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Travel guide to... Devon

The arrival of summer makes this star of the South West an enticing prospect

Laura Holt
Tuesday 28 June 2016 10:11 BST
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Salcombe – queen of the south coast – becomes west London on sea in summertime
Salcombe – queen of the south coast – becomes west London on sea in summertime (Shutterstock)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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“Watch out for the seagulls”, the waitress warns as she serves me a crab sandwich at one of the makeshift seafood shacks at Brixham harbour. But as I sit in the early-summer sun and take in the pretty ice-cream-coloured houses and bright, bobbing fishing boats, not even the gulls can spoil this moment.

Ever since the 19th century, when Victorians first started frequenting the towns of Torbay – whose resorts, including Brixham, are now collectively known as the English Riviera – Brits have loved escaping to the South West.

Yet, while neighbouring Cornwall often steals the spotlight, Devon has a charm all of its own, even if all you want are simple bucket-and-spade days spent on the beach and trawling the rockpools, rounded off with an ice cream or one of the county’s celebrated cream teas. Whether you choose the wild beaches of the north coast, favoured among surfers, who gravitate to the reliable waves of Croyde, or the more genteel resorts of the south, such as smart Salcombe, with its glittering harbour and gorgeous stretches of sand.

The South West Coast Path brings you to Devon gems such as Bantham Beach
The South West Coast Path brings you to Devon gems such as Bantham Beach (Shutterstock)

While there’s bustle in abundance for families who want easy amenities, there are quieter spots too. In the south, Hope Cove is a dreamy destination made up of two small adjoining beaches, Inner and Outer Hope, that offers a tranquil base from which to explore the surrounding South Hams district. Meanwhile, the windswept Hartland Peninsula (hartlandpeninsula.co.uk) offers an alternative to the traditional tourist trail at the point where the north coast dramatically turns its back on the Bristol Channel towards the Atlantic.

Another of Devon’s delights is the opportunity to get active in the great outdoors. From the rousing moorland trails of Exmoor and Dartmoor to the luscious green slopes of the Blackdown Hills, which celebrate 25 years as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 2016.

Of course, you don’t even have to be a full-time adventure junkie to take on the South West Coast Path (southwestcoastpath.org.uk), which snakes its way along both of Devon’s north and south coasts. Accessible to all, simply pick up a small section to see some of the county’s stirring coastland scenery.

If all that sounds rather too taxing, there’s space to relax too, with the opening of upmarket hotels, such as The Pig at Combe (thepighotel.com/at-combe; doubles from £145), in the Otter Valley near the market town of Honiton, in July. The latest in the litter from hotelier Robin Hutson is set within a golden-stone Elizabethan mansion, surrounded by 3,500 acres of Devonshire countryside. If it’s anything like the other Pigs, it is likely to become a foodie destination, joining the ranks of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose River Cottage Farm and canteen can be visited near Axminster (rivercottage.net), to celebrate Devon’s larder.

The Pig at Combe
The Pig at Combe

Of course, you may prefer to cater for yourself, in which case there are numerous providers such as Toad Hall Cottages (toadhallcottages.co.uk), Sykes Cottages (sykescottages.co.uk) and Classic Glamping (classicglamping.co.uk) for smart nights under-canvas.

Northern delights

Surfers will find plenty of action on the north Devon coast – especially around Croyde, with its world-class waves and rugged coastline. Head to Down End Car Park, where Croyde Surf Academy (croydesurfacademy.com) offers tuition (hourly £40) and The Drop In Café (parkingcroyde.com/the-drop-in) promises hearty food.

Further east, the seaside resort of Woolacombe (woolacombetourism.co.uk) is also popular for its three-mile stretch of golden sand that’s ideal for families seeking space.

Catch a wave in Croyde
Catch a wave in Croyde (Shutterstock)

Westward Ho! (westwardhodevon.com) is another key stop, eulogised by novelist Charles Kingsley in his 1855 book of the same name. While the town is extremely commercialised today, its beach is like walking through a Vettriano painting – well worth a day trip.

More charming is Ilfracombe, whose harbour has been the subject of some attention since Damien Hirst installed his Verity sculpture (damienhirst.com/verity) there in 2012 and opened The Quay restaurant (11thequay.co.uk), with rumours of more to follow. A good base for exploring the area is the Saunton Sands Hotel (sauntonsands.co.uk), an Art Deco beauty with spectacular clifftop views over dune-backed Saunton Sands beach. Sea-view doubles from £120, B&B.

Southern splendour

Salcombe – queen of the south coast – becomes west London on sea in summertime, with the boutiques and restaurants to match. But it’s popular for good reason – with long stretches of golden sand along the Kingsbridge estuary. Seasoned yachties reach them by boat, but regular tourists can catch one of the inexpensive ferries (bit.ly/SalcombeFerries). Overlooking Jubilee Ferry Pier, stop for a drink at The Ferry Inn (theferryinnsalcombe.com), whose beer garden overlooks the water.

