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The best of the south west: A family trip to Plymouth, Devon [FAMILY TRAVEL REVIEW]

We explore the adventures that make a visit to the UK city of Plymouth fun for the whole family


Posted: 15 December 2014
by Catherine Hudson

The Moorland Garden Hotel, Dartmoor
Fruit and homemade biscuits in our room on arrival
The amazing original ballroom at the Moorland Garden Hotel
Local steak and handcut chips at the Moorland Garden Hotel
The National Marine Aquarium
The National Marine Aquarium
The National Marine Aquarium jellyfish
Fish of the day at The Dock restaurant
Creme brûlée desert at The Dock
A family snap at the Mayflower Steps
The Plymouth Gin Distillery
The Plymouth Gin Distillery tour and bar

The ocean city of Plymouth has a rich and colourful history, boasting the esteemed credential of being the place that the famed Mayflower ship departed from in 1620. With the Pilgrim Fathers onboard, the loaded vessel set sail from Plymouth harbour to discover the New World. Plenty of intriguing history to be swotting up on, then. The Barbican area that surrounds the Mayflower steps is still a riot of cobbled streets, narrow staircases and narrow passageways - ripe for reminiscing over old sailor’s stories. Plymouth’s intriguing past and seafront location should surely make it a draw for UK bound holidaymakers in their dozens. However, damage caused by over 20 individual bomb raids during the Second World War means that reams of nondescript, sixties style tower blocks and shopping centres were quickly built in the years that followed. Therefore it has not been a city traditionally associated with natural beauty or refined taste. But times are changing. Plymouth has quietly been transforming itself from an ugly sixties building block, to a buzzing, metropolitan city of the south west, with a growing reputation for a fantastic food scene and numerous attractions to offer tourists. It is also making the most of it’s amazing Dartmoor National Park locality. We took a trip to see what it could offer to keep an intrepid family entertained. 

The journey

Plymouth is easily reached via car, but the transport links in the city are fantastic. Frequent buses throughout the city will keep you mobile and taxis are readily available; so why not leave the car at home and take the train? We travelled on First Great Western direct from London Paddington. With a journey time of under four hours you can sit back and enjoy the comfort, as well as the views. After Exeter, the route up to Newton Abbot is coastal. It is the closest train track route in the country to the sea and provides a brilliant ‘first-look’ at the beautiful scenery that the south west of England has to offer. 

Where we stayed

Although there are many fine hotels popping up in the city, we chose to stay on the outskirts to make the most of the close proximity to Dartmoor National Park. In fact, the Moorland Garden Hotel is situated on Dartmoor itself and is just a 15 minute taxi ride from Plymouth station. Children will love spotting the Dartmoor ponies that roam free on the moors - there were a few waiting to greet us at the hotel entrance. Recently refurbished to a high standard, the Moorland Gardens still feels like a home from home. The rooms are elegant but comfortable and the food in the restaurant and pub bar are renowned, making use of local ingredients and having won awards for the taste and quality. We especially enjoyed the locally sourced rump steak with handcut chips. The hotel hosts lots of weddings, and has a spectacular ballroom to do so, including the original 1930s sprung wooden dancefloor and chandeliers - a real sight to be seen! We wonder how many kids have enjoyed skidding around this dancefloor on their knees?

Outside, there is plenty of room to run around, including a large lawned area and a rustic, wild flower meadow, within which the hotel can host bespoke treasure hunts and picnics. It is a great base from which to blow away the cobwebs and breathe in that fresh moor land air. Activities we would recommend would be cycling and rambling. Get stuck in and go for a walk, build dams in the streams and race to the tops of the hills. Being rosy-cheeked and slightly out of breath are the sign of a successful day. 

When you want to head into the Plymouth, there is a bus stop that runs from right outside the hotel straight to the city centre, which takes around 30 minutes. Alternatively, the hotel will call you a taxi which will arrive in around 10 minutes or so.

DON'T MISS… Our exclusive reader offer for a stay at the Moorland Garden Hotel, details further below

Marine Aquarium

Finding an activity to satisfy different generations can be tricky, but you can’t go wrong with a trip to an aquarium. And a visit to the National Marine Aquarium is just the ticket. Natural habitats have been lovingly recreated for the sea-dwelling creatures to make their homes in, with many of the tanks displaying exactly what you would see if you went for a dive off the shore of Plymouth. It makes it relevant and relatable. Kind of like going on a school trip, but a really fun one. The National Marine Aquarium is first and foremostly a charity that works to conserve our marine environments. The staff are knowledgable and friendly. We saw an octopus being given a prawn in a tube, and the game is for her to work out how to unscrew the lid to eat it. It was like watching an alternate universe episode of the Crystal Maze. 

There are, of course, the big ticket shark and stingray tanks, which are incredible. The glass is curved at one point, which attracts the stingrays to float overhead because they think it is the floor of the tank. There is also a sea turtle, which is housed permanently in the National Marine Aquarium because it has epilepsy and, without the provision of daily medication that she receives, would die in the open ocean. She is a highlight for both new and returning guests. 

