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Best beaches in the south west & beyond

Heading beachside this summer? Then you'll be needing our guide to the 18 best beaches including the inside line on the best activities, foodie joints and sundowner spots.

CORNWALL DEVON HAMPSHIRE ISLE OF WIGHT DORSET

CORNWALL

Best for culture – Porthmeor, St Ives

Porthmeor might be St Ives most famous beach but don’t let that put you off -there’s something for everyone here: white sands, azure sea, fantastic waves for surfing and a whole lot of artistic inspiration.

What to do: Some of the most beautiful views of Porthmeor and the roof tops of St Ives can be found from the café at the top of the Tate St Ives, the converted gasworks which is now one of Cornwall’s iconic buildings and home to work of the St Ives artists and plenty on an international scale too including Rothko, Gabo and of course Hepworth. Book an early ticket and see the art first before heading out onto the beach. Want more detail? How about a private walking tour to see where the artists worked – it takes in Barbara Hepworth’s Sculpture Garden as well as the beach. Fancy a go yourself? Book an art course at St Ives School of Painting which is run from the historic studios at the back of the beach. St Ives fisherman turned artist Alfred Wallis is buried in Barnoon Cemetery overlooking the beach. 

Where to eatPorthmeor Beach Cafe is literally on the back of the beach offering a birds eye view to the surfers (or, on a quiet day out of season, pods of dolphins). Lunch and dinner are tapas and small plates and locals rate their breakfasts. Or, it’s a short walk round to the harbour where you’ll find the Searoom

Best spot for a sundowner: Spoilt for choice here, that’s what you are. The Muddy money is on West, from the same team, at the, you’ve guessed it, western end of Porthmeor, which is also slightly quieter. Head to their new fish bar or just enjoy a relaxing cocktail as you wait for the sun to sink below the horizon. 

Best for Cornish legends: Marazion and St Michael’s Mount

Emerging out of the water in Mount’s Bay off the coast of Marazion (near Penzance) lies St Michael’s Mount. A tidal island with a castle perched on the top, its a magical fairytale in action, beguiling both adults and children to begin the intrepid journey across the bricks to the rugged outcrop across the bay… (or, hop on a motor boat if the tide hasn’t quite matched up to your visit!).

What to do: From ancient ley lines it is said unique energy flows forth and the place certainly is magical. Pre-book your tickets (free to National Trust members) and follow in the footsteps of giants and pilgrims, making your own part of Cornish folklore with which the entire island is imbued. Walk in the subtropical grounds (some of which are tended by abseiling gardeners) and check out the views from the castle rooftops. Don’t forget to book the boat back. Marazion itself is a gorgeous sandy beach with plenty of rock pools, so even if all you do is walk part way over the causeway and let the kids paddle, it is still a lovely day out. 

Where to eat: Although you can grab a pasty or coffee from one of the restaurants on the Mount itself, we like the view from Marazion itself, particularly if you time the tides right and get an early lunch table just as the tide is dropping so the causeway appears from the sea. The Godolphin pub is on the nicer end of casual, or try the Cutty Sark at the Marazion Hotel for a fancier evening meal. 

Best spot for a sundowner: Any of the pubs above, or, BYO to the beach and get ready to take a pic of the moon rising over the Mount – just right for your IG grid. 

Best for swimming: Readymoney, Fowey

You’ll need to get the tides right for this bathing beach just outside Fowey – too low and there won’t be much swimming happening, too high and there’s not any beach left. Time it right though and it’s hard to believe you’re still in the UK. White sand, clear waters, a swimming/ diving platform, all sheltered by tall cliffs and protected from boats by a line of buoys. The well stocked beach cafe complete with tea mugs you leave in a bucket for re-use though is properly British, as is the covered wooden changing area just above the beach. 

What to do: Readymoney marks the end of the Saints Way, an ancient path of pilgrimage that starts in Padstow, so if you were feeling extremely energetic you could arrive after walking 30 miles from the north coast. Fancy a (shorter) walk before your swim? Head up through the woods to take in the view from St Catherine’s Castle before following the coast path to nearby Poldridmouth– making this a double dipping day out if you’re so inclined.  Fans of Daphne du Maurier will know this is the bay of the shipwreck from Rebecca, with Daphne’s old pile Menabilly just behind – aka Manderley). However you arrive or return to Readymoney though, you’ll be wanting a swim (and maybe a little sunbathe).