To stay away from the hubbub, check into Britain’s oldest family-run hotel, The Thurlestone (thurlestone.co.uk), which is celebrating its 120th year in 2016; doubles from £230, including breakfast. It glances towards Thurlestone Rock, an arch-shaped formation that lingers offshore from the twin beaches of Thurlestone and South Milton Sands, where you can refuel at The Beach House (beachhousedevon.com), a shore-side cafe.

From here, you can also walk to Bantham – a quieter but no less beautiful version of Salcombe – with its less-busy “locals’ beach” (banthamdevon.co.uk; all-day parking £6), from where The Gastrobus (gastrobus.co.uk) proffers local produce.

Around the next headland is Bigbury-on-Sea, which extends at low tide to Burgh Island, home to the historic hotel of the same name (burghisland.com), once frequented by Agatha Christie; doubles from £400, B&B.

Read more of our full reviews of hotels in Devon

East is east

East Devon’s easy-to-access coastline includes Exmouth, which first became popular in the 18th century and is said to be the county’s oldest holiday resort. Its two miles of golden beach link at low tide to Sandy Bay, backed by the red Orcombe Rocks of Devon’s Jurassic Coast.

There are some delightful villages in this part of Devon too, including “the three Bs” - Budleigh Salterton, Branscombe and Beer – all of which have attractive high streets, village charm and pebbly beaches, backed by soaring cliffs. The two-mile Branscombe to Beer walk – which can also be done in reverse – is particularly memorable, with The Sea Shanty in Branscombe (theseashanty.co.uk; cottages from £435) and The Anchor in Beer (B&B doubles from £44), both providing rooms and food.

Nearby, Seaton Jurassic (seatonjurassic.org) in Seaton is a £4m community-led attraction dedicated to East Devon’s stretch of the Jurassic Coast. As well as indoor displays, it offers regular rockpool safaris, wildlife walks and sea-themed story sessions (adults £8; children; £5; family £18).

Moor excitement

For a change of scene, head to the Moors, where yellow gorse and kaleidoscopic rhododendrons meet lush, green hills. A key base in Exmoor are the twin towns of Lynton and Lynmouth. At the point where moor meets sea, these pretty towns offer the best of coast and countryside combined. Go horse riding (outovercott.co.uk/horseriding; from £30 per hour), kayak on the East Lyn (nationaltrust.org.uk/watersmeet) or ride the Cliff Railway (£3.50 return) between the two towns to get an elevated view of the Exmoor coast.

Further south, Bovey Castle (boveycastle.com; doubles from £179, room only) is a country-house hotel that makes a fine base from which to explore Dartmoor National Park. Set within a 275-acre estate, the views are sublime, and there are two top restaurants to enjoy after a day out walking, cycling or driving.

Ponies on Dartmoor
Ponies on Dartmoor (Shutterstock)

A short drive along the B3212 takes you past rousing scenery to The Warren House Inn (warrenhouseinn.co.uk), whose beer garden you’ll share with sheep and ponies, onwards to the village of Postbridge with its old-fashioned post office and on to the Two Bridges Hotel (twobridges.co.uk), where warm fires and lively chatter await.

Quiet corners

The pretty village of Appledore is a fine place to escape the crowds, with its scenic views across the River Torridge towards Instow. Traditional shops, such as award-winning café and deli Johns (johnsofinstow.co.uk) and newcomer The Coffee Cabin (01237 475843), abound. The Seagate pub (theseagate.co.uk) has B&B doubles from £99.

Or you can take a day trip to Lundy Island (landmarktrust.org.uk/Lundyisland). The two-hour ferry aboard the MS Oldenburg, which runs until 28 October (return £64), departs from nearby Bideford, and Ilfracombe, depending on the day.

Lundy Island
Lundy Island (Landmark Trust)

The island is about as far away from it all as you can go – cast adrift in the Bristol Channel, with grey seals, dolphins and rare birdlife, including nesting puffins from April to July. Spend time walking the wild cliffs, enjoy a drink at The Marisco Tavern or stay at one of 23 self-catering cottages (bit.ly/23cottages).

Also worth visiting is Clovelly, a privately-owned village, presided over by the Hamlyn family and their descendants since 1738. To walk the steep traffic-free streets – where local residents use sledges to lug shopping and rubbish up and down – visitors must pay £7, which includes entry to Clovelly Court Gardens, two other museums and parking. The New Inn (stayatclovelly.co.uk/new-inn) offers B&B doubles from £65.

Nearby is the Hartland Peninsula with its Grade II-listed lighthouse and 12th-century abbey (hartlandabbey.com; house entry £12; gardens and grounds £8). Together they converge on a coastline that provides some of Devon’s most dramatic walking territory (hartlandpeninsula.co.uk) – ideal for those wanting to escape the crowds.

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