South Devon has it all from sun, sand and beautiful coastline and is the perfect location to go on a traditional bucket and spade holiday in the famed English Riviera on your doorstep. With rolling hills all around, a few steam trains and funicular railways thrown in for good measure it is sure to entertain a family with members of all ages.
Sea gulls, a birds-eye view and merry-go-rounds in Torquay
Upon arrival at Torquay, we see it is clearly a family-friendly place. As the self-proclaimed gateway to the English Riviera, this is a place where palm trees sway beside the sandy beach. The seaside location caters for children with lots of amenities found along the promenade and the marina is home to gorgeous yachts. Tourists are treated to a birds-eye view of the marina from the heights of the Devon Eye Ferris Wheel and of the houses and hotels nestled into the cliff. There’s a vintage fairground for kids and bright resting booths to relax in. Meanwhile, the giant gulls feed off the scraps left behind by visitors who can enjoy fish and chips on the seafront.
A cliff railway and cream tea
About a 20 minute drive up the coast, Babbacombe Cliff Railway boasts panoramic views of the sea from the top. On a clear day, spot ships in the horizon of the gleaming English Channel. Arrive early for the first ride down the funicular railway at 10am and enjoy the two-minute scenic descent into Oddicombe beach with an uninterrupted vista of the bay in both directions. The staff are super friendly making it a pleasant experience despite masking up. Babbacombe has the highest promenade in the UK, if you count the top of the cliff as being the promenade to the Oddicombe beach below.
Down below, Oddicombe beach is rusty-coloured with bright beach huts speckled against the green cliffs. The water shines a lovely aquamarine in the sunlight. Early in the morning, the red-hued beach was perfectly deserted, there was not much beach at this hour, although later in the day at low tide, with ample space to build sandcastles. After much-needed beach time with grains of sand between our toes and the tranquil sound of waves crashing against the beach, it was time to catch the train back up for a Devon cream tea and scone in the Cliff Cafe. On a clear day, dine al-fresco to enjoy a panoramic view of the sea and cliff railway and its drop to the beach. Visit early to avoid the crowds of tourists and the lunchtime brigade as this is an extremely popular spot. While you are in the area, the Model Village is worth a visit. Guests feel like giants as they step through the small entrance into the vast miniature world. They can explore four acres of award-winning gardens showcasing hundreds of model scenes, vehicles and people.
Building sandcastles, spotting steam trains and playing football
About 30 minutes back down the coast lies the ruddy Broadsands beach. Here we built a fortress of sandcastles and dug a moat. The tide was out so there was an expanse of glorious red sandy beach which our three-year-old raced along excitedly, dipping in and out of the sea like a mermaid. Not even the rain nor the swathes of seaweed bothered her. Broadsands has the same Devon-characteristic beach huts with coloured-doors speckled against the verdant cliff backdrop. The South West Path runs along the cliff-top behind the beach on its way to Elberry Cove, so every now and then, a gorgeous steam train chugs along at regular intervals over the grand arched railway bridge built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This is the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway train crossing Hookhills Viaduct, with its nine arches scaling to an impressive height of 85 ft and 116 yards from head to foot. The long beach is popular with surfers and water sports enthusiasts. Out to sea, Torquay rests towards the left bay and in the other direction lies Brixham. Furthermore, there is an expanse of open green park space to the rear of the beach to enjoy a game of football.
Italian food in Newton Abbot
Returning to the Premier Inn hotel, next to Newton Abbot racecourse with our bellies rumbling we decided to catch a bus into town and go for an Italian meal at the newly opened Ricca’s. Here, we found top-notch food and wine in a classy restaurant setting with Tuscan influences, Italian art and furnishings and an open kitchen. My daughter and I enjoyed traditional spaghetti bolognaise, my partner chose the carbonara. My daughter rounded her meal with vegan ice cream. Newton Abbot is a quiet market town on the River Teign.
Steam trains, ferry and culture in Dartmouth
There are numerous ways to get to the port town of Dartmouth, just across the River Dart. The best is via steam train operated by Dartmouth Steam Railway from nearby seaside town Paignton – a 6.7-mile (10 km) heritage journey along on the former Great Western Railway branch line to Kingswear. We had planned to take the Steam and Cruise package including the Dartmouth-Kingswear passenger ferry – free of charge with a valid steam train ticket. Alternatively, drive over to Kingswear in about 25 minutes from Newton Abbot and see the sights along the way. From the ferry that transports passengers over the river to the picturesque town in the hills, all the boats in the marina and the steam train running alongside it, Dartmouth is a delight.
At the Dartmouth Higher Ferry Terminal, its just a four-minute journey to the other side where thirsty travellers can gather for a pit stop at the Floating Bridge inn – a quaint, old-fashioned riverside pub renowned for its chef’s Bouillabaisse, char-grilled steaks and for those with a sweet tooth a wonderful desert counter.
