3 Must-See Hot Spots Along The Atlantic Edges of England and Ireland

This image is no longer available

Cliffside at Tintagel Castle

Epic escapes. Along the Atlantic edges of England and Ireland, and buoyed by the current of history, Vivian Vassos goes coastal.

Poldark and handsome
Who’s that guy on Brit TV’s latest costume drama, the one that all the ladies are swooning over? Yes, Ross Poldark, that’s the one. Where’s he from?

Cornwall, England. And Cornwall maintains a residue from back in the day, beyond the Poldark period, when the citizens did not consider themselves English but, rather, Cornish. Ever the rebels, there are a few holdouts preserving the local Cornish language, as evidenced in some place names—port (harbour, not the wine), for example, is porth in Cornish.

Poldark, the series based on the books by the late Winston Graham, follows a long tradition of British literary adaptations for the small screen. Adding to the bodice-ripping mojo: in one scene, Ross, the darkly brooding titular character, whose emergence from the water, shirtless, is caught unbeknownst to him by the story’s working class heroine—Poldark’s scullery maid—the titian-tressed Demelza. A nod to Jane Austen, perhaps?

Unlike Mr. Darcy’s dip, however, Poldark’s is in no manor fish pond but in the raw, cold waters off Porthcurno Bay. Yet, the picture-perfect coves and coastline have pale, sandy beaches and crystal blue waves that belie its spot on the map.

More Mediterranean blue than Atlantic grey, the water’s hue seems a little out of place along the coast, with the dark heather-covered cliffs looming above. You almost expect to see palm trees dancing with the ever-present breeze that sometimes gusts and sometimes quiets just long enough to hear the sea birds calling overhead. The combination is a magnet for surfers—for the locals, surfing is nearly as entrenched as a Cornish fact of life as are mining and fishing. It’s not unusual to spot a few octogenarians riding the waves, getting their daily dose.

Cornwall, yes, is more than Poldark, but then again, much of the show’s subject matter is the crux of its history. The mining industry was key to keeping the people fed and, as the ore began to wane, so did the work and the people. The Levant mines are open for tours and provide a fascinating glimpse into a hard yet community-building life. Port Isaac, the quaint town that’s used as the shoot location for another Brit hit, Doc Martin, is the real deal, lined with colourful cottages and pretty, petite gardens—a fine example of fishing port towns in this part of England. It’s also the domain of Prince Charles, as the Duke of Cornwall.

Food is the cottage industry here, with Cornish cream tea with its scones, jam and clotted cream, the meat- and veg-filled Cornish pasties and Cornish hen already part of the culinary lexicon. But seafood is one of the reasons top chefs have made Cornwall home. Rick Stein, a godfather of sorts of the farm- or perhaps sea-to-table movement in Cornwall, is the local celeb known for his stake in the locavore-foodie town of Padstow. All five of his restaurants there, even after more than seven years and a half dozen other hot chefs having set up kitchens in the fishing villages that dot the region’s coastline, are still the coveted reservation. You can also sleep over, as Stein’s also in the B&B biz, but book lunch; you’ll have a much better chance of getting in and you’ll get to sample Cornish-inspired cuisine at a more affordable price. At his St. Petroc’s Bistro, oysters sit on their half shells alongside barely seared scallops, so fresh there’s a hint of sea salt and brine. It’s clean, unfussy food, left to nature’s devices with just a nudge from the kitchen to enhance the flavours.

While the sea looms large, so does fantasy. The legend of King Arthur and Camelot is alive and well, and a trip to Tintagel is on tap to satiate my long-time passion for the stories I read as a girl about the boy who, said to have been conceived on the castle’s very spot, drew the sword Excalibur from the stone and defended the realm against the Saxons in the fifth and sixth centuries. The site has been so romanticized, it prompted Richard, the Earl of Cornwall, to build Tintagel Castle around 1230.