But our favourite were the little guys - the translucent, halogen light-filled jellyfish that twirl and whirl around as if on a slow motion washing machine cycle, and the fish that can survive both in and out of water and can sometimes be seen posing on rocks. And, how could we forget, the cute little clown fish - which, did you know, also come in black and white as well as the more familiar orange 'Nemo' shade?

There is also a soft play area for kids, a cafe with an uninterrupted view of the harbour, a supervised crafts area, and a stunning education centre - reserved for school visits. 

What did we eat? 

One of the most exciting things about the rejuvenation of Plymouth is the gaining focus on it's tantalising food scene. Fresh fish is obviously on the menu, and the sauces and accompaniments being dreamt up by the city's chefs are fittingly delicious. The Barbican is a great place to spend a whole day, and offers a multitude of dining options. From the freshest caught fish and chips to restaurants with a reputation - such as the Barbican Kitchen, founded in 2006 by the Tanner brothers, there is something to suit every taste and budget. The Barbican is easily reached via the town centre and the Drake Circus shopping mall, or via a seafront walk along the Hoe. We ate at the Dolphin Brazzerie, a harbour front restaurant which is pleasant for lunch, (order the fish special or the steak), and a welcome pitstop in between the sightseeing and shopping.

Our favourite meal during our weekend stay was at The Dock, a new restaurant at King Point Marina. Family run, The Dock is open as a cafe all day and a restaurant at night. We had heard rumours that this place was good, rumblings about breakfast have been circulating, but we visited for dinner, coming in from the cold and rainy night outside. The approach was a little unusual, since it is located near the ferry entrance, but our misgivings were put to rest with a warm welcome and a cosy booth reserved for us. Part of the regeneration of the Coastal Quarter in the Millbay area, this is obviously a place to be seen since it was fully booked and buzzing. It strikes the balance between casual (dress, atmosphere and menu) and refined (cocktails, fine local ingredients and up and coming location), making for a hip and fun place to eat with the family or as a couple. We indulged in scallops with a pea puree and pancetta to start and carried on the fish theme with a sea bass special for our main. Local ingredients are in abundance, so make the most of the mussel pot, Cornish cheeses and Devon crab - as well as the puddings served with lashings of cream. 

What else is there to do in Plymouth? 

Gin, a stalwart of our drinks cabinet, has become somewhat trendy in recent years. Fans of the drink, old and new, can learn about it's production at the Blackfriars Plymouth Gin distillery with a fascinating walking tour of the building. Located in the Barbican, it is England's oldest working gin distillery, operating since 1793. It is said that some of the Pilgrim Fathers stayed in the building before setting sail on the Mayflower. The tour lasts around 40 minutes and takes in the stunning distilling room, which wouldn't look out of place in a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a brief history of the brand and a tasting, including a look at the dry ingredients used to make the unique Plymouth gin. Guests will also receive a token for £1 off any bottle in the shop and a voucher for a tasty gin and tonic in the bar above. The bar is worth a visit for the beautiful architecture, it feels almost like stepping back in time. There is a selection of soft drinks also available. 

Costs £7 per person. Black Friars Distillery, 60 Southside Street, The Barbican, PL1 2LQ. Tel:  01752 665 292

Further attractions:

  • The Hoe - Stroll along the Hoe promenade to take in the city seafront. Lots of green space here for running around, too, and usually great kite flying weather
  • Smeaton’s Tower - a 72 foot lighthouse offering stunning views of Plymouth city and seafront (adults £2.60, children £2.30)
  • Royal William Yard - part of the Coastal Quarter regeneration project these grade 1 former Royal Naval buildings have been transformed into a picturesque hub of shops and restaurants. Home to one of the best bakeries in the city. 
  • Drake’s Circus - the biggest and best shopping centre in the city with all your favourite high street shops

Essential information

Travel: First Great Western

Advance single fares from London Paddington to Plymouth start at £15.90

For the best value tickets and offers buy before you board at www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk , download the mobile app or telephone 03457 000125.

Accommodation: The Moorland Garden Hotel

Rooms at the Moorland Garden Hotel start from £100.00 per night (based on two people sharing) with breakfast.

The Moorland Garden Hotel, Yelverton, Dartmoor, PL20 6DA. 01822 852245

EXCLUSIVE READER OFFER

Enjoy a relaxing pre-Christmas Break during December for just £99 per couple per night. This offer includes a three course dinner in the award winning Wildflower Restaurant, accommodation for two in a garden Room and a full English breakfast. Valid subject to availability from 1st November to 23rd December. To book please call 01822 852245 quoting ‘Junior magazine’.

Restaurants:

The Dock

King Point Marina, Brunel Way, Plymouth PL1 3EF Tel: 01752 424297

www.thedockplymouth.co.uk

The Dolphin House Brazzerie

Sutton Harbour, Plymouth, Devon PL4 0DW Tel: 01752 254879

www.dolphinhousebrazzerie.co.uk

For more information on Plymouth visit: www.visitplymouth.com

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