Jenny Ward, her husband, Matt, and their children, twins Thomas and Trudy, 6, and Lottie, 3
WHERE WE WENT
Soar Mill Cove Hotel, near Salcombe, South Devon
WHY WE WENT
My parents were strictly Benidorm or bust – thanks to the package holiday boom of the Eighties – so my childhood holidays were spent on the Costas. So when my husband got misty-eyed about summers in Cornwall, Wales and, his favourite, Devon, I felt I’d missed out on the wonders to be found on our doorstep and wanted to share that with our children. But because I was just dipping my toe into the ‘staycation’ experience, we opted for a long weekend to start with and, as I like my home comforts, I steered my husband away from his first choice of camping, to the slightly more luxurious Soar Mill Cove Hotel.
Because Soar Mill Cove is so secluded (which makes it so peaceful and unspoiled), a car is really essential for reaching it, especially with children in tow. We drove from our home in Reading, which took a little over four hours, including stops. If you want to travel by train, the pretty town of Totnes (more on that later) is the nearest rail station, about 45 minutes’ drive away, and you can pick up a hire car from there. The best bit of the journey for us was escaping the monotony of the M5 and driving down ever-narrower roads, until we were carving our way through tiny country lanes cut deep into the heathland, tentatively beeping at each corner, surrounded by walls of greenery. As we sensed the coast was nearing, thanks to circling seagulls overhead and increasing amounts of bright yellow gorse bushes, our excitement built.
On arriving at the hotel (which, although remote is well signposted), we weren’t disappointed. The setting is impressive – nestled into a wild hillside, with tantalising views out to sea and little trails and walking paths begging to be explored.
The hotel has been run by the Makepeace clan for three generations, so they know a thing or two about catering for families. Each of the 22 rooms, including our family suite, have their own private patios, complete with chairs and sunloungers – and there’s no need to pack towels or robes for the saltwater, spring-fed indoor pool (happily heated to a balmy 86 degrees), as they’re provided. And don’t worry about bringing lots of baby kit either – cots, highchairs and baby listeners are available free of charge, as are baby meals.
In the ten-acre grounds there is plenty to do, including pitch and putt golf, lawn tennis, table tennis and snooker, as well as a children’s playroom and outside play area – however it was the beach below that was beckoning to us, with Thomas and Trudy especially desperate to see what lay below the green fields in front on the hotel…
It’s a somewhat strenuous walk down to the beach, but so worth it – this was real Famous Five territory, and I could see why Matt loved it as a boy. The cove is full of rock pools, nooks, crannies and caves to explore and hide in (or shelter in when the weather is not at its best). The black rocks jutting out of the golden sand looked rather like stegosaurus bones – this is the Jurassic coast, after all – so this is what told the children they were. I think they believed me, or at least wanted to. The kids were happy simply chasing each other with long, thick ribbons of seaweed and poking around for crabs in the pools, but in warmer weather the beach is safe for swimming and paddling and there are plenty of perfect spots for setting up camp for the day.
If you want to spend a lot of time on the beach, but don’t fancy walking much, nearby Hope Cove is similarly picturesque, but more accessible (particularly if you have a buggy), while three local beaches have Blue Flag awards: Bigbury On Sea, Blackpool Sands and Challaborough.
Arriving back at the hotel, we were all a bit tired from our exertions (particularly Matt, who gave Lottie a piggyback for the final leg of the climb back), so we were delighted to take a complimentary homemade cream tea, in the comfy lounge, as we plotted what we’d do for the rest of our stay.
For me, top of the list was testing out that pool with the twins (and having a sneaky look at the sauna and spa facilities), while Matt caught forty winks in our room with Lottie.
WHAT WE ATE
There’s a high tea for children daily at 5pm, and they can also can eat children’s meals in the relaxed, unfussy Serendipity restaurant until 8.30pm, with tot-pleasing fare such as local sausages and mash or pasta with homemade tomato or cheese sauce on offer, which meant we could all dine together on the first couple of nights. On our final evening, however, Matt and I took advantage of the babysitting service so we could have a bit of adult time. Head chef Ian MacDonald’s two-Rosette prix fixe menu is £35 for three courses, but on our last night we treated ourselves to a la carte. I couldn’t resist Ian’s speciality shellfish soup, creamy Soar bay chowder, topped with a succulent fillet of seabass, while Matt loved his melt-in-the-mouth pork belly. If we were staying longer we’d probably stay in one of the site’s self-catering properties (perfect families looking for a bit more space or groups of friends) to save on dining costs!