Standing at this near 800-year-old remnant—now more archeological preserve of crumbling stone walls and archways than fortress—it’s easy to see from its bones that it was once a near indomitable keep. Perched cliffside on Tintagel peninsula, facing the sea with a view for miles of both the water and the neighbouring cliffs and valleys, the medieval fortification allowed for early warnings of invasion. The tidal ebb and flow on the beach below would be an ally, while the constant high winds might be a deterrent. If you make the climb to the top, you’re rewarded by the sight of Gallos, a stunning eight-foot-tall bronze sculpture installed this spring by the artist Rubin Eynon and said to be his vision of Arthur. He is a vision, yet hollow, with open strips in his cloak to allow for the wind to whistle through and, to me, appears as part apparition. It is a powerful sight. Fitting, as his name, Gallos, means power in Cornish. He stands with his back to the sea, his gaze, facing inward, over Cornwall, the strength of the ages.

  • If you go: www.visitbritain.com
    Fly WestJet’s new service direct to London Gatwick from six Canadian gateways including Vancouver until Oct. 21 and year-round from Calgary and Toronto. www.westjet.com.
  • Book a private tour with local guide James Coulton of Select South West Tours. www.selectsouthwesttours.com
  • Poldark and Doc Martin air on VisionTV (a ZoomerMedia property).

Of counties and castles
“There’s a sadness, a quiet, that sometimes affects the Irish psyche.” Michael Docherty, our Irish guide for the week, is trying to put his finger on a melancholy that goes back generations on the Emerald Isle. His voice, so deep and suddenly so sombre, elicits the chills, particularly as the view from the coach’s window is a mile’s worth of flat black rocks stretching to a stormy sea.

We’re navigating toward the wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500-kilometre route of mostly western coastline via the Ring of Kerry, and the building storm clouds seem to mirror his voice. At first glance, you’d probably have a tough time thinking that this guy—all six-foot-four of him, more Liam Neeson testosterone than leprechaun sprite—would give a hint of thought to anything emotional. But that’s the Irish way. There’s a depth that drives them to tell their stories, by song and by spoken word. A depth of melancholy that’s matched by a soaring whimsical spirit that’s spurred the legends of rainbows, luck and pots of gold. Spinning yarns, however, is what’s truly Irish gold, and Docherty is no exception. He’s full of fables and lore and limericks–and a bit of Yeats poetry completes his knowledge and connection to his home.

But you can’t really be melancholy long in a country that gives its places lyrical monikers such as Dingle, Killarney, Tipperary and, yes, Limerick. The day before, we’d made the pilgrimage to Cashel in County Tipperary. High on a hillside, here was the rock from which St. Patrick preached and from where he likened the Holy Trinity to the shamrock. Ubiquitous in these parts, its leaves enabled him to illustrate it, and the national emblem of Ireland was born. But it’s not just pilgrims here; archeology buffs and history seekers also wandered the ruins of the Rock of Cashel. A testament to devotion in these parts, this medieval monument encompasses a 12th-century tower and Romanesque chapel, a 13th-century Gothic cathedral and a 15th-century castle. Perhaps it’s the air up here, with the wind whipping through the hollow buildings, now shells of limestone, you could almost hear the whispers of the past. More recently, Queen Elizabeth, on a historic trip to the Republic of Ireland in 2011, requested this be a stop on her itinerary, to enjoy the view of the Golden Vale going as far as the eye can see, a green swath dotted with grazing horses, sheep and cattle.

In contrast, the views from the Cliffs of Moher are anything but green. Standing 700 feet above the crashing waves of the Atlantic, they’ve been carved by wind and water. Wild, indeed, the Atlantic below is all grey and roiling, while the cliffs stand in defiance, in some places even leaning outward as the elevation increases. The group can’t resist the photo ops here, risking themselves clambering over rocks and outcrops to get the shot. I keep my feet on the ground. It’s enough to feel elevated by the heights and the sound of the pounding surf.
As medieval marvels go, Ashford Castle, the 13th-century pile that still stands after all these years on the banks of Lough Corrib in County Mayo, certainly is marvellous. We’re not the only ones who think so, either.

