by Suzy Bennett, The Telegraph, May 23, 2019
Holidays in Devon are simple, wholesome and old-fashioned. A visit here mixes two of life’s loveliest pleasures: delicious food and the great outdoors. Most visitors are drawn to the magnificent beaches on the north and south coasts, but inland has its appeal, too: Dartmoor and Exmoor are vast granite plateaux offering solitude and big skies, while the gentler, Friesian-filled fields of mid-Devon hide clusters of thatched villages, meandering rivers and thickly wooded cleaves.
Devon folk make the most of the rich larder on their doorstep, with pasture-fed lamb, wild venison, pheasant and locally landed seafood all staples in restaurants. At weekends, market towns bustle with food, antique and craft stalls, while village fairs offer an eccentric taste of country living. Like anywhere it pays to research before you go. Get it right and a holiday in Devon will beat any foreign destination hands-down.
Devon destination guides Hot right now . . .
Suzy Bennett, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest things to do and places to stay and drink this season.
Entering its first full season, Gara Rock (East Portlemouth; 03333 700 555) is one of Devon's most-talked about hotels. Set on a clifftop near Salcombe, it has rustic-chic interiors, two pools, a private cinema, spa and bedrooms overlooking the sea.
Burgh Island (Bigbury-on-Sea; 01548 810514), the iconic Art Deco hotel perched atop a private island, is undergoing a multi-million pound update under new owner Giles Fuchs. Modern, new-look rooms have just been revealed.
The relaunch of The Farmers Arms (01237 439 328) in Woolsery, marks the start of a major project to revitalise this ailing north Devon village, by social networking website Bebo’s co-founder Michael Birch and his wife Xochi.
Insider tip | Attractions 48 hours in. . . Devon Day one
There’s no better way to clear away the cobwebs than with an exhilarating dip in the sea (take a wetsuit to reduce the initial chill); and if you go early, you’ll have usually packed beaches to yourself. With safe, shallow swimming from a perfect crescent cove, South Sands is my go-to destination, and you can warm up on the sunny terrace of beachside South Sands Hotel (Bolt Head; 01548 845900) afterwards with a steaming mug of coffee and delicious brunch.
It’s a quick boat ride into Salcombe, or a short walk along the coastal path to National Trust property Overbeck’s (Sharpitor; 01548 842893) where you can gawp at the town's best waterside views, framed through the sub-tropical foliage in their pretty gardens.
Invigorated from your morning swim, you'll be ready to take on one of Devon’s most spectacular stretches of coastline. Buy a picnic from beachside café The Winking Prawn (01548 842 326) on North Sands, and strike out for the eight-mile walk from Salcombe to Hope Cove, tracing jagged peaks, secluded sandy coves and bucolic Devonshire pastures dotted with doe-eyed cows and gambolling lambs. A tip: if you're actually staying at the South Sands Hotel, they will give you a free lift back from wherever you are. Afterwards, return to the hotel’s terrace for a well-deserved gin and tonic – try Salcombe Gin which is distilled in a former sail loft.
You're spoilt for choice for dining in these parts, although most places are a drive away so book a taxi if you want to drink. Opening their doors to non-residents for the first time in years, Art Deco Burgh Island (Bigbury-On-Sea; 01548 810514) now offers black-tie dining every evening. Cut off by tides twice a day, getting there is all part of the fun – a high-sided sea tractor ferries guests across the parting tides. On the harbour, stop for a drink at The Pilchard Inn, a weather-beaten smugglers’ pub which serves Devon real ales alongside a hearty portion of piratical history.
A less formal dinner option is Millbrook (01548 531581), a cosy pub set on a tranquil creek in South Pool which serves exceptionally good modern British-style cuisine. For a rustic experience, The Beach House (01548 561144) is a clapboard shack on South Milton Sands, offering superb seafood on communal tables overlooking Thurlestone sea arch.
Head inland to the vast expanses of Dartmoor National Park, where you’ll enter a mythical world of Bronze Age hut circles, remote thatched hamlets, ancient glades and open moors roamed by wild horses and birds of prey. A road trip is the best way to see this wilderness; our favourite route starts in the idyllic thatched village of Lustleigh, where you can fortify yourself with tea and cake at the pretty Primrose Tearooms(Lustleigh; 01647 277365). From there, head to Grimspound, one of the most complete examples of the moor’s prehistoric villages and inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'.
Your legs may not be up to another long hike, but if you do one walk, make it to Wistman's Wood, an ancient dwarf-oak woodland where giant mossy boulders and lichen-encrusted trees look like a Lord of the Rings set. Park at Two Bridges (01822 892300) hotel for the easy hour-and-a-half walk. The next stop is to Dartmoor Prison Museum (Princetown; 01822 322130), a fascinating, if somewhat macabre collection of items confiscated from prisoners, including makeshift weapons and escape gear such as time-worn knotted sheets.
