The North Cornwall Coast is the stuff of legends – whether you're looking for King Arthur or the coolest surf spots. It's also a spectacularly beautiful region with everything from towering sea cliffs to tiny fishing villages.
From tales of King Arthur and the Beast of Bodmin to Bude’s surf beaches and Stein’s fish & chips, northeast Cornwall is not to be missed. You won’t find mightier sea cliffs anywhere in the county, while A-list attractions like Tintagel, Boscastle and the Camel Trail are not to be missed.
Heading south from the Devon border on the A39 Atlantic Highway, you’ll barely last four miles before Bude lures you to the coast. You can almost hear the rattle of spades on buckets as you approach Summerleaze, Bude’s big family beach with its seawater pool and miles of sand. Instead of rejoining the Atlantic Highway, continue south past the surf beach at Widemouth Bay, following coastal lanes to Crackington Haven – a rollercoaster ride along the rugged backs of Cornwall’s highest sea cliffs (reaching 224m). You won’t find another decent sandy beach until Trebarwith, south of Tintagel. Instead there are some spectacular, if thigh-twanging, clifftop walks, and two of Cornwall’s most enduring and engaging highlights – the definitive smugglers’ hideout that is Boscastle (lovingly restored after the floods of 2004) and the mysterious ruins of Tintagel Castle, legendary birthplace of King Arthur. Both will have your kids wide-eyed with wonder, whether they’re creeping into Merlin’s Cave or clambering above Boscastle’s axe-stroke harbour.
Another glorious stretch of coast, Tintagel Head to Pentire Point extends south in a wide bite of undulating cliffs studded with fishing villages like Port Gaverne, Port Isaac and Port Quin. At Polzeath, surfers get another crack at the white stuff, then it’s all plain sailing in the sheltered waters of the Camel Estuary, where a ferry shuttles back and forth between Rock and Padstow. Cornwall’s gastronomic capital ever since Rick Stein opened a restaurant here in the 1970s, Padstow is also the perfect spot to burn calories on the Camel Trail – a superb 18-mile cycling and walking trail to the edge of Bodmin Moor. Often overlooked, but easily accessible from the coast, the moors have everything from woodland walks and watersports centres to standing stones and steam trains.
It doesn’t matter if you’re shark biscuit (surf speak for bodyboarder), a grommet (young surfer) or a macker-carving dude (someone pretty good cutting smooth turns on big waves), the northwest coast is Cornwall’s surf central, with fantastic beaches almost non-stop from Trevose Head to the Hayle Estuary.
Newquay hogs the limelight. It’s one of Europe’s premier surf spots with legendary Fistral Beach hosting international competitions. The sprawling resort is awash with teenage surf heads lured by a frothy cocktail of Atlantic breakers, alcopops and nightclubs. But don’t let Newquay’s brash reputation put you off. There are plenty of quiet family beaches here, while attractions like the Blue Reef Aquarium and Newquay Zoo top the must-do lists of most children. New developments are driving the resort up-market, while Newquay’s airport ensures that the resort remains well and truly on the map.
It’s not without stiff competition though. A few miles to the north, Watergate Bay comes up trumps, thanks to its superb beach, adrenaline-charged Extreme Academy and family-friendly hotel – not to mention the culinary delights of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant. Further north still, Mawgan Porth has the Bedruthan Steps Hotel and is close to both the Crealy Great Adventure Park and the spectacular beach at Bedruthan Steps (where adventures are inspired by nature).
More sandy beaches fringe the granite headland of Trevose Head, near Padstow, where you can learn to surf at sheltered Harlyn Bay or run wild in the dunes at Constantine while the Atlantic beats its steady thunder on the rocky reefs offshore. Six miles south of Newquay, Holywell Bay is another sensational, dune-backed beach with the added family appeal of a fun park. Perranporth is a busy resort, while St Agnes – or ‘Aggie’ – spills down to pretty Trevaunance Cove in a tumble of rose-clad cottages, galleries and cafés.
Porthtowan has a thriving surf scene and one of the region’s most hip beach cafés, in contrast to the quieter beach at Portreath. Continue south past this former mining port and you enter a spectacular stretch of National Trust coastline, dramatic cliffs finally bowing to the stoic little lighthouse at Godrevy Head, where several miles of glorious beach curl west along broad St Ives Bay.