THINGS TO DO
The next morning, after breakfast – the children and I went continental, while Matt tucked into Salcombe smokies (smoked mackerel) – we made the short drive to the town the fish are named after (you can actually walk to Salcombe from Soar Mill Cove, which takes about an hour, but it would have been a bit of a stretch for the children). Postcard pretty and small enough to explore without the youngsters getting bored (excellent ice creams from Salcombe Dairy helped), there are lots of craft shops and little boutiques for a bit of shopping, as well as ample opportunity to sample the famed fresh local crab.
South Devon is perfect for lovers of the great outdoors, but when the weather’s not great, there are still are lots of activities for families to enjoy (especially since little legs might not appreciate long, rugged South Coast Path walks).
After a couple of days of sticking close to the hotel, we fancied going a bit further afield, so decided to drive to Totnes. The town has a laidback hippyish vibe, with lots of vegetarian restaurants and new age shops, but we were really here to let the train take the strain – the South Devon Railway, to be more precise.
We’d worked out that we could catch the steam train from Totnes to nearby Buckfastleigh, home to the Buckfast Butterflies & Dartmoor Otter Sanctuary, adjacent to the station. This pleased train-mad Thomas no end, while Trudy and Lottie’s love of all creatures great and small was satisfied by watching the otters feeding time (an even less orderly affair than breakfasts at our house), and by getting up close and personal to a variety of fluttery friends in the butterfly house.
While driving back, we saw so many other places that we wanted to stop at and explore, but sadly our time was running out. I was converted – just a few days in Devon had created so many happy family memories, I couldn’t wait to come back and make some more.
FOR MORE FUN IN THE AREA:
With a different animal activity, show or display every half hour, friendly inhabitants and four free rides at this award-winning attraction, you certainly won’t be bored. A big draw are the farm’s ultra-cute miniature piglets – a must for Peppa fans – they even partake in piglet races, showing what they lack in size they make up for in speed and determination. Adult £13.95; child (3-16yrs) £9.95; under-3s free. Cycle to Pennywell and you’ll be rewarded with half price admission, plus there’s a free Pennywell Pal soft toy with every child ticket purchased online.
Woodlands family theme park
The largest family theme park in the south west, Woodlands is set in 90 acres of parkland. There are plenty of action-packed rides for thrillseekers, as well as the gentler charms of toboggan slides and pedal boats. With nine different zones, including the wet and wild Sea Monster Zone and tranquil Fantasi Forest Zone, there’s something for all the family. On rainy days the indoor Fun Factories have four rides, including the stomach-churning Trauma Tower and the Circus Train. Tickets from £13.68 for adults and children over 110cm when booked in advance; child 92-110cm £9.64; child under 92cm free.
This quirky National Trust property is on the way to Salcombe from the hotel and is well worth stopping by. The former seaside home of inventor and scientist Otto Overbeck affords glorious views over the estuary. The gardens complete with palm trees, banana plants, citrus and olive trees will fascinate adults, while children may feel they’ve been transported to more tropical climes. If the coastal breeze is a little keen, inside the house is a treasure trove of curiosities to delight little ones, such as a magical polyphon (a disc-playing music box) and collections of butterflies, dolls, toys and model boats. There’s also a charming tearoom and sheltered, sunny, terrace for some well-earned refreshments. Adult £8; child £4; family (1 adult) £12; family £20.
If you’re on a budget, you can still enjoy the area’s beautiful countryside and beaches, as there’s a wealth of campsites and caravan parks that cater for families to choose from – such as the picturesque Karrageen Caravan & Camping Park in nearby Bolberry.
Prices per room for two adults B&B at Soar Mill Cove Hotel start from £140 low season (the hotel is closed December and January). Children aged 2 to 15 are included when sharing a family room with two adults. Children dine for free at high tea or dinner when adults are on a dinner, bed and breakfast rate. Guests with children in a separate or connected room are charged 75 per cent of the room rate. Babies up to 2 years old stay free of charge. For more rates and further information, visit soarmillcove.co.uk