I've found a pocket of Cornwall that's not overrun with tourists

Jade Conroy
·7-min read
Portloe Cornwall - PHILIP FENTON
Portloe Cornwall - PHILIP FENTON

The photos of St Ives, Polzeath and Padstow that surfaced on the news last week painted a picture of Cornwall bursting at the seams. Beaches, covered in colourful windbreakers and parasols, were compared to Benidorm; people packed down cobbled lanes looked very un-socially distanced.

I, however, had a very different experience when I visited last week. I spent a couple of nights in Portloe – a fishing village found along the jagged Roseland Peninsula on the south coast – and found it soul-soothingly, mind-emptying-ly peaceful.

I was staying at The Lugger, the only hotel in the village, which mercifully still had space when I tentatively booked it at the start of July. The inn, which dates back to 1701 but has operated as a hotel for almost 70 years, is the beating heart of the place, overlooking the water’s edge.

You drop down along a steep road to the hotel’s front door, past huge, lilac hydrangea bushes and traditional cottages with windows painted in primary colours. Some are more modern, with huge, picture windows, sometimes populated with a person reclined on a chaise-longue looking out to the big blue. And it is many, many shades of blue: teal, turquoise, navy – all of which can be seen from the hotel’s rooms, windows and terraces.

The property, made up from a cluster of buildings once believed to be boathouses and workshops, is intertwined with the village’s history. It was once run by a man who was involved with the smuggling of French brandy – the cottages that still line the harbour were built to house the Coastguards hired to help with the issue.

The Lugger, Portloe - RUSSELL BINNS
The Lugger, Portloe - RUSSELL BINNS

The best beaches in Cornwall 

It is still very much is intertwined (though the naughty brandy has since gone) – working fishing boats are parked next to the water, while black, gnarly lobster traps (the results of which end up on The Lugger’s restaurant menu) are loaded up seemingly anywhere in the street where there’s a free spot. Imagery of locals engaged in activities line walls – in my bedroom, a woman poses on some rocks in a stylish one-piece, about to go for a dip.

Outside my window was a similar picture: at sunset, while the white exterior of the house turned a peachy pink as it reflected the sunset, two little girls splashed around. The following morning, a local lady went for a dip while I ate my morning eggs.

Days out from Portloe included a visit to The Lost Gardens of Heligan, a 30-minute drive away, which is currently asking visitors to pre-book timed slots, and also has a one-way system in its busiest parts. Nearby St Mawes, the bouji, pastel-tinged, so-called Cornish Riviera, was also on the sedate side – a surprising fact considering it has recently been voted the most popular seaside town in Britain. Gorran Haven quay at sunset saw locals meet up for a dip or else a glass of wine on the sand. It was decidedly un-Benidorm.

Pendower Beach - Jade Conroy
Pendower Beach - Jade Conroy

The best hotels in Cornwall

Carne and Pendower beaches, which join at low tide to create a mile-long stretch of sand, are a four-mile walk away from The Lugger along the South West Coastal path (or a 10-minute drive). They were also noticeably quiet on a scorching day. I compared it to a visit I made to Watergate Bay, on the north coast near Newquay, a few days earlier, and the difference was marked. Perhaps it’s because the still waters of the south coast don’t attract the surfing set? Or perhaps desperate beach-goers aren’t researching anywhere else to go other than the headline spots?

The National Trust-owned Porthcurnick Beach was busier owing to the Hidden Hut, a must-visit beach shack which, in normal times, runs weekly communal feast nights on the beach. At the moment it’s offering polished take-aways (think fish soup, dahl, homemade hummus and flatbreads) that create quite the queues (they form before they’re even open).

Porthcurnick Beach
Porthcurnick Beach

The best things to do in Cornwall 

Each day ended back in our room with the windows open, sun-kissed and sleepy, being lulled to rest by the lapping water.

I’m sure I will be criticised for outing Portloe, when those who know it, love it and, importantly, live there want it to remain off the radar. The local notice board had a note pinned up asking people to put themselves forward to help those who are isolated or shielding, starkly reminding me of the fine balance between the pull of tourism down here and keeping Covid at bay, especially in these small pockets.

But Portloe is not a place where the masses can descend and linger for too long – there’s the little cove, of course, perfect for a swim, and you can join the coastal path here, but that’s about it.

At dinner, I asked the waiter if there was anywhere to go for a nightcap other than the hotel. He told me that the pub up the hill has been "shut for a while now", even before Covid. He also told me that the post office shut around 15 years ago. So if you want to spend any proper time here, you have to spend it at The Lugger.

For more to do, the waiter told me, I’d have to go to Veryan, the next village along, which has a cute post office, a pub and a hotel. “It’s positively cosmopolitan compared to here.”

Double rooms from £155 in low season; and from £340 in high. Cottages are £300 a night in low season; and from £360 in high. Breakfast included. (01872 501322; luggerhotel.com

The best things to do near Portloe

The Lost Gardens of Heligan 

The Lost Gardens of Heligan are magical. Rediscovered by Tim Smit, the man behind the Eden Project, this is an astonishing recovery of a full-blown Victorian country house garden. The site is extensive so it’s possible to find peace here even in high summer. Beyond the flamboyant Himalayan spring garden are productive Edwardian fruit, flower and vegetable gardens and, deeper in the valley, shady pools where damselflies dance. 

heligan.com

Lost Gardens of Heligan
Lost Gardens of Heligan

St Mawes

It’ll be time for tea when you reach yachtie St Mawes. Book ahead for afternoon tea at The Idle Rocks (Harbourside; 01326 270270), a feast of finger sandwiches, bite-sized cakes and locally grown Tregothnan tea served on its elegant harbourfront terrace. Afterwards, walk along the seafront to St Mawes Castle, built by Henry VIII. 

Idle Rocks - HUGH HASTINGS
Idle Rocks - HUGH HASTINGS

Drive the Roseland Peninsula

If the thought of navigating narrow roads between high hedges doesn’t scare you, take a rollercoaster drive from Mevagissey through the historic fishing communities of Gorran Haven, Porthluney Cove, ending at Portloe, which provide plenty of chances to stop for a dip.

Porthluney Cove

Tucked away down narrow lanes between Porthscatho and Mevagissey, this large beach is south-facing and privately owned (but open to the public). There’s no lifeguard, but it is a sheltered bay and the swimming conditions are good. Porthluney has a seasonal café, and dogs are allowed but must be kept on leads from June-September. 

Porthluney Cove - IANWOOL
Porthluney Cove - IANWOOL

The Hidden Hut 

Imaginative fish and seafood, sandwiches and salads, served by local couple Simon and Jemma Stallard from a shack on a quiet beach on the Roseland peninsula. The concept has attracted a huge following especially for its themed weekly feast nights but at the moment they are only offering takeaway. 

hiddenhut.co.uk

The Hidden Hut
The Hidden Hut

By Gill Charlton 

To read our full guide to Cornwall, see here