The members of Virtuoso, a global network of advisers focused on the luxury travel sector, voted Ashford as the best hotel in the world in 2015. Once the home of nobility as well as a hunting lodge for the Guinness beer clan, it’s now a hotel, restored to its historic rustic elegance by the Red Carnation hotel group, a boutique chain known for its luxury properties in Europe, North America and Africa. The family-run operation takes legacy seriously, and it shows in its respect for period design and detail. The public spaces act as gathering spots, tea rooms and museums all at once, displaying collections of artwork, china and silver plate, with Waterford crystal chandeliers adding a sparkle and shine to the wood-panelled walls. The chefs in the dining room make the most of the local catch and farm-to-table provenance that’s never really been trendy here. It’s just the way it’s always been. Barn jackets, rain slickers and Hunter rain boots for loan line the inner doorway, waiting there for adventure.

Beyond the simple, okay, perhaps romantic notion of holing up in a castle for the weekend, it’s also a haven for those who romanticize the idea of the to-the-manner-born—with country-house pursuits of hiking, horse riding and falconry. It was the lure of these birds that brought me here; the oldest falconry school in Ireland is on the grounds of Ashford, and the experience is wild yet intimate. After donning a large, thick leather glove, I walk with the falcon trainer through the forest to a sun-dappled clearing. A tidbit of raw meat hides between my finger and thumb. I signal, as I’ve been instructed, and my fine-feathered friend, talons and all, alights on my outstretched arm. Not until I have the bird’s full balance do I release the treat. It’s gone in a flash, as is the falcon. He flies, only to turn, as he spots me signalling again. This time, after taking his treat, he lingers a moment longer. There’s no sadness here but there is a quiet. A sudden moment when time seems to freeze. The bird swallows his prize, locks his beady eyes with mine, leaps into the air and takes flight.

If you go: Insight Vacations features a two-night stay at Ashford Castle as part of its Irish itineraries. www.ashfordcastle.com; www.insightvacations.com/ca; www.ireland.com/en-ca

Great Scots!
With Harry Potter back in the news with the new play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opening in London and the subsequent book that’s flying sans broomstick off shelves—and did we mention the Potter spinoff film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them starring Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne?—we can’t help but get a bit nostalgic for the storied Hogwarts Express and its school-start journey from King’s Cross in London to the wilds of Scotland.

This year, you can take it to the tracks in equally fantastic ways: After a decade-long hiatus, the Flying Scotsman, a historic steam engine that’s just undergone a 4.2 million pound overhaul, has several routes across the U.K. It’s a novelty, though, considered more a roving museum exhibit, with some tours offering great food experiences, so don’t expect the locals using it as a passenger train. It was so popular that most of the 2016 departures are already sold out, but organizers already have itineraries in the works for May to October of 2017, so book now for next year. www.flyingscotsman.org.uk

If you’re looking for more of a bespoke experience, the Belmond Royal Scotsman (that’s the same Belmond behind travel icons such as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Venice’s Belmond Hotel Cipriani and Cape Town’s Pink Lady—the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel) is adding land excursions throughout Scotland. Coined Action Stations, it’s like a private charter with a custom itinerary featuring Scottish country diversions (shooting, riding, fishing and more). Along with the bespoke offerings, there are assorted other journeys, from golf-focused to whisky, out of Edinburgh’s Waverly Station, from two nights (which covers the Highlands) to seven (which encompasses Scotland, England and Wales). With a maximum of 36 passengers, it’s like a boutique hotel on wheels. www.belmond.com/royalscotsman

If you go: www.visitscotland.com. Air Canada offers direct flights via its Rouge airline to Glasgow and Edinburgh (www.aircanada.com) and WestJet has been flying to Glasgow via Halifax since 2015 (www.westjet.com).

A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 issue with the headline, “Swept Away,” p. 62-65.