As I sat in St Ives earlier this summer, looking out over Porthmeor Beach, it didn’t look in the least bit overcrowded. Yes, it was a gloriously hot weekend, but once you settle into a Cornish resort you’ll find there really is space for everyone in these tourist havens. The problem is getting there.
By mid-morning, the A30 and the A38 – running down the county’s spine – start turning red on satnavs. On narrow roads leading to photogenic beaches, especially down to Porthcurno near Land’s End, traffic comes to a standstill as tourists fail to stop in passing places when they can see a bus is coming. Bus drivers never reverse!
To change location, you need to choose your times of travel carefully (before 9am, over lunch, early evening) and research the parking plays. Cornwall Council has put up electronic signboards indicating how many spaces are available in its car parks in tourist honeypots. Do not believe them. Always make for the park-and-ride or high-season parking field on the way in to town and preserve your sanity.
Or do as the locals do – pack a picnic lunch and set off along the coastal path to a hidden cove, revealed only as the tide goes out, and easily located on Ordnance Survey maps. Or head for the moor and survey the majestic prehistoric landscape from a granite tor as it sweeps down to the deep blue sea.
Here are some of my favourite places to escape to when the summer tourist horde descends.
Church Cove, Gunwalloe
The road from Helston ends at Church Cove where the National Trust operates a car park with ample extra parking in a field. Above is Mullion Golf Club (est 1895) and below a west-facing sand-and-shingle beach sheltered by cliffs and the medieval church of St Wynwallow. It’s popular with families in high summer but never too crowded. A short coast path leads around to Poldhu Cove and its beach cafe. Below the pub is a four-mile pebble beach, hardly used because the swimming is dangerous, and a perfect escape from the crowds.
Phillack Towns, St Ives Bay
Tucked away down a long dirt track off the Gwithian road lies Sandy Acres (standard pitches from £20. 07494 436635; sandy-acres.co.uk), a back-to-nature campsite where tents and beach pods are hidden in the high dunes. It allows day visitors to use its car park for £6 giving access to a clifftop cafe from where it’s a steep hike down through the dunes to the sea. This puts most people off, but the reward is worth the effort: a near-empty stretch of a three-mile-long beach perfect for bodyboarding on a warm summer’s day, or for a sheltered picnic in the dunes watching the sun set over St Ives.
Polkerris Beach, Par
This privately owned beach in St Austell Bay, close to Daphne du Maurier’s home Menabilly, shelves gently into a calm sea – ideal for families. There’s field parking up the lane and a watersports shack renting paddleboards and kayaks and offering sailing and windsurfing lessons (01736 813306; porthkerrisbeach.com). A lovely coastal walk leads to National Trust-owned Gribben Head past a succession of sandy coves revealed at low tide.
Whipsiddery Beach, Newquay
This quiet sheltered sandy strand hides beneath the towering cliffs that separate Newquay from Watergate Bay. Accessed down a steep cliff staircase, Whipsiddery’s glories are revealed at low tide. There are caves and rockpools to explore, offshore islets to clamber over, and rock faces striped pink, purple and blue that will have you reaching for your camera. It’s a mile-long walk to The Beach Hut for lunch (double rooms from £185 per night; 01637 860543; watergatebay.co.uk), or make it a round-trip and climb up to the Hangout, a portacabin serving excellent coffee and pastries, before taking the clifftop path back again.
Penzance has plenty to offer the curious holidaymaker, yet its car parks are rarely full. On a fine day, the open-air Jubilee Pool is a must. Restored to its Art Deco glory, it includes a heated geothermal pool; prebook timed tickets through jubileepool.co.uk.
Historic Chapel Street is filled with shops selling vintage clothing and collectables as well as owner-curated No.56, FishboyPZ and the Cornwall Contemporary Gallery, while Penlee House (penleehouse.org.uk) currently has an emotive exhibition of works depicting the local fishing community by Victorian artist Walter Langley. Make time to stroll the pretty Georgian streets and gardens west of Chapel Street or stroll the newly restored promenade to visit Newlyn’s fishing fleet.
Stay longer and treat yourself to a stylish room at Chapel House (from £150 per night; 07810 020617; chapelhousepz.co.uk) where owner Susan Stuart will reveal her secret places before you head out for a rose gin cocktail at 45 Queen Street (wearetinkture.com) and supper at The Shore (theshorerestaurant.uk).
Led by Ann Muller of award-winning Ann’s Pasties, villagers have fought all attempts to turn the village green into a tarred car park and helped preserve the character of Britain’s most southerly community – one of the few not hollowed out by second-home owners.
A spider’s web of lanes fans out from the green to the sea, created so that Victorian ladies could walk to viewpoints to sketch without getting their skirts muddy. Along the way are cafes stacked with homemade cakes, jams and ice cream and shops selling souvenirs made from the colourful serpentine rock. Locals drive from afar to shop at Retallacks, the local butcher, and so should you.
A short drive from St Austell, this Georgian harbour’s historic granite quays and resident tall ships have earned it World Heritage Site status, yet it is rarely mobbed as it has no beach. The Shipwreck Treasure Museum (shipwreckcharlestown.co.uk) displays a fascinating haul rescued from over 100 wrecks and has a special summer exhibition on Shackleton’s Antarctic voyages. Among the galleries and eateries, The Longstore (thelongstore.co.uk) stands out, known for its steaks and beer-battered fish, and you can sign up in advance for a day sail or sunset cruise on one of the village’s classic topsail schooners at charlestownharbour.com.
Geevor Mine Walk, Pendeen
This six-mile walk starts from the car park at one of Britain’s last working tin mines where former miners give site tours. Head east on the coast to Portheras Cove with its soft pale sand and azure sea before striking inland on signed footpaths to climb up to the Iron Age Chun Castle hillfort. From here there are panoramic views over the Land’s End peninsula and the ancient field system spread out below like a green patchwork skirt. In August, the trail west over Woon Gumpus Common winds through pillows of vibrant purple heather and yellow gorse back down to Trewellard and the sea. The Ordnance Survey’s app OS Maps makes navigation easy.
Fal River Walk, Falmouth
Although this walk starts from St Mawes, it is easier and more fun to park in Falmouth and take the ferry across the estuary. After picking up one of Da Bara Bakery’s cinnamon buns (surely Britain’s finest) walk up past the Tresanton Hotel and follow the coast path around the headland and back along the River Fal to St Just in Roseland, whose church has a noted sub-tropical garden. A signed trail wends upstream towards the King Harry Ferry which will take you across to Trelissick Garden from where you can catch an Enterprise Boat back to Falmouth (book tickets ahead in summer). For further information, visit falriver.co.uk.
For a rainy day
It’s tempting to head for the warmth of the Eden Project’s biomes on a wet day, but that’s a mistake in high summer, as everyone else will have the same idea. Instead, head for Lanhydrock House near Bodmin, built in the 1630s by Sir richard Robartes, a Truro tin merchant, whose descendants lived here until 1969 when it was handed over to the National Trust. The rooms vividly evoke High Victorian ideals of life above and below stairs, and such is the attention to detail that you feel the family has just stepped out for a while.
The ancient stannary town of Lostwithiel (lostwithiel.org.uk), a few miles south, is packed with quirky independent shops selling antiques, recycled homewares and local arts and crafts.
For inspiration on where to stay, read Telegraph Travel's guide to the best hotels in Cornwall.