Where to eat: A Moomaid ice cream from the Readymoney Beach Shop can be your down payment as you head back up into Fowey, fast becoming a foodie enclave. Having done the hard work of extensive testing, my money’s on North Street Kitchen for lunch or Fitzroy for supper, but you’ll also find tapas, pizza and several good pubs – or take afternoon tea with a view at Fowey Hall Hotel, the inspiration for Kenneth Grahame’s Toad Hall. 

Best spot for a sundowner: the riverside terrace with views over to Polruan at The Old Quay House is good for a cocktail, and the pink pub on stilts, the King of Prussia, is on the harbour quayside for an evening pint (under new ownership from the team behind Fowey Farm Shop). Or, push the boat out (literally) by hopping on the foot ferry to Polruan and have your pint there instead, looking back over to Fowey. 

Best for families: Polzeath

What is the unlikely connection between David Cameron, E L James and Enid Blyton? Polzeath beach of course. It has the dubious honour of being the only named place in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series (its where George usually went on hols) and has more famous residents and visitors than you can shake a stick at, in the summer mostly, including our ex-PM and the Fifty Shades author (both have houses here) as well as Princes William and Harry, Damian Lewis and loads of the fashion set. I also saw Hugh Grant here once.

What to do: Aside from celeb watching, you mean? Both the Polzeath Marine Conservation Group and the National Trust Rangers run regular family rockpooling sessions (and beach cleans) and there’s not one but three surf schools offering lessons. Little ones will enjoy the playground behind the beach and who doesn’t love a beach day complete with buckets, spades and windbreaks – DryRobes purely optional although you might not realise that after ten mins in the beach car park. 

Where to eat: Surfside gets my vote every time, with the tables right in the sand and a secret rum bar in the quarry behind. Other options include Harbour Brewing hotel and bar, The Atlantic on the New Polzeath headland where the pizzas are huge and the view stunning, or the Rock headland where you’ll find Tristram campsite and the Cracking Crab seafood restaurant. On the beach itself you can get pasties from ConeZone and all manner of poke bowls and smoothies alongside coffee from The Beach Hut. Sadly my all time favourite cult beach tacos have left the seaside behind to head for an actual restaurant in Exeter. 

Best spot for a sundowner: Any of the options above – Polzeath is famed for its sunsets and infamous for its beach bonfires (and teen drinking) but there’s a reason it’s so popular. All the views are good; the Atlantic pips it for the view, Surfside for ambience (both kid friendly, Surfside until 9pm).

Best for a surf: Watergate Bay

It’s true, there are better spots if you’re a die-hard shredder but for everyone else the two miles of sand and long lines of unbroken waves make Watergate Bay a solid choice for a beach day involving boards. There is not much sand at high tide, and the best waves are on a mid-tide (not a low tide when they get a bit dumpy) but if you’re just staying in the white water anyway then you probably won’t notice. 

What to do: Get in the sea! Not feeling super confident? Book yourself a surf lesson from the Extreme Academy. Not feeling the sea at all? Join the holiday makers hiding behind their striped encampments. The south-west coast path runs in both directions – head north towards Mawgan Porth and Bedruthan Steps for a fun stomp taking in some iconic views. 

Where to eat: Depends on how fancy you’re feeling: overlooking the beach are two solid choices – The Beach Hut is more casual, with fish and burgers and a kids menu (and also hot chocolate in striped cups), Emily Scott’s is fancy and pricier but absolutely beautiful. 

Best spot for a sundowner: Come evening, drive up to the Wavelength Clifftop Cinema (its in the spot where the Boardmasters Festival takes place in August) where you can drink your pint watching the sun go down over the beach before settling back to watch a classic film. Point Break, Big Wednesday, Fisherman’s Friends and Jaws are all part of the lineup, on until September.  

