Rick Steves' Travel Blog
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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Cornwall can be mobbed with tourists — mostly English families with their dogs and ice cream cones visiting all the predictable corners. St. Ives, Port Isaac, and Mousehole are quaint, Tintagel is the place to stick a sword in the stone, and Land’s End is a must-do photo stop. But there are plenty of ways to have the real wonders of Cornwall all to yourself. Here are three:
Cornwall is many-faceted in its charms. And it claims to have more prehistoric megaliths than any other region of England. Finding a remnant of lost civilizations that is older than the oldest Egyptian pyramid makes you want to just sit there in silence for a while and marvel.
The best way to find and experience the wonder of this corner of England is on the South West Coast Path. Within a few minutes of any car park, it’s just you and nature.
The “Connoisseur’s Land’s End” is Cape Cornwall, just past the mining town of St. Just (a few miles north of the Land’s End tourist trap). OK, so it’s a smidge short of the southwesternmost tip, but it feels like the end of the world. From a small car park, where the only place to spend money is at a blustery little tea and ice cream stand, you hike past a ruined sixth-century church and conquer this little bluff to enjoy a magic moment…just you and the gulls and Cornish Atlantic vastness.
I’ve been traveling for nearly a week in southwest England and have not seen an American. There are plenty of tourists — Europeans and Brits — but not a Yank in sight. This is Cornwall, where the last native speaker of the Cornish language probably died in the late 1700s. But there still is local pride. The welcome sign on the motorway at the county border is in that old Celtic language people used to speak around here, as well as English. And, locals claim, had the Scots said yes to their recent referendum for independence, there would have been rumbling for greater autonomy here in this proud corner of Britain. Here are six photos that, for me, capture highlights of Cornwall.
The cute little fishing port of Mousehole is actually named for the tiny, mouse hole-like entry into its tough little harbor. The village was crushed by Spanish cannon balls in 1595 and rebuilt in the 17th century. There’s an 8-meter tide here and the boats lie beached in the harbor at each low tide.
The arrival of the train made this distant part of England accessible to Victorian holiday-goers in the 19th century. I love noting the little niceties built for the Victorian aristocrats — like this rock pool. Each day the tide strands a world of fun little creatures for visitors to discover.
The dramatically situated Minack Theater is the labor of love of Rowena Cade (1893-1983), who dedicated her life to carving out this amazing place. Every night during theater season about 700 people enjoy live drama with a vast sea-view backdrop.
I enjoyed the expert guiding of Tim Uff during a busy day of touring the Penwith Peninsula. For lunch, Tim grabbed us a Cornish pasty and bottles of local elderflower presse to enjoy as we watched birds and dolphins from our Minack Theatre perch. Seeing gannets dive for lunch, Tim explained that they hit the water at about 60 mph. When baby gannets try this too soon, they’re often found washed up on shore with broken necks.
Mont St-Michel in France has a little brother — directly across the English Channel. It’s St. Michael’s Mount here in Cornwall. Inhabited for about 1,500 years and originally a Benedictine monastery, today it’s a fun excursion for Cornwall tourists.
One of the most touristy places in all of Britain is at its far southwest tip, cleverly called Land’s End. Every tour bus stops here so people can pay £10 to line up to have their photo taken at the famous milepost. Tacky as this place is, there’s something exciting about being at the “land’s end” of anything. (Tomorrow, I’ll get you away from the crowds.)
Pilchards are big, oily sardines. Their oil once lit the lamps of Victorian London. And, packs of salted pilchards kept the people of Cornwall alive through harsh winters in an age when putting food on the table to simply survive was a challenge. Here’s a peek at a secret harbor my guide, Tim Uff, shared with me. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s Penberth Cove (just a mile from the famous theater in the rock, Minack Theatre). It’s a rugged bit of Cornwall (sorry about the wind noise in this clip). From here you can imagine a hilltop watchman spotting a school of pilchards (“where the water turned purple”) and blowing his trumpet. All the fishermen would jump into their boats and charge out to encircle the fish with their nets. A good catch would have fisherwomen trudging from village to village with bushels of salted pilchards for sale on their backs, and the people of Cornwall would be kept in protein through the winter.
An icon of Cornwall — rightly nicknamed “The Garden of England” — is its fearsome hedgerows. For a thousand years, the hardy Cornish people have been picking the rocks off their rugged fields and stacking them along their lanes. Consisting of a stone framework filled in with earth and made vibrant with a tangle of vegetation, hedgerows also function as wildlife corridors. And, if you rip them out (as developers might be inclined to do), you get erosion. These hedgerows are part of the ancient fabric of Cornwall, where man and Mother Nature are dance partners (and man understands who is best qualified to lead).