Rising majestically on the hill is the Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC), the initial officer training establishment of the British Royal Navy. We drove up to the top to take a look and then decided to walk back down among the quaint winding little streets. Steepways must rival Lincoln’s Steep Hill. The walk is lined with beautiful pastel-coloured houses including one blue plaqued property which formerly belonged to James Henry Inder, an engineer and inventor of three steam-powered cars – the first motor cars in Dartmouth. Follow the trail right down to the bottom of the town centre and harbour which dates back to medieval times. The town has scores of lovely shops selling brands such as Seasalt, Fatface and Saltrock. In Foss Street, the oldest street in the town you can browse the wonderful galleries and boutique shops amongst the beautiful architecture. The Old Market Square includes a unique range of specialist shops, and Duke Street houses the infamous ButterWalk building, where you will find the fascinating Dartmouth Museum. The port town is also famous for Christopher Robin’s bookshop, Harbour Books which closed in 2011, although the site remains a tourist attraction. There are plenty of tourist shops selling Devon fudge and postcards to take home. In the Royal Avenue Gardens where you can admire the manicured lawns, fabulous fountain plus various flora and fauna.
Platform One champagne bar on the harbour-front is a great pitstop that serves up ice cream for the kids and coffee or even a cheeky glass of the finest bubbly for mums and dads. Alternatively, sit down on a bench to gaze at the boats underneath the swaying palm-trees. The bustling ‘Dart ‘Harbour bursts with life as fishing vessels bring in fresh hauls fresh from the English Channel, tourists pile on and off ferries, boats moor in and there are gleaming yachts and cruise boats alongside Dartmouth town jetty and Naval vessels parked in the Marina. All the while, the higher and lower ferries transport people and vehicles across the Dart. The harbour is lined with colourful pennants attached to the barricades, all handcrafted by local people and visitors from all over the world to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower sailing from Dartmouth. Across the Dart is the green backdrop of Kingswear where steam trains occasionally weave in and out.
Watch tourists’ comedic attempts at catching crabs with hand lines, orchestrating their puppet-stick type contraptions to lure in the crafty crustaceans. The more skilful crabbers soon see their haul grow as each successive catch piles up into their big buckets. Meanwhile, inside marquees by the harbour, diners feast on freshly caught crab, lobster, prawns and fish and gulls circle from above, hoping for titbits.
Be sure to visit Bayards Cove Inn, a 14th-century pub, hotel and restaurant, serving tasty and good value ham cobs and crisps as well as sit-down meals. Many explorers base themselves here for the evening. The large suites are perfect for families. A stay includes a fully cooked breakfast of bacon, sausages, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, waffles and cobs.
Boat Trip to Bayards Cove Fort and Sugary Cove
Tourists can take a boat crossing to Bayards Cove Fort, a castle built in the early 16th century to protect Darmouth. This important trading and fishing port prospered in the 15th century on the proceeds of the wool trade.
Nearby is Sugary Cove, a remote beach of shingle and rocks with Dartmouth Castle Tea Rooms just 100 metres from the beach. When the tide comes in this shoreline is completely cut off so be sure to exit early. The best time to visit is in the morning as the last crossing back is at 5pm due to the tide.
Zoo and beach time in Paignton
The Paignton Zoo is great for families with young children. Upon entry tourists are greeted by a flock of pink Chilean flamingos surrounding a lake. There are apes, lemurs, rhino, peacocks, a goat, ostriches, cheetahs, tigers, zebras and a gaggle of giraffes. Traverse up and down hill to spot all the animals and locate more than 20 gigantic lego brick sculptures. In the heat of the day this can be tiring so we decided to cool off at Paignton beach on the way back.
Paignton itself is very touristy with a pier full of amusements, little kids rides and a plethora of places to eat and drink. It has a long and wide yellow sandy beach and at low tide an expanse of beach. It was busy as expected, but social distance was observed as we found a nice spot to build sandcastles and to stretch out, catching the last rays of the day as our delighted daughter ran in and out of the sea. Realising we had worked up quite an appetite, we booked a meal at the Toby Carvery back at Newton Abbot, for a tasty roast, much needed after a diet of fish and chips and all-day breakfasts. While in the area it is worth checking out the fine dining experience at the Michelin starred Elephant back in Torquay, one of the most reasonable Michelin-starred restaurants in the country, with a unique kid-friendly menu, were scuppered due to the popularity of the Eat out to Help Out scheme and advance bookings.
Brixham and Torquay
On a clear day, take a ferry from Torquay to Brixham, which lies halfway between Dartmouth and Torquay and passengers can experience delightful dolphins jumping alongside the boat. This fishing community is a Dutch settlement that is steeped in fishing heritage. Today, it remains a bustling harbour and was the focus of a recent documentary called Fish Town. Here it is possible to sample freshly caught fish supper at one of the many seafood joints.
It seemed rather fitting to end the holiday where it all began. In Torquay after a final ride on the big wheel and the carousel we walked along the promenade to stock up on rock candy presents and finished up with a lunch of fish and chips. We waded onto the beach for the last time and our daughter had a last paddle in the sea before we set off home. During a fun-filled four-day break on the English Riviera, we visited most of south Devonshire’s coastal towns and beaches and discovered a traditional family holiday still exists in the UK.