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DEVON

Best secret beach – Maidencombe, near Torquay

Sshhh, keep it to yourself but there’s a lovely little-known cove off the main A379 at Maidencombe, accessed by what seems like hundreds of steep steps – although the little coffee hatch Cafe Rio half way down is now back open if you need a perch. 

What to do: Sunbathe, paddle, snooze on a towel – or if that’s too tame for ya book in with the village’s adrenaline-seekers Rock Solid Coasteering. Beside their vegan burgers and excellent cheesecake, Cafe Rio also do kayak and SUP hire, ideal if you don’t want to drag kit down the steps. Eagle-eyed wildlife lovers should look out for Sammy the Seal who frequents this part of Lyme Bay (if not in the flesh at the beach, you can clock his pic is painted on the side of the pub).

Eat: Head to the family run The Thatched Tavern in the centre of the village for all the gastro greats, including burgers, fish and chips, steak and healthy light bites along with a good range of drinks, including local gins in an urban-chic atmos under a 17th century thatch. 

Best spot for a sundowner: When the sun sets on the beach, decamp with a picnic to the pretty village green in front of the pub. Take some change as the farmhouse opposite has an honesty box on the gate for cottage garden posies.

Best off the beaten track for families – Hope Cove

Hope Cove has a wild, natural feel with not an amusement arcade in sight and not one but two sandy beaches with craggy bits for rock-pooling and sandcastle building. It’s all on the flat, so no schlepping up and down when the ankle biters need another ice lolly. And who can resist a name like Hope?

What to do: Ditch the wetsuit. I’m no cold sea swimmer but I swear the sea is warmer at Hope Cove maybe because it’s a cove and the waters are quite shallow far out. Mouthwell Sands (closest to the car park) doesn’t allow dogs in summer, but the bigger main beach is fine for the pooch. 

Eat: Need a crowd-pleaser of a post-beach menu? The Cove Barit is. From their amazing Devon Crab Benedict brekkie, through to homemade pizza, burgers, fajitas and local seafood come evening, they’re not multiple award-winning for nothing (including one from Muddy no less.)

Best spot for a sundowner: Take a pew on the picnic benches in front of The Hope & Anchor (above). I’ve enjoyed many a chilled glass soaking up the last rays at this St Austell brewery pub and had many a wobbly walk back through the fields to the excellent campsite, Karageen. But I was on my hols so it’s allowed.

Best for sunsets – Instow

Appledore’s less famous cousin, the village of Instow, sits where the Taw and Torridge estuary meet and is blessed a sandy golden beach so deep it drifts onto the road in front of the houses on blowy days. It’s ideal for setting up camp for an all day-er with a family picnic, with books and games for a really relaxing day, then watch the sun set in a pink sky over Appledore.

What to do: It’s not a swimming beach so it’s all beach-based activities – fly a kite, play frisbee or beach badminton, roll down the dunes – the kids, not you (though each to her own) – go for walks or jog down for a nosey at the cricket pitch. Here you can feed your creative side and book an en plein air painting session with local artist, Deborah Last, or if you prefer to look not do, take the ferry over to Appledore and have a mooch around the art galleries.

Eat: Ask any local where you can get the best coffee and cake and it’s the Muddy award-winning John’s Deli every time (above). They’re the place to go for a huge range of locally and lovingly curated food and drink and the best breakfast butty around (with local bacon and sausages, natch). Forgot the picnic? No worries, get one from John’s! And save us a scone from one of their legendary cream teas while you’re at it.

Best spot for a sundowner: It’s got to be the top deck of The Boathouse, it’s half al fresco and half undercover and you’ll be certain to get a sun tan almost any time of day. 

Best for your insta feed – Beer

The beach at Beer is still a working beach, with fishing boats tied up on the pebbles and crab sold direct from a shack up the slipway. The town”s High Street runs right down to the the beach with art galleries, ice creameries, cafes and ancient stone drainage gullies running down the side of the pavement – careful where you put your stiletto (and when parking!)

