A beach scene in Padstow, on Cornwall’s north coast

Photo by Matthew Jessop/Visit Cornwall

Once summertime rolls around, it’s only natural to want to escape the big cities for some serious beach time. You’ll find that, plus a whole lot more, just a four- to five-hour drive from London in the county of Cornwall, in southwest England.

Cornwall is similar in some ways to California, sharing not only a mild climate with summer temps averaging in the mid 60s, but also great surfing, up-and-coming wine country, celebrity chef restaurants, a world class summer music festival (featuring Björk and the Queens of the Stone Age this year), and spectacular subtropical gardens.

If the scenery looks familiar, it’s because numerous movies, including Mansfield Park, Alice in Wonderland, and Rebecca have all been shot on location in a historic port city in the region.

Here are five essential stops in Cornwall to ensure a perfect summer getaway.

Start your Cornwall tour in Padstow, a picturesque working fishing port set at the head of the Camel River on the region’s north coast. It’s a great base for enjoying the seaside, with popular tide pools to explore at low tide. The town is home to two well-known celebrity-chef seafood restaurants, Paul Ainsworth at No. 6 and Stein’s Fish and Chips, where the food is so good you may want to stay awhile. (And you can: Chef Rick Stein also maintains several nearby cottages and properties for rent with an appropriately beachy vibe.)

From Padstow, you can head 17 miles down the coast to the beachfront town of Newquay—the hub of Cornwall surfing culture—to take surfing lessons, too.

Sparkling wines from Camel Valley Vineyard have been served at Buckingham Palace.

Photo by Amy Sherman

Camel Valley Vineyard, Bodmin
Cornwall is well known for its sparkling wines, and Camel Valley Vineyard is the place to go for award-winning varieties that have been served to royalty at Buckingham Palace and, as of last year, to first-class passengers on British Airways flights.

Located 15 miles inland from Padstow, it’s the largest of the handful of wineries in Cornwall and offers visitors guided tours, winetasting, walking paths, and picnic spots.

Charlestown’s harbor will look familiar to fans of the TV show Poldark because it is featured as a filming location. The historic port dates to the late Georgian period and makes for a fine place to spot tall ships.

Pop into the Shipwreck and Heritage Centre, a quirky museum filled with artifacts found from shipwrecks and ship and diving dioramas; it’s fun for kids and history buffs alike. To refuel, stop at the cozy tearoom Loveday’s, right above the museum, for a drink or the quintessential cream tea.

St. Austell
Set just inland 1.4 miles from Charlestown is St. Austell, which was a market town and is home to several beaches, gardens, and the St. Austell Brewery.

The family-owned business dates back to 1851, making it one of the oldest in Cornwall. It makes a number of small-batch beers that you can try and buy on-site; try the Ruby Jack, a fruity and spicy red ale named for a Cornish prizefighter, who died in 1917.

The biomes at Eden Project afford a model for sustainable ecological development.

Photo by Amy Sherman

England is home to numerous spectacular gardens, and Cornwall features some that are anything but typical, including the Eden Project.

A model for sustainable ecological development, it’s built on the site of a derelict clay pit and consists of two biomes—one of which is home to the largest indoor rain forest in the world. It serves as an educational center, but is also the site of a star-powered annual summer concert series called the Eden Sessions, held throughout June and July. This year’s lineup includes Massive Attack, Björk, Jack Johnson, and Queens of the Stone Age.

Or try The Lost Gardens of Heligan, a restored “productive garden” first established in the mid-18th century that offers visitors a behind-the-scenes peek into the workings of fruit and vegetable gardens of a traditional Victorian manor. The 200-acre estate also features ornamental gardens, including a spectacular subtropical jungle. Much of the gardens serves as a tribute to their many workers over the years, many of whom lost their lives in World War I.

The most southerly city on mainland England, Truro’s centerpiece is the large Gothic revival Truro Cathedral built between 1880 and 1910 that’s as impressive on the inside as it is on the outside.

If you’re looking for somewhere unique to stay, try the Alverton Hotel, a former convent that was built by the same architect as the cathedral. Its on-site restaurant serves afternoon tea, as well as Sunday lunch and a traditional British roast dinner with a choice of roasted meats, starters, and sweets.

Nearby, the Great Cornish Food Store comes filled with locally produced food, from ciders and ales to charcuterie, confections, produce, meat, and an impressive array of gins. It’s a great place to stock up on souvenirs or provisions for a picnic. Head to the highly rated Hooked restaurant for wonderfully prepared fresh local seafood in a multitude of styles from tapas to seafood curry and shellfish platters.

Sample clotted-cream ice cream, straight from the source, at Callestick Farm, outside of Truro.

Photo by Amy Sherman

The pride of Cornwall is its clotted cream, essential for a proper cream tea. It’s not just slathered on scones, but also finds its way into outstanding ice cream. Worth seeking out just 15 minutes from Truro town center by car is Callestick Farm, where you can see the ice cream being made then step into its tearoom to sample it. Using the milk of its 300 grass-fed cows, Callestick’s ice cream comes in some 30 flavors, four of which are clotted-cream ice creams mixed with fruit such as black currant, rhubarb, or raspberry.

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Amy Sherman