It wasn’t the cute bobbing boats that did it, nor the dedicated games room in the hotel’s grounds. Oddly, it was the spa that provoked the screams of delight from my two boys. They were clearly too accustomed to travelling in style, I thought. We had arrived at Fowey Hall on Cornwall’s south coast for a few days and they had spotted the possibilities of the calm, serene pool glistening without a dent in its surface. (Of course, rather than its zoning-out potential, that I had immediately spotted with a pleased sigh, it was no doubt the possibility of dive-bombing and under water racing that was exciting them.)
I had convinced my other half that holidaying in the UK would be a good thing, despite his scepticism about the weather and his usual penchant for a week somewhere exotic. So I had steered the family to Cornwall for a few days break, buoyed up by nostalgic memories of idyllic childhood bucket-and-spade holidays.
Obviously some things had to change. When I last visited as a child, my parents would have pre-booked a ‘cottage’ to rent and we’d arrive in our slow-moving car, thanks to my mum’s over-zealous packing. We’d think nothing of being squeezed in, three kids in the back, elbows digging into each other, feet propped up on cool bags laden with a week’s supplies and worn out by endless rounds of ‘Eye Spy’. Pillows were wedged against the windows, and the boot was packed so high we travelled virtually in semi-darkness due to the sun being blocked out. The cottage, of course, was usually a dank little house somewhere, rather than a charming, squeaky-clean rectory my mum probably had hoped for. Sometimes we would strike lucky. One year, there was an idyllic farm cottage in Bude, with its own path winding down to a little cove, charming lace curtains billowed at the windows and, unbelievably, freshly baked bread was waiting for us. Other times, not. Like the ‘cottage’ that turned out to be a rocking caravan in a mud-sodden field.
But my memories of these days are not of the practicalities and the sinking heart when you discovered the mildewed cutlery and dodgy sofas. It is of endless days on the beach, sandy toes, sandwiches behind the wind-break and jaunts around a harbour, ice cream in hand. My mum begs to differ, of course, but the point was I wanted to recreate those memories for my kids, now.
Cottages were out so I broke them in gently. Two nights in a family-friendly hotel. And we weren’t disappointed. Fowey Hall, overlooks the charming harbour town of Fowey. This 19th century house is possibly the grandest place to stay in the area while offering a whole host of facilities for young ones and parents alike.
While parents take in the Queen Anne-style chateau, complete with French antiques, baroque plasterwork, wood panelling and sumptuous Wilton carpets, the kids can run free amid the walled gardens and manicured lawns. Whether it’s bouncing on the trampoline, climbing around the tucked-away playground, or puppet-making in the supervised Four Bears Den kids club, there’s something for all ages. My boys were proof it worked – my four-year-old loved the freedom of running around and outdoors play and my older nine-year-old got stuck into the table football, computer games and ping pong, not to mention football with dad in the meadow. Of course, both loved the swimming pool (and nobody did bat an eye when the splashing got, er, spirited.) And that’s the attraction of the place. Nearly every guest we saw had children in tow and so there wasn’t any of the tip-toeing around and shushing that normally comes hand in hand when staying in a hotel.
Usually it can be meal times that are the most stressful, but at Fowey Hall, it was where they came into their own. The elegant dining room offers a locally-sourced menu (Cornish crab, fresh lobster, oysters from Fowey River) to satisfy the adults as well as a well-thought out children’s menu. Its flung-open French doors leading out to a terrace, laid-back staff and chatty atmosphere meant wonderfully relaxed meal-times. Although children are offered a separate early children’s supper here, many guests, like us, chose to dine with their children.
If you can tear yourself away from the hotel for a while, there’s tons to do in the area for families. A 10-minute walk into Fowey itself (be warned about the steep hill on the way back), is a must. Unusual boutiques filled with local crafts, foodstuffs and gifts line winding lanes, while the harbour itself is the perfect place to enjoy a Cornish clotted-cream ice-cream while people- and boat-watching. For lunch or supper, Food For Thought On The Quay is a good choice for its wide choice of fresh fish and hearty family meals.
