Mike Martin is an experienced travel journalist, who has written for Teletext and The Travel Editor for 10 years. He specializes in food and wine, culture and activities holidays, and his favorite country is France.
The British seaside town of St. Ives is set on a peninsula jutting out of the north coast of Cornwall, with three lovely, sandy beaches within 10 minutes’ walk. In fact, pretty much everything in St. Ives is 10 minutes’ walk away — the Tate to the Barbara Hepworth Museum, for example, is no more than five minutes up a hill. St Ives is accessible by train or car, or you can fly to Newquay and get a taxi or car rental for the 45-minute journey. The train is a hefty six hours from London Paddington, but the last leg, along a single track to St. Ives, hugs the coastline and is a glorious way to go, if you’re not in a hurry.
St Ives has lots of tiny, meandering roads, perfect for walking around, but not so great for driving. The joy of walking is increased by lots of delis, high-quality food and clothes shops and a tiny cinema, the Royal, with one screen. Its art deco architecture was clearly stunning when it was built, but now it’s badly in need of a lick of preferably white paint. Worth a look though if it’s raining. The reason many people descend on St. Ives though are its beaches, even in winter. It has three sandy, clean beaches within 10 minutes’ walk of each other, and more if you’re up for a bracing walk. The depth of the water means it’s a surfer’s paradise, and its microclimate makes surfing or even swimming possible even in the off season.
Where To Stay
While the town has plenty of plain B&Bs, what it once lacked was a really luxurious place to stay – there are still no 5-star hotels in the town. The Sail Lofts offer rare boutique accommodations with upscale amenities. This complex emerged from the ruins of an old pilchard pressing factory in a Grand Designs-like project. It cost the owner Philip Griffiths and his partner just £1.5m, and for that he has 12 airy, beautifully finished apartments set around a garden courtyard.
Each flat has its own front door – there is no shared space – fitted kitchen, well-finished bathrooms and massive lounges, some with a view of Porthgwidden Beach. Even if you can’t see the beach, you can hear the booming surf, it’s that close. They are all fitted out with cotton sheets, duck feather duvets, designer furniture pieces, digital TVs and iPod docks. Some have a waterproof TV in the shower, and a great view of the harbor. Griffiths has thought of everything – there is a wet room for your wetsuit or surfboard, beach towels and even a bucket and spade. Ask about the food delivery service to save you having to go shopping, and the Art pass – you get unlimited admissions to the Tate, Hepworth and Leach museums, well worth it as each place costs over £5 for a single visit.
- For such a tiny place, St. Ives has a lot going for it, especially if you’re an art fan. Back in the 1930s lots of British artists moved down and stayed during the war. For a long time there was nowhere to display their works, but in 1993 an old gasworks, right on Porthmeor Beach, was knocked down and replaced by the UK’s third Tate Gallery. The Tate offers multimedia walking tour around St. Ives, highlighting sites important to English modernist painter Ben Nicholson’s life and work.
- Nicholson was married to Barbara Hepworth, and her former house, now a museum, is the other must-see in St. Ives, and it’s a brisk walk away. It’s a delightfully personal space, with the ground floor dedicated to a brief history of her remarkable life and achievements, and a picture of her holding a cigarette, a portent of the accident that killed her. The upper floor contains several of her lovely sculptures, which have a more feminine Henry Moore-like quality. They look so gorgeous it’s very hard to resist touching them. But it’s the garden that is the real selling point, a seemingly tropical, south-facing space that packs in lots of sculptures without ever feeling cramped. It also contains her studio, complete with her coat and ashtray – it feels like she’s just snuck out.
- The third place to visit, the Leach Pottery, may be the least-vaunted of the three museums but it has just as much appeal and interest, if on a much smaller scale. It features the pottery of Bernard Leach, a man who turned pottery into an art form thanks to his fascination with all things Japanese, and the displays show clearly how his journey took him to Japan and back to St Ives. The pottery itself is still visible, and now, thanks to Lottery funding, it is a working studio again, with students from around the world learning the craft. Their wares are for sale, many of which are well below the £100 mark, like some lovely espresso cups for £20.
If you’re staying at the Sail Lofts you get a picnic basket, and with several delis and bakeries on your doorstep it’s a shame not to make the most of them. At Fore Street Deli (30a Fore St) you can stock up on fine local cheeses, a bottle of Camel Valley wine, and of course a Cornish pasty, load up the basket and walk the 10-minute climb to the chapel at the point of the peninsula. The tiny chapel has benches outside where you can drink in both the wine and the view.
Not so cheap
Porthminster Restaurant looks like a simple wooden shack from a distance – and 20 years ago a shack is exactly what it was. Now it has been transformed into a whitewashed, bespoke restaurant, with clean lines and quite outstanding seafood all caught locally where possible. The salads and vegetables come from even closer – the garden out the back, so you can eat with a clear conscience. The Fish and Chips (£12.95) is fantastic, and comes with the best tartar sauce in the county.
Classy modern wine bars are still a rarity, so stick to the traditional beams and fireplace pub and you’ll be fine. The Lifeboat Inn (Wharf Road) or the Sloop Inn (Back Lane) are fine for a pint of ale, just don’t expect a wine list or olives.
Dinner Is Served
For superb local produce cooked to perfection, the place to eat is the Alba Restaurant, named after a local shipwreck. The only wreck here was the state of my liver after quaffing some excellent wines, and the house selections are sympathetically chosen to match the food. The food is all seasonal, so it’s difficult to recommend anything specific, but the seafood and cheeses are outstanding. The menu on the website is a guide only, but worth a look, and the building itself is a classically simple, clean affair over two floors with great views of the harbour. It’s right next to the lifeboat house.
Day Trips From St. Ives
For an hour or so…
St. Ives is at the top of a long bay, the other end is Gwithian, and in between there are miles of sandy beaches right along Carbis Bay. You can walk the dog, swim in the sea or simply watch the seals frolicking in the water, an uplifting sight. Take a picnic and enjoy the microclimate and the very clean sea water, but beware of that wind; it can take layers off your skin. Or visit the pretty village of Lelant for some inspiring landscapes.
For the day…
You’ve come all this way – the halfway point between here and London is Exeter – so you might as well go the whole hog and drive to Land’s End. Once you’ve taken the inevitable picture of the signpost, there’s not much to do, so head to Sennen Cove for some surfing or swimming. Or a great day out is the Eden Project at St. Austell, the world’s largest greenhouse. They now have evening concerts and loads of events for kids.
Featured Image: St. Ives Harbour (Shutterstock.com)