What to do: Everywhere you look is insta heaven – the colourful boats, the stripy deckchairs, the beach huts, the white limestone cliffs. Fill your feed! Then don a life jacket and rent a wooden boat with an outboard motor, to snap it all from the waves. Back on dry land, you can waft up Beer High Street for a poke around the galleries and antiques shops. Walkers bring your hiking boots, it’s steep but the south west coast walk to Branscombe is a stunner. Swimmers – go in at low tide because, although the beach is pebbly, once you’re in the sea, it’s gorgeous soft sand underfoot.

Eat: It’s tradition to grab a crab sandwich from Ducky’s, and eat it sitting on the beach but Muddy is also partial to a burger sitting under a parasol at The Anchor Inn. While the nosh is what you’d expect from a Greene King pubs, it’s the pretty beer garden right on the clifftop overlooking the waves, that draws us back. And if you’ve got kids in tow, there’s a small play park with swings within visible distance right next to the beach. 

Best spot for a sundowner:either hike up the cliffs or make a beeline for the tables right at the end of Anchor Inn’s beer garden for a seagull’s eye view.

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HAMPSHIRE

Best for kitesurfing – Hayling Island

Hayling Island is having a bit of a moment right now. Ranked as one of The Sunday Times 50 Best Beaches for 2021, it’s just four miles long and four miles wide at its broad, southern end and sits between the sheltered waters of Langstone Harbour to the west and Chichester Harbour to the east, with uniquely perfect conditions for kitesurfing making it a mecca for the sport.

What to do: If you’re looking for a peaceful stroll, Sandy Point is the place to find it. The nature reserve itself is off-limits but you can park nearby and walk on the beach here with views out to the Solent. You might also spot a few hardy souls swimming in the rocky breakwaters. 

Reputedly invented here, kitesurfing and wingsurfing is a year-round favourite on the main, Blue Flag beachfront – watch them fly or have a go yourself with lessons from ex-pro kiteboarder Chris and his team at CBK Hayling. If you love it, come back in September for the brilliant Kitesurfing Armada Festival.

Where to eat and drink: Just opened in the Spring, the Salt Shack café at Northnea Marina is an absolute hidden gem (or, err, it was – sorry locals…). On a sunny day you can make the most of fab BBQ-grilled brekkies braai-style (owner Michelle is South African), or light lunches of fresh crab, salads and loaded ciabattas on the gorgeous terrace overlooking the resident yachts and views over to Chichester Harbour. 

Views galore too at Inn on the Beach, with its coastal décor, seafood, fish dishes, pub classics plus loads for vegans and veggies. Stay for a sundowner and avoid the inevitable early evening queue for the road bridge off the island. Win-win.

Best for a family day out – Southsea

Southsea’s shingle beaches stretch from old Portsmouth to Eastney. A vibrant and traditional seaside resort, it was the place to see-and-be-seen in Victorian times. Today, there’s plenty of old-school charm still remaining plus a new generation of Insta-worthy indie eateries.

What to do: If you fancy taking to the waters for a paddle or dip, you can do it safely here: Eastney Beach has just joined Southsea East and Southsea Central in getting its own RNLI lifeguard patrol (BayWatch, eat your heart out!). Kids in-tow? There’s absolutely loads to do for families. Head to the iconic South Parade Pier for traditional amusements, fish and chips and ice cream, fly a kite on the common, or visit Henry VIII’s Southsea Castle with its awesome rampart sea views and exciting tunnels to explore. 

Where to eat and drink: Southsea is an oasis of brilliant independents and there’s no shortage of places to eat and drink. Head to Muddy favourites The Brinyfor swish, coastal interiors, fab seafood and plenty of kids options. Fancy a Southsea Sunrise for your sundowner? The Courtyard Caféin the grounds of Southsea Castle is a great place to go for cocktails, sharing platters and loads more. 

Right on the beach at South Parade Pier, Southsea Beach café has awesome, uninterrupted beachfront views and a waters-edge decking area ideal for a sundrenched Aperol Spritz or two…

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ISLE OF WIGHT

Best for sunsets and holiday vibes – Totland Bay and Colwell Bay

The Bay Cafe Pier at Totland Bay beaches Isle of Wight

A shingle and sand beach on the Island’s sunny West Coast, Totland Bay stretches along a scenic coastal path to neighbouring Colwell Bay. Views here are unlike anywhere else, with amazing sunsets and some of the Island’s best eateries to view them from. Great for a romantic adults escape or a day out with the family, there’s plenty of sand for littlies to play on.

