scotland (nts.org.uk/ holidays). The Lake District: Cumbrian Cottages (cumbrian-cottages.co.uk); Kendal Cottages (kendalcottages.com); Lakes Cottage Holidays (lakescottage holiday.co.uk).
Nationwide providers that still have availability include: cottages4you.co.uk; Hoseasons (hoseasons.co.uk); Forest Holidays (forestholidays.co.uk); Home Away Holiday Rentals (homeaway.co .uk); Farm and Cottage Holidays (holidaycottages.co.uk); English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk); The Landmark Trust (landmarktrust.org.uk); Rural Retreats (ruralretreats.co.uk); Natural Retreats (naturalretreats.com); Premier Cottages (premiercottages.com)
Waterways Holidays has a more offbeat idea, offering boat hire on the canals of the the south Midlands from £1,440 for the week. If your budget is tight, Paddington Farm Trust, near Glastonbury, is hard to beat. This hostel, which sleeps 20, can be hired for two nights over New Year for a total of £365 – just £9 per person per night.
Prices and availability was correct at time of going to press