Cornwall holds a very special place in my heart. Every childhood summer, Easter break or long weekend I would drag a bag full of crayons, books and wellies (you can’t forget wellies in Cornwall) onto the train for the five hour plus journey to Penzance. The farthermost tip of the West Country is my spiritual holiday home; synonymous with end-of-school happy excitement and the blissful ignorance of youth. Yet when someone suggested I visit St Mawes, I had to ask them where it was. Turns out, it’s in my beloved Cornwall.
A half-hour drive from the Cornish capital of Truro, on a grassy headland opposite Falmouth, St Mawes was once, post-World War Two, regarded as England’s answer to St Tropez. Less famous than the Sloaney-surf paradise of Rock or the cultural hub of St Ives, it’s one of a dozen hidden and overlooked delights of Cornwall’s Roseland Heritage Coast.
We stayed at The Idle Rocks hotel, an iconic part of St Mawes since 1913, and one of the luxury draws during the town’s faux Tropez period, which even has a 1972 collection of poetry dedicated to it by Zofia Ilinska. In 2010 it was bought by former chairman of Aston Martin, David Richards and his wife Karen, who is the brains behind the hotel’s coastal, contemporary décor; part beachcomber hut part cosy country home.
Home is the emphasis here. Each of the 19 bedrooms has a chalk board on its door; displaying the names of the guests. The rooms are divine: each individually decorated, with roll-top bath tubs, window seats and balconies overlooking the sea or the village, and a turn down service that includes a hot water bottle you can snuggle up to as you read one of the Daphne du Maurier books strategically left on the bedside.
Food here is another draw, created by head chef Guy Owen, a Gordon Ramsay alumnus who joined the hotel two years ago. The evening menu was a delicious feast that stood by Owen’s credo of celebrating Cornish food and local produce and, on my first afternoon, I made the most of the uncharacteristically warm October sunshine and had afternoon tea on the terrace – with Owen’s homemade scones and selection of pastries so tempting, a German couple stole one when I was reading my book, thinking they were complimentary.
The next day we braced the reassuringly familiar Cornish rain and made for St Just in Roseland, a ‘Cornwall area of outstanding natural beauty’ just two miles north of St Mawes. The 13th century church there is flanked by palm trees, a nod to the region’s Gulf Stream climate, and the path leading from it to St Just Creek is paved with granite blocks carved with quotations from the bible. The coastal path from there to St Mawes is a rewarding mix of hidden rocky beaches and St Mawes Castle itself, which juts dramatically out to sea.
We then head up to Trelissick Garden; a National Trust property surrounded by riverside woodland walks in the Feock area of Cornwall. Nearby you’ll find the scenic estuary of the River Fal, with woodland and vistas reminiscent of North America, making it evident why the King Harry Ferry that crosses it, was once voted one of the ten most scenic ferry journeys in the world. We are there to meet James Brown who owns The Wild Oyster company, a family-run business that fishes from a 120-year old wooden boat called Ada. He specialises in Cornish Native Oysters, an increasingly rare and delicious variety that are traditionally and sustainably harvested on the steep banks of the estuary. Though weather conditions made heading out on Ada impossible, we were granted access to his purging tanks and bountiful knowledge, before trying the oysters; shucked and prepared by Guy Owen himself, back at the warmth of the hotel.
For dinner on our second night, we ventured to The Idle Rocks’ sister property; The St Mawes Hotel in the heart of town by the harbour. It bares the same hallmarks as The Idle Rocks; unpretentious luxury with a cosy feel, but it also boasts a 25-seat cinema with leather reclining seats and fluffy blankets. We were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves for a National Theatre Encore showing of Benedict Cumberbatch’s 2015 Barbican production of Hamlet, as part of the hotel’s Live Arts season.
Our final day was spent at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, the vast, varied and stunning gardens of the old Heligan estate, half way between the small and worth-visiting villages of Mevagissey and Charlestown (where, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch some Poldark filming).
Our guide to Heligan was The Idle Rocks’s brilliant Nikki Owen. The sister of Guy (yes, it’s a family affair) used to work at the gardens and facilitated their first partnership with a hotel for The Idle Rocks; meaning produce grown at Heligan will now be served there. The farmlands incorporate pigs, sheep, geese and even emus and the gardens are a marvel, varying from Italian to Japanese design, with so many seemingly incongruous tropical plants, including a functioning Victorian pineapple pit, that you feel temporarily transported to another world.
This bizarre haven of palm trees and highland cows felt the perfect conclusion to a weekend full of surprises. The Roseland Coast of Cornwall was a secret well worth unearthing.