The often overlooked English peninsula of Cornwall is experiencing a tourism renaissance thanks to the runaway success of Poldark. The BBC TV period drama may be fictional, but its portrayal of the Cornish mining industry and its sea-faring past is a good intro to the area’s rich history. To see it all in real life, take off on a five-day road-trip across the countryside.
From your starting point in Penzance, drive east along the coast to Marazion. Here, you can cross the causeway to St. Michael’s Mount and wander through the ancient abbey — a grant from Edward the Confessor to the Benedictines in the 11th century.
Continue east and spend the afternoon on the storied Lizard Peninsula, where you’ll learn about maritime history at the Lizard lighthouse, discover the marvels of transatlantic communication at Poldhu Cove’s Marconi Centre, then dive the shipwrecks around the notoriously treacherous Manacles Rocks.
Backtrack north, then east to Helford and check into Budock Vean, a timeless property on the banks of Helford River. Book a cottage-like Signature Room — complete with Elemis amenities and views of the property’s golf course — then enjoy some pampering at the Natural Health Spa.
Start the day in Falmouth, where the famous harbor has a distinguished history as a major port. It housed a large US Navy base during World War II, and was the first English town to receive news of Lord Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. From there, it’s hard to miss Pendennis Castle, which overlooks the harbor. Built by King Henry VIII, the fort-like structure offers great insight to the area’s military history.
Discover more of Cornwall’s seafaring past at Charlestown with a walk along the 18th century harbor, and a visit to the Charlestown Shipwreck & Heritage Centre. En route to Fowey, detour to Lostwithiel to sneak in a tour of Restormel Castle, a 13th century Norman castle that fell to ruins after the English Civil War.
Overlooking the namesake fishing village, Fowey Hall is a charming country manor-style hotel. British author Kenneth Grahame was a frequent visitor, and it’s said Fowey Hall was the inspiration for Toad Hall in his book, The Wind in the Willows. With vintage-inspired furnishings, a cozy library, and a resident dog, it’s easy to imagine that Toad, Mole and friends might show up for dinner.
Drive west through Cornwall’s legendary Bodmin Moors, an expansive landscape that’s marked by granite “tors,” aka free-standing rock formations that jut out against the rolling hillsides. At Bodmin Jail, hear stories about miscreants who were imprisoned — and sometimes hanged — and learn why the jail provided safe haven for the Crown Jewels during World War I, before being closed in 1927.
Then, head for the (admittedly gimmicky) Jamaica Inn, a hotel-and-pub combo with over 300 years of history. Author Daphne du Maurier stayed here in the 1930s, and the experience inspired her eponymous novel. The onsite Smuggler’s Museum offers a fascinating look at Cornwall’s notorious smuggling past, while the du Maurier display is a must for literature fans.
Perched above Mawgan Porth Beach, The Scarlet is a sophisticated boutique address sporting dramatic cliff and ocean vistas. The property features plenty of space to relax, including an expansive alfresco terrace, and a library stocked with books and pool tables. Catch the sunset from the spa’s clifftop hot tubs.
Mosey south along the coast towards St. Ives, basking in traditional Cornish village charm along the way. At St. Agnes, learn about Cornwall’s mining history at Wheal Coates, a former tin mine, then explore the labyrinth of caves at Trevaunance Cove. In the afternoon, explore St. Ives’ artistic history at Leach Pottery — in operation since 1920 — and the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, where you can visit the artist’s former studio.
Check into the Boskerris, a small boutique hotel just five minutes from St. Ives. The relaxed, New England-inspired property offers plenty of creature comforts — think warm, plush throws in the lounge, in-room massages, and White Company amenities. Enjoy aperitifs on the terrace that offers sweeping views of St. Ives Bay.
Take the coastal drive back towards Penzance. At Zennor, pop into St. Senara’s Church to see the famous Mermaid Chair, said to be the one from a famous Cornish folk tale. Near St. Just, visit the Levant and Botallack mines to learn more about Cornwall’s rich mining heritage. If time permits, take in a performance at the historic Minack Theatre in Porthcurno.
Several airlines, including British Airways, Virgin and Cathay Pacific, fly to London Heathrow daily. From there, Great Western Railway offers daily services between London Paddington and Penzance, including the Night Riviera overnight service.
There are plenty of car rental companies in Penzance, including Europcar, and Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Make sure to book a Sat Nav system.