I’m thankful I have a good local guide. Tim Uff expertly motored me through the wonders of the Penwith Peninsula here on the “land’s end” of southwest England. An expert guide with a car costs about £200 ($300, www.tourcornwall.com). For a group of four, that’s a great value. For a hardworking guidebook writer, having the help of a guide like Tim is a godsend!
While updating my Rick Steves England guidebook, I’ve endured some pretty dreary weather. So dropping into the Eden Project in Cornwall was a delightful chance to enjoy the tropics in England, and to explore the biggest rain forest in captivity. Here’s the description from the guidebook:
Set in an abandoned china clay pit, the Eden Project is an ambitious and futuristic work-in-progress – a theme park of global gardening with an environmental conscience. Exotic plants from all over the world are showcased in two giant biomes, reputedly the largest greenhouses in the world. The displays focus on sustainable farming and eco-conscious planting. If you’re looking for a quaint English cottage garden, this isn’t it. Rather than a flowery look at England’s past, this “global garden” gives you a sense of how the shrinking world will affect us in the future (www.edenproject.com). I haven’t experienced anything quite like this in my travels. Have you?
Tintern Abbey is one of most beautiful and evocative sights in all of Britain. And seeing a wedding ceremony inside was icing on the cake. In this clip the harpist strums while the pastor worries about the threat of rain, and the bride is nowhere to be seen (though she finally did show up).
Buried in the Cotswold region of west England is the pristine village of Stanton, with what appears to be just another little medieval church. But, by knowing what to look at, you’ll see deeper. Follow me on an exercise that includes psychoanalyzing the patron saint (St. Michael, a giveaway that the church was built upon a pagan holy ground) to feeling the grooves worn into pews by sheepdog leashes centuries ago.
England’s Cotswolds hide many subtle dimensions of the local culture. A hundred years ago, the delightful village of Chipping Campden hosted the Arts and Crafts Movement (refugees from the Industrial Age who despised mass-produced decorative art). Today, only one shop descended from those anti-industrial-design hippies survives — the Hart Silversmiths. It was fun to meet the younger generation, whose members are still enthusiastic about the fact that “everything we make is a one-off.”
High school grads in the Alps, a “monk chat” in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and under the pillow in a Scottish B&B. There’s a lot going on in our Travelers Café where I collect my favorite blogs.
At Rick Steves’ Europe, we’ve been at this long enough that our veteran guides and travel writers have kids venturing off to Europe on their own. Skyla (daughter of Rich and Risa — writers in my office and former lead guides) and her friend Gabby are a week into their high school graduation adventure, and Skyla is blogging intimately about the experience. Reading Skyla’s report takes me back to my first solo trip — which I fondly recall as “Europe Through the Gutter” — as an 18-year-old. Skyla jokes that she should title her blog “Train Station Mishaps with Skyla.” It struck me that, for a teenager, the joy of travel is not the sights and not necessarily doing it right — it’s having fun with the process, being wonderstruck with a wider world, laughing through the mistakes and learning from them, and making friends along the way. That’s what Skyla is reporting on. They’ve figured out Paris, hiked the Alps, and are now sorting through the trains to Venice. If you have teens and are wondering about helping make the world their oyster, be sure to travel along with Skyla.
My kids, Jackie and Andy, are now in Thailand. Jackie reports that on her first day in the city of Chiang Mai, it’s already her favorite stop (beating out Bali and Vietnam). Andy and Jackie are learning about Buddhism with a program for travelers known as “monk chat.”
And my right-hand man in the guidebook-writing corner, Cameron Hewitt, continues to blog from Scotland. Scotland is a very hot destination these days (our Snapshot: Scotland guide easily outsells our England guidebook). And our Scotland tours may even be rivaling the sales of our Ireland tours. Cameron reports on the B&B scene as he searches Edinburgh for the very best places to include in our new, full-fledged Scotland guidebook. And he realizes how fascinating traditional Scottish candies are — checking out Chelsea Whoppers and other goodies at Lickety Splits.
And I’m heading for the south coast of England, blogging daily from there until I meet the TV crew again for more shows in Germany.
Thanks for traveling with us.
I nearly skipped Blenheim Palace this year, thinking that on a gorgeous Sunday in July this palace near Oxford would be a mob scene. It was nearly empty. In fact, I booked a special tour of the private apartments, giving me a 30-minute, behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the palace (£5). I was all alone with my excellent guide. This really is the number-one stately home to see in Britain.