Penzance, marooned at the bottom corner of England, is like nowhere else. We’re a stone’s throw from Land’s End here so this is pretty much the end of the line and yet it doesn’t feel like that at all. Arty, surfy, piratey and above all quirky – there is so much to love in this extraordinary fishing town.
For somewhere which is known as an artistic haven first impressions can be a little offputting. The main drag is chock full of just about every branch of knock-down chain store all angling for a slice of the tourist pie – if you’re partial to a Poundland, you’ve come to the right place. The thing to do is to blinker your way past the tat and head for Chapel Street where the magic of Penzance begins to unfold. This pretty sloping street is full of extraordinary shops, bizarre buildings and pubs sporting pirate flags - you’ll need plenty of time to browse. The focal point has to be The Egyptian House built in 1830 and modelled on the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. Back then it was meant to be outré and shocking: it still is. Now owned by the Landmark Trust the top floor has holiday apartments to rent.
Inside the garish facade is home to a handmade cosmetics company called Pure Nuff Stuff and let's forgive the slightly naff name because the chemical-free products - delicious soaps of every conubation, body creams and shampoos - are wonderful. Body Shop but in its earliest form. A few doors down you’ll find Steckfensters, a junk shop with the artistic integrity of a gallery and a Fagin’s hoard of military jackets and hats, bakelite phones, 1940s bicycles, old vinyl, posters, paste jewellery, anything and everything basically. Looking for a stuffed badger wearing raybans? No problem.
On the day we visited we spotted an immaculately dressed man in a 1920s suit and spats ambling across the road with a bottle of red wine slung across his shoulder. Naturally we followed him and I'm glad we did because he led us to the vintage treasure trove that is Kitts Couture - a vintage shop that bursts with old ballroom style. The well known auctioneers Barnes Thomas are here too with the kind of shabby chic window display that makes you want to redesign your home from scratch.
For many centuries Penzance was best known for its swash-buckling ways – pirates, smugglers and rum-soaked fishermen. There’s still plenty of those of course (pubs such as The London, The Farmers, The White Lion and The Longboat tend to attract a rowdy, 'nautical' crowd) but today it also has a thriving art scene . Check out Penlee House Gallery and Museum which has classic art set within a beautiful Victorian building. Mainly Newlyn School Artists (1880-1940) with high end exhibitions from well known oil painters such as Elizabeth Forbes and Walter Langley. Newlyn Art Gallery (a gorgeous 20 minute walk along the promenade) is the go-to place for cutting edge contemporary art. New Street Gallery is a collective of contemporary artists all living and working within the Penzance area. There's fantastic work here - it's the place to come and rummage for affordable art. On the opposite end of the spectrum there’s PZ Gallery, housed in a stunning Art Deco building which used to be a car showroom and now exhibits the work of photographer Charlie Roff - essentially soft porn shots of beautiful girls posed suggestively over rocks….this is Pirelli Calendar territory. There’s some serious eating to be done in Penzance, especially if you’re into fish so fresh it's still swimming. The Bay Restaurant is a favourite - brilliant food and a great view looking over the harbour. Posh brasserie style. Untitled is the new name on everyone's lips - a multi-tasking gaff which serves lunch, dinner and all day tapas. The menu is inventive and eclectic - white bean and chorizo stew, devilled lamb's kidneys on buttered toast, fish stew with saffron potatoes, spinach, rouille and aioli. If you're dragging a carnivore and a pescatore in tow then head for The Bakehouse Restaurant a good looking joint which specialises in steaks and fish and, we're reliably informed, never fails on the food. Insiders go to the Mackerel Sky Café http://www.mackerelskycafebar.co.uk - for full heart attack breakfasts and Archie Browns veggie café, healthfood shop and ‘therapy space’ when they’re feeling guilty about it. This is the place for homity pie washed down with a bowl of vegan custard – no margin of error even for kids who get home-made hummus with carrot and cucumber batons (all delicious though). Outside of the town two pubs deserve a special mention and without question a visit. The first is The Coldstreamer in the picturesque village of Gulval.
The food is all sourced from within a mile of the pub – vegetables are grown by the villagers, fish comes from Penzance – and the menu changes daily. What a menu it is – quirky and incredibly delicious, everything we ate from Welsh rarebit to beetroot and blue cheese risotto was sensational. Despite the fab food it has remained strictly a boozer and not a gastro pub – faded velour seats, ale-swilling locals and not a lick of Farrow & Ball in sight. We love. More of a hike but the place to get marooned is The Gurnard’s Head – a pub in the middle of nowhere facing out onto the Atlantic Coast. It’s a fifteen minute drive from Penzance and well worth it for the brilliant food and views – will it be the merguez sausages, lentils, broccoli and salsa verde or a full blow out with slow roast rib of beef? The kind of place where you pray for a storm so that you can hole up in one of the incredible bedrooms and eat your way through it. Presumably you’re not going to come all this way without checking out the beaches which are some of the finest in the country. Porthcurno is probably the most spectacular, white and sandy and consequently rammed with tourists come high summer. It's also bang next door to the Minack Theatre, a beautiful open-air amphitheatre carved out of rock. Feasibly you could spend the day swimming and sunbathing and pop up for a bit of opera later on. Surfers will choose Sennen Cove- jam packed with ripped dudes in the summertime - and home to the wonderful The Beach Restaurant. Then there's Praa Sands on the South Coast which our in-house surf dude says is 'best in south west swells and northeast winds' and Godrevy on the North which 'works on all tides so you'll always catch a wave'. Two other essential stops on the tourist trail - St Michael's Mount - a 16th century castle on its own island - and the stunning Art Deco outdoor lido known as the Jubilee Pool (even if you just do a drive by). Phew, after all that eating, surfing, shopping and boozing you're going to need some shut-eye. Only one place for that, of course, and it's the 17 th century Abbey Hotel owned by sixties supermodel Jean Shrimpton. It's also famous for being one of the most dog-friendly hotels in Britain so the mutt can come too. You can hardly ask for more.