For families, it's not the surf. Or the beaches. It’s not the estuary creeks, the fishing villages or the Eden Project. It’s not even Stein’s fish and chips. The real reason that families fall for Cornwall is that it epitomises the childhood holiday idyll: tradition spiced with adventure; lazy days on the beach that soon turn into days of discovery. There’s only one drawback – Cornwall is addictive. With the A30 providing a fast-track through the southwest, it’s now a straightforward, if occasionally congested, matter to reach this far-flung corner of Britain. Whether you base yourself on the north or south coast depends on whether you prefer your sea rough or smooth. Popular north coast resorts like Bude and Newquay are a sandy sprint from some of Cornwall’s finest surf, while Perranporth, Polzeath, Porthtowan and the beaches fringing Trevose Head also offer that frothy cocktail of Atlantic breakers, surf schools and beach cafés.
However, not all towns and villages along the north coast have become shrines to neoprene. Pretty Padstow pays homage to the local king of seafood, Rick Stein, while Boscastle and Tintagel are enshrouded in history – from Arthurian legends to the great floods of 2004. That’s not to say the action stops outside the surf resorts. You can sea kayak from the rocky cove at Port Quin, hike to the clifftop lookout at Boscastle or cycle the Camel Trail from Padstow to Wadebridge and beyond towards Bodmin Moor – a wonderfully wild and woody side of Cornwall that’s often overlooked.
By contrast, the south coast of Cornwall is for messing about in boats. The sheltered estuaries of the Fal, Fowey and Helford are ideal for launching a canoe, while Falmouth has boat trips galore and the shipshape National Maritime Museum. A short ferry ride across the harbour leads to St Mawes, gateway to the Roseland Peninsula, where narrow lanes fizzle out into sleepy fishing villages and peaceful coves. St Austell, of course, is synonymous with the iconic Eden Project, while other south Cornwall highlights include the fishing ports of Charlestown, Looe and Mevagissey.
Undecided? Then head for the tip of Cornwall, where you’ll find the best of both worlds – surf at Whitesand Bay, smugglers’ coves on the Lizard Peninsula, fine art and fine food at St Ives, picture-book fishing villages like Mousehole, boat trips from Penzance, plus the big attractions of Land’s End and St Michael’s Mount.
Distil everything that is magical about a family holiday in Cornwall – from surf, sand and rock pools to wild headlands and cutesy fishing villages – and you could well end up with this wonderful walk to Land’s End… Following the South West Coast Path, the route starts at Gwenver, descending to a wave-pummelled beach at the northern end of Whitesand Bay. At low tide, you can then stroll the best part of a mile along the entire scimitar curve of mainland Britain’s most westerly beach, playing chicken with the waves, flying a kite, or simply enjoying the sensation of bare feet sinking into powder-soft sand.
Approaching Sennen Cove, you’ll reach a lifeguard-patrolled zone where it’s safe to swim or surf (wetsuits can be hired from the surf shop), but be sure to leave enough time to explore the rock pools near the lifeboat ramp. Continue through the village, stopping at The Blue Lagoon for fish and chips, or Breakers Café for a pasty. Peruse the local crafts in the Round House and Capstan Gallery, then rejoin the coastal path for the steady climb to an old coastguard’s lookout. There’s a superb view across Whitesand Bay from here, but it’s to the west that your eyes are drawn – to heather-capped cliffs and a filigree of waves marching westwards to Land’s End. Follow the clifftop path, passing the remains of Maen Castle, an Iron Age fort, then celebrate your arrival at the tip of Britain with ice creams at the First and Last House. There’s an RSPB Wildlife Discovery Centre here where, for free, you can use telescopes to scan for dolphins, seals and basking sharks. The walk from Gwenver to Land’s End is around two miles, or local buses run from Land’s End to Sennen Cove and Penzance.
You really are spoilt for choice when it comes to beaches in Cornwall. On the north coast, Daymer Bay is a good choice for young families, as it is a sheltered, sandy beach with a gentle slope, while both Holywell Bay and Porthgwidden are large sandy beaches, with big potential for sandcastle builders. There’s not much of a beach at Port Isaac, but it is still worth a visit for those
in search of quintessential Cornish fishing villages. Here, children will enjoy trying a spot of shrimping or crabbing at low tide, or head east to neighbouring Port Gaverne where there’s a small, sheltered beach with an abundance of rock pools.
Novice surfers might like to head to the breakwater at Summerleaze (Bude’s town beach) which channels small, manageable waves into the harbour. South of Bude, Widemouth Bay has over a mile of sand and promises excellent surfing for beginners to pros. If the surf’s up, Fistral Beach in Newquay will be packed. Britain’s best-known, and original, surf spot, this iconic beach is located just to the west of Newquay. Fistral often has six- to eight-foot waves, while the northern end of the beach is where surfers come in search of the Cribbar, a monster wave of over 20 feet. Obviously, this one’s for experts only, but it makes breathtaking viewing from the shore, too. Watergate Bay is Newquay’s biggest and most spectacular beach, with golden sands swept by reliable surf.
If things get too serious on Fistral or Watergate, try Newquay’s more sheltered town beaches. Not only are Great Western, Lusty Glaze, Porth and Towan ideal for novice surfers, but they are also good all-round family beaches. As well as surfing lessons, the Lusty Glaze Adventure Centre runs a Junior Baywatch programme of basic surf rescue techniques and rock-pool discovery.
On the south Cornwall coast, there are several family beaches within easy reach of Falmouth. Closest to the town centre, Castle Beach is overlooked by Pendennis Castle and is a good spot for rock pooling and a picnic. Gyllyngvase is Falmouth’s sandy resort beach with water sports and a popular café, while Swanpool is a sheltered sand and pebble cove with crazy golf and a café. Just a mile south of Falmouth, Maenporth is
a sandy beach tucked out of the wind that offers a good range of water sports activities.