What to do: Venture down the broad stone steps and take a dip in the beautifully clear water. Picnic on the beach, build a sandcastle then stroll along the coastal path to Colwell Bay, with its pretty stretch of colourful beach huts. If you haven’t seen them close up, the Island’s iconic Needles are just 1.5 miles away and well worth a trip.

Where to eat: At the end of the old (and, sadly, not yet fully accessible) Totland Bay pier, the shiny new Bay Café has just opened. The first phase of the renovation, expect oh-so-stunning panoramic views to accompany your moules-frites. 

If you’re lucky enough to snag a terrace-side table further along the coastal path at The Hut at Colwell Bay, you could literally be anywhere in the world. The seafood menu and general holiday vibe here is absolutely off-the-charts. An army of friendly waiters drop super-cold wine, cocktails and fabulous food tableside as the music pumps. FAB-U-LOUS.

Best for golden sands and kiss-me-quick kitsch – Sandown Beach

Sandown beach Pier Isle of Wight
Pic: Visit Isle of Wight

If you like your day at the beach with all the seaside bells, whistles and sticks of rock, Sandown Beach on the Island’s South East coast will deliver in bucket-and-spades. Miles of golden sands, a pleasure pier – and some great surf if that’s your thing – there’s something for pretty much everyone.

What to do: Hire deckchairs, sun loungers and windbreaks and set up camp for the day. Take a break from building sandy sculptures and burying dad with a souvenir and an ice cream from one of the cafes dotted along the seafront. On the pier there’s indoor golf and Ten Pin Bowling. At the end of it, you can ride the dodgems and tea cups, too. Brilliant.

Where to eat: Brand new this summer, Sandown BEACH Boulevard is a 1980s Miami-themed street food market. Think picnic benches painted pastel pinks and greens with added flamingos. Sip drinks from the Isle Of Wight Cocktail Co and tuck into your choice of Island street food vendors like Dumplin Dumplin, Rollin’ Pizzas and The Urban Waffle Co. Book a table or grab a takeaway to eat on the beach. As the sun sets, Muddy’s top pick for a sundowner is the Sky Bar deck at the surf-style Beach Shack where you can sip an icy cold beer, Mermaid Gin, Vodka…

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DORSET

Best for a bucket and spade family holiday: Bournemouth

Bournemouth, BCP Council

Seven miles of golden sands with five Blue Flag beaches:  Alum Chine (near the Tropical Gardens and pirate playground), Durley Chine (a trad pub and cafe on the prom), the quieter Fisherman’s Walk and Manor Steps (near Boscombe) and Southbourne (especially good for young families) – and its own micro climate. 

Eat: Lobster – or fish and chips – at the Michelin-recommended, 2AA Rosette seafood restaurant West Beach, near the pier. Brunches, coffee, cocktails and live music at the outdoor Picnic Park Deli in Westover Gardens. Eclectic all day dining in (with kids’ menu) and wood-fired pizza to take away at Urban Reef on the Boscombe promenade. Laid back, family-friendly Bistro on the Beach at Southcombe. Ice creams all the way along. 

Activities: Pier-to-shore zip wire, climbing wall, high ropes obstacle course at RockReef & PierZip on Bournemouth Pier. Volleyball on the beach at Bosombe. Ride on three Victorian funicular railway from the beach up to the top of the cliffs or land trains along the promenade. Get a bird’s eye view of everything from the Bournemouth Big Wheel. Penguins, sharks and stingrays at the Oceanarium. Culture fix: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum 

Sundowner: Cocktails, fizz, tapas and fire pits at newly opened beach club W Beach.

Best for fossil hunting: Lyme Regis

Ammonite at Lyme Regis, Mark Godden, Shutterstock

You might not discover a complete ichthyosaur, like 12-year-old Mary Anning did back around 1812, but you might find fool’s gold (iron pyrites), ammonites and bullet-shaped belemnites in the rook pools and the shingle at Lyme Regis, especially on Monmouth Beach. Cobb Gate and Front Beach are both sandy and safe for swimming. 