Drive to local beauty spot Dartmeet and through the exceptionally pretty thatched hamlet of Buckland-in-the-Moor, then on to remote Widecombe-in-the-Moor, where you can stop for a lunch and pint of Dartmoor real ale in the Rugglestone Inn 's pretty garden, where ducks frolick in the stream (01364 621327).
The final stop on your Dartmoor scenic drive is Hound Tor, a jumble of towering granite boulders offering some of the best views. Look out for 'letterboxes' – Tupperware boxes containing messages hidden between the rocks by children. A gentle half-mile walk from the car park takes you to the top; continue 15 minutes further and you'll reach the remains of a medieval village.
Later, head to Bovey Castle (01647 445000), a grand estate near the thatched village of North Bovey, for a sundowner on the terrace overlooking Dartmoor. The hotel has two restaurants: the more casual (and cheaper) Smith’s Brasserie, which serves West Country staples such as burgers and fish and chips, or the glamorous fine-dining Great Western restaurant.
Otherwise, head to the Ring of Bells, a 13th-century coaching inn also in North Bovey, where you’ll rub shoulders with sheep shearers, bee-keepers and blacksmiths.
Finally, a modern twist on a country house hotel that pulls off stylishness without sterility. Lympstone Manor is a sumptuous hotel from superstar chef Michael Caines, who has worked marvels with this vanilla ice cream-hued Georgian mansion. Food is spectacular: the fact that Lympstone Manor achieved a Michelin star within six months of opening says it all. Book a room with an outdoor bath overlooking the golden syrup sunsets of the Exe estuary.
Doubles from £245. Courtlands Lane; 01395 202040
South Sands is one of the few hotels in Devon to sit right on a beach near the yachtie town of Salcombe. Its Blue Flag beach has safe swimming, soft sands and a sea tractor to local coves. On sunny days, the decked terrace is the place to hang out and gaze across beautiful views of sailing-boat studded waters, while rooms are close enough to the water that you can fall asleep listening to the swoosh of the waves.
Double rooms from £215. Bolt Head, Salcombe; 01548 845900.
This charming historic Devonshire gastropub has a great seasonal menu, heaps of character and a lively and welcoming atmosphere. First licensed in 1320, The Cott Inn is the second oldest inn in the UK and owners Mel and Mark have embraced its heritage while adding modern luxuries. Set in the peaceful village of Dartington, it’s walkable from the River Dart and just a mile from Totnes train station.
Doubles from £110. Cott Lane; 01803 863777
Insider tip | Hotels What to bring home . . .
Homemade produce from a Devon honesty box. Our favourite doorstep offerings are Peter Hunt’s wildflower honey in North Bovey, and Marieke Ringel’s foraged fruit cordials, preserves and chutneys at the top of Pound Street in Moretonhampstead.
A piece you've made yourself on the Dartmoor Artisan Trail (07786 264865). This art and craft trail teaches visitors traditional Dartmoor skills, from making shoes and wooden spoons, to forging fire pokers and turning pottery.
Did you know? When to go . . .
Most of Devon’s main attractions, museums and National Trust properties open from the beginning of April to the end of October. If you can visit outside the school holidays, do: you’ll avoid M5 tailbacks and crowded beaches. If you can’t, avoid driving down on a Saturday, the changeover day for most holiday cottages.
After the Easter holidays, coastal paths are awash with spring flowers. In autumn, the turning of the colours on the moors is glorious, and in September and October, the sea is at its warmest and the beaches at their quietest. Visiting in winter has its benefits – among them, holing up by a fire in a cosy pub – but it has drawbacks too: most attractions are closed, bus services are limited and strong winds can make coastal walks dangerous.
Know before you go . . . Local laws and etiquette
• Devon has a strong drinking culture: most pubs are at their busiest at 6pm when locals finish work. In remote areas, drink driving is more prevalent than in towns, but don’t be lulled into having 'one for the road' – it’s still illegal.
• Obtain a tide table from a newsagent and time your beach visit accordingly: at high tide, beaches are crowded, thin strips of sand. Swimmers should beware of rip tides and strong currents, and only swim between the flags on beaches that have a lifeguard.
• Ticks that carry Lyme disease can be a problem on the moors and in grassy and woodland areas of Devon. Wear insect repellant and tuck socks into long trousers to avoid being bitten.
• Predictably unpredictable, the weather in Devon can be sunny one minute and showery the next. Take gear for all weather.
• Many rural areas of Devon don’t have mobile-phone reception so be prepared for a hike to the nearest farm if you run into trouble when you’re out and about.
• You need nerves of steel to tackle Devon’s narrow country lanes, where stray sheep, speeding tractors and corkscrew bends make driving slow and precarious. Being confident at reversing into a tight space is a must: local etiquette dictates that the driver nearest a passing place pulls into it. Both drivers usually then exchange waves.
Epic scenery, cosy pubs and a strong community spirit drew Suzy Bennett from East London to a remote village on Dartmoor over a decade ago. She travels everywhere with her dog, Ziggy.
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