Porthcurno is stunning, even by Cornish standards, and nestles beneath the stone ramparts of the open-air clifftop Minack Theatre, brilliant turquoise waters lapping its sweep of white sand. Then, as the tide drops, the beach slowly creeps along the rocky coast, stranding an enticing string of rock pools and knee-deep lagoons. Keep your eyes peeled for glimpses of dolphins, seals and basking sharks near Porthcurno – especially if you venture west towards Land’s End, stopping perhaps for a snorkel in the craggy cove at Porthgwarra. Finally, Praa Sands (pronounced locally as “Pray Sands”) is another of Cornwall’s most popular family beaches. It has a golden mile of sand, excellent swimming, great rock pools and even a dollop of surf when there’s a south-coast swell. A smattering of beachfront shops, a café and a water sports centre make Praa a doddle for a relaxed day out.
Apart from the glorious beaches, Cornwall has a host of other family activities on offer, many with a nautical, seafaring spin. Fowey Marine Adventures (tel: 01726 832300; www.fowey-marine-adventures.co.uk) offers wildlife cruises with added oomph, as the 12-seater Kernow Explorer whisks you out of Fowey in search of dolphins, seals, basking sharks, sunfish, seabirds and peregrine falcons. Mermaid Pleasure Trips (tel: 0790 173 1201; www.cornwallboattrips.com) is run by skipper Adrian Thomas, a veteran of local ferries and lifeboats, who knows the seas around Penzance like the back of his hand. A cruise aboard his boat, Mermaid ll, is a great opportunity not only to catch mackerel, observe seals and haul in lobster and crab pots, but also to learn about the history and legends of this beautiful stretch of coast.
For families who prefer fun on dry land, why not try camel riding at Rosuick Farm in Helston (tel: 01326 231119; www.cornishcamels.com). Choose from either a 15-minute farm walk or an hour-long trek, then enjoy a snack at the farm’s organic café. There are also plenty of places to hire bikes, should you fancy taking to two wheels. Cornish Coast Adventures offer a two-hour ride along the estuary between Padstow and Wadebridge, cycling at low tide to spot little egrets, curlews and oystercatchers. Encourage tired legs with the promise of Granny Wobbly’s Fudge Pantry in Wadebridge or, if you’re heading to Padstow, there’s heavenly ice cream at Stein’s Deli.
For big days out, try Cornwall’s Crealy Great Adventure Park, near Wadebridge (tel: 01841 540276; www.crealy.co.uk). Divided rather grandly into six realms, Crealy is essentially a giant outdoor and indoor playground with lots of slides (wet and dry), a pirate swing and a handful of high-tech rides, including a log flume. For toddlers, there are also farm animals and a sunflower maze. There are adrenalin rushes aplenty for older children at Flambards in Helston (tel: 01326 573404; www.flambards.co.uk), while younger ones can get a buzz from gentle alternatives, like the Cornish Mine Train, and a chance to meet Peppa Pig.
For the more techy types out there, FutureWorld @ Goonhilly (tel: 0800 679593; www.goonhilly.bt.com) is quite possibly Britain’s most stimulating science centre. As the name suggests, it’s about visions of the future, so your child can interact with a robot, send an email into space or design a city fit for the next century.
Best reached by the excellent Park & Float at Ponsharden, on the outskirts of Falmouth, the National Maritime Museum (tel: 01326 313388; www.nmmc.co.uk) is awash with nautical nuggets. The Set Sail gallery uses audiovisual technology to evoke epic voyages, and there are displays about incredible tales of survival at sea and ripping yarns about smugglers and shipwrecks. Don’t forget to climb to the lookout point, with its panoramic views over Falmouth Harbour, or work out how to prevent mass mutiny on the fleet of remote-controlled yachts.
With all this skullduggery action on offer, how do you sell a day out at an art gallery to your child? You could mention that the Tate St Ives’ (tel: 01736 796226; www.tate.org.uk) busy programme of family activities sometimes spill onto Porthmeor Beach. Or you could simply combine a visit with a fun-filled day that includes a spot of crabbing along the waterfront followed by ice creams all round.
Other appealing activities include visits to the Blue Reef Aquarium or the zoo, both in Newquay, railway adventures at Bodmin & Wenford Railway or Lappa Valley Steam Railway, or a historical trip to Pendennis Castle, with its gun deck simulation. Animal lovers will enjoy the National Seal Sanctuary in Gweek or DairyLand Farm World near Newquay, described as a “gold-top, full-fat farm park”, where you can milk Clarabelle the cow.
No holiday in Cornwall would be complete without a visit to the eco star of the west, the Eden Project (tel: 01726 811911; www.edenproject.com). Bulging from an old china clay pit like a giant string of silvery frogspawn, Eden’s vast biomes have become an icon of sustainability. Not only is the Eden Project immensely fun and educational for children, it also helps them reconnect with the environment, as they can reach out and discover a succession of earth habitats, from jungle to global veggie patch. Most people head straight for the Rainforest or Mediterranean biomes, but don’t overlook the outdoor space – it’s bursting with shortcuts, hideaways, stepping stones, spy-holes and sandpits. You might also bump into a Pollinator, one of Eden’s resident interpreters who act as guides and impromptu storytellers.
With so much to see and do, the Eden Project is definitely worth a visit. And if you can’t manage to fit it into your busy itinerary, what better reason than to promise yourself to reconvene next year? Same place, same time.
Check out Best beaches for kids: Britain in our UK section.