Eat: Mark Hix’s Oyster & Fish House on the hillside overlooking the harbour. Pub lunch at The Pilot Boat on the edge of the beach. Asian street food at Red Panda and vegetarian Tierra Kitchen in the roads behind the seafront.

Activities: Search for fossils, on your own or on a guided fossil walk with an expert from the Lyme Regis Museum. Walk along The Cobb, an old stone harbour made famous by Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Go paddleboarding with Jurassic SUP & Fitness. Zip round the bay on a rib (inflatable boat) with Lyme Rib Rides. Catch some mackerel on a boat trip with Harry May.

Sundowner: Cocktails, wine, beer and nice nosh beach-front bar and cafe Swim right on Marine Parade, overlooking the beach, The Cobb and Lyme Bay beyond.

Best for getting away from it all: Chesil Beach

Chesil Beach, Ian Woolcock, Shutterstock

No beach huts, sandcastles or kiss me quick hats at this iconic landmark, just a vast sweep of some 180 billion pebbles, running 18 miles from West Bay near Bridport (where the pebbles are pea-sized) all the way to Weymouth (where they’re the size of your fist). When the sky is a brilliant blue, the sunlight bouncing off the sea and the pale shingle creates a unique, almost otherworldly atmosphere. Keep to the shore; it’s dangerous to swim.

Eat: Breakfast at The Hive Beach Cafe at Burton Bradstock. Lunch at The Club House at West Bexington on Chesil Beach (sorry, no helicopter landings in July and August). Afternoon tea at the Moonfleet Manor hotel near the Fleet lagoon. Supper at the Crab House Cafe near Weymouth. 

Activities: Walk. Visit the swans at Abbotsbury Swannery on the freshwater Fleet Lagoon, a Designated Site of Special Interest for wildlife. Take your fishing gear to catch mackerel from the shore. Read On Chesil Beachby Ian McEwan.

Sundowner: Watch the sun go down by the fire of your beach barbeque or head back up along the beach and up the cliffs to the Seaside Boarding House at Burton Bradstock.

Best for a totally all over tan: Studland Bay

Studland Bay, SuxxesPhoto, Shutterstock

Four miles of gorgeous, gently shelved, sandy beaches on the Studland peninsula stretching from chalk sea stacks Old Harry Rocks near Swanage to Shell Bay and owned by the National Trust. Head for South Beach (popular with locals), Middle Beach backed by low cliffs, or the sandunes and spacious sands of Knoll Beach and at one end, the (clearly marked) naturist area.

Activities: Water sports – kayaking, paddleboarding – pedaloes and boat trips at Knoll and Middle Beach. Get your kit off on the naturist part of Knoll Beach. Build sandcastles on them all. Follow nature trails behind the beach. Take a ferry over to see the rare red squirrels on Brownsea Island.

Eat: Coffee, snacks and ice cream at the Knoll Beach cafe. Pub lunch at The Bankes Arms, a 16th century stone pub with views over Studland Bay from their large gardens and beer from the Purbeck Brewery next door (get there early, it’s first-come-first served).

Sundowner: It has to be cocktails at the super cool Pig-on the beach made with basil, pelegonium and strawberry infused vodkas, garden chilli infused rum, kaffir lime infused gin, all created with botanicals from their own kitchen garden.

Best for scenic beach huts: Mudeford Sandbanks

Mudeford Sandspit, Ian Woolcock, Shutterstock

A sand spit creating a natural barrier between Christchurch harbour and made up of beach after golden beach, separated by breakwaters. Running east from Hengistbury Head towards Mudeford Quay, the beach is edged by around 300 colourful – and expensive – beach huts (one sold for around £300k last year).

Activities: On the harbour side, all the usual water sports. On the beach side, building sandcastles and swimming in the sea. Explore the Hengistbury Head nature reserve. 

Eat:Takeaway breakfasts, salads, paninis, burgers from the beachside Beach House Cafe with views across Christchurch harbour. At the Hengistbury Head end, the Hiker Cafe offers a similar fare.

Sundowner: Head back over to Christchurch harbour for drinks, delicious seafood and stunning views from The Jetty.

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