Since the dawn of British rail travel, England’s county of Cornwall – with fierce Atlantic waves, lusty fields, and breathtakingly perilous cliffs – has provided a breath of fresh air for city and suburb-dwellers.
Newquay (pronounced New-Key), one of Cornwall’s most popular destinations, has become known – for better or worse – as not only a mecca for surfing but a place for young people to let their hair down with a group of friends.
Newquay’s sometimes-seedy reputation as a party town is balanced by one of its most essential resources – an international airport. This means that Cornwall, once “5 hours from London” by car or train, is now easily accessible from many parts of the UK and Europe.
Because my husband’s family lives in beautiful Cornwall, we visit every two years, and each time, discover new places. Recently, on a quest for new family activities in Cornwall, we found some interesting Atlantic Canadian connections!
Here are 12 fantastic family activities in Cornwall, England.
1. Learn to surf on Fistral Beach
Surfing is one of our favourite family activities in Cornwall. As regular visitors, we always try to make some time for the waves.
In 2016, my young daughter learned to surf at Surf Sanctuary. Four years later, I finally drummed up the courage to squeeze into a wetsuit and try the experience myself, with Fistral Beach Surf School.
In our view, there is no better place in the world to try and catch a wave than Fistral Beach, but we’re not the only ones – The Wave Project is a Cornwall-based charity that brings vulnerable teens into surfing for the first time – changing lives through surf therapy.
2. Eat a Cornish pasty – but watch out for those seagulls!
Foodies will never be disappointed in Cornwall – home to the cream tea, delicious fresh seafood, strong ciders and sharp cheeses. But above all, you can’t leave Cornwall without tasting a proper Cornish Pasty (rhymes with ‘nasty’)– a folded pie, made from shortcrust pastry traditionally filled with beef, potato, turnip and onion, a little bit of salt and pepper.
Head to Cornwall during the last week of February for the Cornish Pasty Championships – a week that celebrates this iconic Cornish treat.
Warning: if you are eating your pasty al-fresco, be on guard for hungry seagulls. They love pasties too – and they adore snatching them out of unsuspecting tourists’ hands. This happened to me on my first ever visit to Cornwall, as I was leaning on a guard rail, overlooking a beach, when an aggressive seagull swooped down and stole my pasty! I nearly cried with anger.
Note: here is an easy Cornish Pasty recipe that you can make at home!
3. Explore TV locations for Poldark and Doc Martin
Over the past two decades, Cornwall’s popularity has been boosted by modern culture. First, there are the TV chefs, with celebrity chef Rick Stein opening restaurants in Padstow, Falmouth, Porthleven and Fistral Beach, and his cheeky counterpart Jamie Oliver opening the restaurant and charity, 15, which closed in 2019.
On the dramatic side, both the addictive historical drama series, Poldark and the lighthearted comedy series, Doc Martin have attracted location-curious followers from both England and North America. If you’re a fan of Poldark, Visit Cornwall has a list of Family Friendly Poldark walks. To visit the fictional town of Portwenn, just head to Port Isaac.
4. Chill out at the Boardmasters Surf, Skate and Music Festival
There are some bank holiday weekends that families are advised to avoid, and this might be one of them… unless you and your teenagers are up for a BIG party! Boardmasters is one of the UK’s most incredible music festivals, coinciding with important men’s women’s and under-12 surf competitions. The festival also has a well-being section with hot tubs and champagne, massage, aerial yoga, and a wellness café.
5. Spend a Day at Newquay Zoo and Trenance Gardens
Lions, Penguins and Monkeys – Oh my! Newquay Zoo is one of Cornwall’s most popular visitor attractions, set in 13 acres of sub-tropical gardens, just a few steps from the town centre. Admission to the zoo supports the Wild Planet Trust – an education, scientific and conservation charity. Our favourite creatures at Newquay Zoo? The Penguins!
Stick around for a while to enjoy the area’s other attractions: Trenance Gardens (perfect for poo-sticks!), Newquay Waterworld Leisure Centre, a tennis club with mini-courts that have an hourly rental for visitors (rackets and balls included!), and the challenging Concrete Waves outdoor skate park (admission: free!).