We decided to take a cruise around Fowey River, which took in the rugged coastal cliffs with its rich bird life (Herons, Curlew and Sandpipers are all resident, and if you are lucky you may spot a Little Egret or Kingfisher), St Catherine’s Castle, which guards the harbour entrance, and the du Maurier family house.
Some of Cornwall’s highlights are also just short drives from the hotel – the Eden Project, Falmouth Maritime Museum and the Lost Gardens of Heligan – great for longer day trips. But if it is simply exploring the sandy beaches and rock pools that you are after, then this side of Cornwall offers some of the most spectacular coastline around. Polzeath, The Greenaway and Pentire Glaze Haven are all excellent choices.
But we couldn’t come to Cornwall and not try a spot of self-catering, so after our days of pampered bliss were up, we headed over to Carbis Bay, West Cornwall, a 50-minute drive away. We were staying at Hawke’s Point – modern apartments which pride themselves on being a luxury home-from-home.
It was a world away from the cramped places that defined self-catering of the 70s. Here, perched on the hill overlooking Carbis Bay itself, our apartment was ultra-modern, super-luxe and, yes, squeaky clean with panoramic views across the ocean and its own brass telescope to make the most of checking out what’s on the horizon. This is self-catering but not what my parents knew of.
Our two-bedroom apartment blended the luxury of a five-star hotel with the benefit of the space, privacy and practicalities of having your own home. In fact, it’s probably better than your own home – with its French boutique crossed with The Hamptons-style. With all the entertainment you could want – flat screen TV with Freeview, DVD player and selection of films, board games and Nintendo Wii – there was no chance of hearing the dreaded “I’m bored.”
Some thinking ahead and pre-planning with the genius Cornish food ordering service – food4myholiday.com – meant that we had no urgent food shops to do when we got there. You simply order your everyday staples, which are all locally sourced by chefs, and they are delivered on the day of your arrival. Kitchens are also superbly equipped (think Dualit toasters and kettles, Villeroy & Boch crockery, cutlery and glassware) – perfect for families who don’t necessarily want to dine out all the time. Meanwhile, the bedrooms and bathrooms are as good as any top-notch hotel – Egyptian cotton sheets, Hypnos mattresses, cotton robes and REN products.
Having surpassed all expectations, with its luxe surroundings and cosy décor, it was actually hard to find the inclination to get moving (this was definitely not what I remembered self-catering to be – back then we couldn’t wait to get out). But needs must, so a wander down to the beach was in order (complete with handy picnic basket that comes with the property).
Carbis Bay itself is a just a three-minute walk away and ideal for days spent lazing around. About a mile long, it is a wide expanse of soft sand and lovely and sheltered – a rarity in Cornwall and ideal for soaking up some rays.
The artists’ haven of St Ives is just a 20-minute walk along a stunning cliff path from here but for those with younger children, the 10-minute train from Carbis Bay Train station to St Ives is charming with stunning scenery on the way.
St Ives itself is a wonderful place to meander around with its fishermen’s cottages, pretty little shops and fantastic restaurants. The Tate St Ives is also a great way to spend a rainy morning with its kids’ room, where children can recreate works of art, and the Hepworth Family Sculpture Trail.
This side of Cornwall was certainly the more accessible to the endless things to see and do in this area. You can drive down to Porthcurno, near Land’s End for dolphin or seal spotting. Or choose one of the many beautiful gardens this area is renowned for, because of its mild climate. The vast 25-acre Trengwainton Garden is a magical place filled with trees and flowers sourced from around the world. It often has children’s activities, such as treasure hunts and trails. In any case, it is a superb place to take a picnic and bask in the idyllic surroundings.
Back at Hawke’s Point after a day spent exploring, I wondered how the so-called self-catering was going down. I glanced around – husband was lying cocooned in a fur throw, glass of wine in hand and boys were excitedly trying to stargaze through the telescope. I looked over at the gleaming kitchen and smiled at memories of formica and bony beds. ‘Are you enjoying it boys?” I asked. And my little one answered, “It’s great. If we could move in here but ask the chef who cooked the breakfast at Fowey Hall to come, then this would be the perfect way to live.” My thoughts exactly.
Click here for more details of family-friendly attractions in Cornwall