It’s low tide: a pair of dogs scamper in the distance across pooled water on the ridged sand. Beyond is the white surf, further still the mighty roar of the waves.
Five minutes later the light changes completely: the breeze has cleared the clouds, the outline of the hilly old town is sharp against the blue sky, and the sun warms the golden sand.
Autumn in Newquay is rather lovely – yep, it’s unbelievably our first visit – and nowhere more so than from our tiled veranda overlooking Tolcarne Beach. This private development consists of a weatherboard-clad boutique hotel, self-catering apartments and the highly atmospheric Colonial restaurant.
Situated to the north of the centuries-old harbour and main town centre, the bay is sandwiched between Great Western Beach, where surfing in the UK first started back in 1962, and the delightfully named Lusty Glaze.
Our private veranda quickly becomes central to our holiday experience: seated on comfy wicker chairs, over a few days we observe solo figures standing Gormley-like in the shallows, fishing, brave swimmers wearing just shorts, and wetsuit-clad surfers resting on their boards like seals, some riding the occasional wave. Even if you think the sport is not for you, watching surfers soon proves mesmerising.
While the town only took off, like so many other resorts, with the 19th century inception of the railways, fast forward to 2019 and it’s fair to say Newquay’s formidable reputation precedes it.
Like Brighton, everyone seems to have an opinion on its worth: we suffered an assortment of winces and frowns from locals in our previous location, Falmouth, when we mentioned where we were going next: “it’s all 18-year-olds and hen parties”, we were warned, with sharp intakes-of-breath.
Yet on a midweek in October, the latter are mercifully thin on the ground – but even so, upon our arrival I felt determined to prove naysayers wrong.
An initial stroll
The clifftop stretch above our hotel, burrowed into the base of cliffs on the beach, is rather rundown, with boarded-up hotels and generally dilapidated buildings, some undergoing renovation works. But a short walk past the station to East Street, lined with eateries, leads swiftly to the town centre.
First stop? The expansive green above the main Towan Beach, dominated by The Island, a romantic James Bond-style residence accessed only by suspension bridge (it’s also a holiday home available to rent).
Across the park towards the harbour, steps lead down to the appealingly Mediterranean quayside, with its yellow-wellied fisherman, deep turquoise water, lobster pots and boats bobbing about. And it’s worth continuing south-east to admire the pretty streets of this older part of town; further still is the imposing edifice of the Headland Hotel, which has starred in movies like Roald Dahl’s The Witches.
Now, get your beans
This is a place brimming with good coffee: local faves include Fore St fave Box & Barber, cute micro café-cum-store Sprout and Driftwood, on Cliff Road near the station. Our tips are Pavilion, an elegant barn-like café also on Fore Street, all plywood chairs and house plants, where the espresso’s spot on (it’s also good for brunch); and Fika, a tiny new artisan joint off Bank Street, whose smooth, flavour-packed espresso, with notes of jasmine and dates, becomes our top coffee of this visit to Cornwall. Super-friendly owner Will says he has big plans, from brunch to supper clubs, too.
As the UK’s surf capital, Newquay is a natural mecca for shops selling all manner of related kit – try Married To The Sea, for example – but generally it’s not as much of a retail haven as, say, Falmouth. However, Fore Street is good for a mooch; don’t miss stores like the eco-conscious Good Lyfe.
A note on Watergate Bay
Arguably the most famous stretch of sand in north Cornwall, Watergate Bay is a few miles north, and a must if you have a car. As well as a hotel and popular surf school, not to mention brooding rocks and a wide expanse of sand, there are some fine refreshment options: try the Beach Hut (extremely busy on our visit) for a fish lunch with a view, or the stylish Watchful Mary for pricier bespoke drinks and sharing boards of charcuterie. The bay is also home to Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, if that’s your thing.
And a general road trip around the local bays (there are around a dozen in the vicinity) makes a fun afternoon: the epic, desert-like low-tide sands at Crantock, with towering dunes and its fine position alongside the River Gannel; nearby Fistral Beach, the rightly famous surf mecca, with a useful mix of eating and drinking options along its promenade; and Tolcarne’s pocket-sized neighbouring beach, Lusty Glaze.
Like coastal towns such as Margate or Southampton, Newquay rewards visitors who make an effort to wander off the beaten track. Sadly we didn’t have time for hotly tipped places like the Boathouse in the harbour, Fish House on Fistral Beach, new ceviche specialists Barracrudo, ramen purveyors Miso Miso, quirkily named Wet Dog Pizza and carnivorous ‘roast house’ Rebellion. But here are some we do rate:
The Colonial at Tolcarne Beach has a dreamy interior: wicker furniture, sea-facing windows, wall art and an impressive roaring wood-burner, which proved a little too hot on our mild autumnal evening visit. To the lilting sounds of reggae, we devour juicy tiger prawns, tender calamari with sriracha mayo, a chargrilled 10oz ribeye that sliced pleasingly pink (potent peppercorn sauce on the side); and, best of all, blackened skin-on hake, its flesh just-opaque, with slaw, corn and Caribbean-style rice and peas.
Harbour Fish & Grill is nestled in the cliff above the quayside, a superlative spot for an evening pint-with-a-view even if you’re not in the mood for chef Aaron Janes’ interesting cooking. Within its bohemian surrounds, we enjoy silvery local sardines on rosemary bruschetta, umami-packed smoked haddock risotto with clams and caviar, and a fillet of beef sous vide. It’s paired with truffle pommes puree, bordelaise sauce and an unlikely – but devilishly tasty – pan of ragu made from leftovers.
Bush Pepper is an Australian-owned laidback Fore St dining room showing some outstanding attention to detail, especially in the presentation of these beetroot and fragrant ginger falafels (above), on crispy flatbread with smashed avocado. A chimichurri monkfish risotto, packed with tomatoey richness, offers up deeply savoury notes too.
Two more? East Street’s hip craft beer specialists Lost Brewing Co, whose Buddha Bowls are colourful and nutritious; and Toast, an unpretentious tapas bar on Central Square, with good midweek deals, such as four tapas and a bottle of house wine for £30; recommended are the patatas bravas and the chicken chorizo skewers.
A pub crawl? Oh go on then
Naturally, as a resort town Newquay is awash with booze. Start at the cavernous Red Lion in the old town, perched high above the harbour, then meander down to new clifftop opening 12 Beach Road, with its wines on tap and craft beer, a state-of-the-art woodburner and friendly, knowledgeable staff.
A few minutes’ walk is 55 Yards, a chic front room with bottle shop with Willy Wonka-esque onsite gin distillery; their in-house negroni is a must (£7).
Up on East Street is the awesome Tom Thumb, a slither of a bar strong on Cornish craft beer (such as Daymer, Harbour Brweing’s Extra Pale) as well as cocktails; across the road is aforementioned Lost Brewing Co, with their own Back Yard Brew beer.
Some live music with your boozing, perhaps? Hit Whiskers Bar, Gover Lane, where, on our visit we catch Baptiste, an eclectic folk singer with a penchant for a ukeleke. Beyond is another liquor/live bar, Dead Famous, to end the night with a whisky or two. Lucky it’s just a stagger back to the hotel.
Read our companion guide to Falmouth, Cornwall here
Main image: PR