Next to the leisure centre, there is a fantastic playground, with a smaller gated playground for toddlers; a mini-golf course; a small gauge railway which toot-toots around in a circle all day (current admission: $4 per ride), and of course – an ice-cream kiosk.
6. Savour a cream tea at a historic hotel
A cream tea is scones, jam and clotted cream (a thick, almost gooey cream with a crusty top), served with a pot of tea.
The fact is, you can get a cream tea almost anywhere in Cornwall, but our favourite spot is The Headland Hotel, overlooking Fistral Beach. The Headland itself has a fascinating history. Used as a military hospital during both wars, it is said to be haunted – surely one of the aspects that made it a perfect location for the filming of the 1990’s Nicolas Roeg film, The Witches.
Another great place for a cream tea (pictured above) is a slightly less grand location: Steam, the Brewer and Bean coffee shop at the Great Western Hotel in Newquay. Slightly less posh – but nearer to the town centre…and very delicious!
7. Drama (and a Newfoundland connection) at the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno
About 6 miles away from Land’s End – the most westerly point of England is Porthcurno, best known for the Minack Theatre – an outdoor performance space carved out of the cliff, which has been in use since the 1930’s, with scenery as dramatic as the performances themselves.
Porthcurno also has a deep military history. Once the base for the first undersea telegraph cables, and a submarine communications station, it was also the location of the first trans-Atlantic wireless signal, sent by Marconi to Signal Hill in St. John’s Newfoundland in 1901.
8. Visit the Tate Gallery at St. Ives – and another Newfoundland connection!
St. Ives feels more Mediterranean than Cornish. Strolling through the narrow cobbled lanes and small row houses and fisherman’s huts hugging the white sand coastline, you might feel like you have arrived on a distant Greek Island.
For us, the Tate Gallery, which showcases modern art from the famous St. Ives school of artists, is one of the most valuable family activities in Cornwall.
One of our favourite St. Ives artists is Alfred Wallis – a Cornish fisherman who was brought into the art movement by a group of younger artists who admired his naive style.
For our family, his paintings are reminiscent of Maritime Canadian folk art.
On a free museum tour (included with admission), we discovered that in his youth as a fisherman, Wallis did visit Newfoundland, which could explain the icebergs depicted in the painting shown above, entitled ‘Voyage to Labrador.’ Another fascinating connection!
9. Ride the train to Lappa Valley amusement park
One of the sweetest family activities in Cornwall is a day trip to Lappa Valley – an enchanting small-gauge railway network and adventure park, set in 35 acres of Cornish woodland. Take a taxi from Newquay, or follow the signs through the very twisty roads, and arrive in a magical place that truly, only the locals know. Steam trains, electric trains, mini-golf, bumper cars, a trampoline, and acres and acres of fields to play in makes Lappa Valley the ideal location for a family day out.
Local Tip: the on-site restaurant at Lappa Valley has superb, healthy Cornish food, wine and beer.
10. Explore a brave new world at the Eden Project
On your first visit to the Eden Project, your jaw will drop, and you say to yourself, “whaaat? How does this place exist?” The modern infrastructure – two larger than life geometrically shaped biomes, set in a deep valley that once housed a china clay quarry, the landscape now brimming with lush greenery – looks like something out of a 1960’s Star Trek set.
Inside the biodomes, there is crucial research happening. The Eden project is not only a family attraction but also an educational charity – a place to learn, eat and explore. Near St. Austell, you should arrive early, and plan to stay all day.
As a destination, Cornwall is highly recommend it for any family that loves to go off the beaten track. If you plan carefully (remember: there are some overcrowded “bank holiday” weekends you should avoid), your family will be rewarded with beautiful scenery, stunning beaches, world-class art galleries, jaw-dropping gardens, energizing activities – and plenty of scrumptious things to eat and drink.
We visited Cornwall with our family in 2019, during a time that was safe for travel. To our family there – and to Cornwall itself – we love you…and we can’t wait to see you again soon. x