18 Muddy-approved attractions in Devon
From the big-beast tourist destinations to our cool insider alternatives, read on for our pick of 18 unmissable attractions in Devon.
Headliner: Greenway, Galmpton
As with most National Trust properties that were once someone’s home, half the fun is imagining you lived here and Agatha Christie’s former holiday home would do nicely, thank you. A Georgian dream on the banks of the River Dart stuffed full of the novelist’s possessions and 1950s memorabilia, it feels like Agatha might just walk round the corner, and offer you a Devonshire cream tea. The gardens and boat house (the setting for the first murder in Dead Man’s Folly) are well worth a wander if only for the jaw-dropping views over to Dittisham and Dartmouth. It’s timed entry and you need to book and it’s worth having a think about how you get there, as instead of the car, it’s much for fun, and spectacular, arriving by boat or ferry.
In the know intel: A la Ronde, Exmouth
A house with 16 sides, you say? Based on a 6th-century Byzantine basilica, this curious 18th century house was built for two sisters, the Parminters, who wanted a rural retreat to store the many souvenirs from their Grand Tour travels. As you can imagine, it is a total treasure trove, including 18th-century family silhouettes and pictures and friezes made from shells and feathers. Just delightful.
Headliner: Hotel Endsleigh, Dartmoor
Olga Polizzi’s Tamar Valley hotel sure knows how to put on a good spread, either on the terrace overlooking the velvet-green Humphry Repton parkland or in the wood-panelled library, with lashings of afternoon tea served up every day at 3.30. Once you’ve tucked into plates piled high with scones smothered in Devon cream, finger sandwiches and pant-popping cakes, I guarantee you will be tempted to go the whole, er, hog, and stay for dinner. Chef Tom Ewings is all about local and foraged food, with a local shooter on speed dial for game, and a fishmonger who daily tours the markets for the best catch of the day. Fancy staying the night for breakfast too? Check out my Muddy review for all the deets.
In the know intel: The River Exe Cafe, Exe Estuary
As fine dining experiences go, a meal on Devon’s only floating gastro-shed slap-bang in the middle of the River Exe is hard to beat and that’s why this is one to book early – they’re only open from April to the end of September and tables get nabbed fast, especially at weekends. Arrive on your own boat (lucky you), or book the water taxi from Exmouth Marina. It’s all part of the fabulous fun you’ll have as part of your three-hour booking. Then hop on board for a modern British menu, adapted daily by chef Chris to incorporate the local catch of seafood. Choose from mouth-watering dishes like seafood paella, pan-roasted sirloin and garlic roasted crevettes, options for veggies and a kid’s menu, as well as a range of local gins and wine. It’s amazing – go, go, go!
Headliner: Clovelly, North Devon
Blissfully car-free, Clovelly turns back the clock with its instagrammable cottages which edge cobbled streets that wind down a 400ft cliff on the North Devon coast. Yes, it’s touristy (you have to pay to enter) but its authenticity makes up it, as people still live here and fishermen land fish daily in the characterful 16th century harbour. It’s not a trip for stilettos. Do wear walking shoes as there are only two directions: downhill and back up again, and it’s incredibly steep (residents use sledges to tote their shopping up and down the cobbles). In non-covid times you can take a Landrover back uphill from the quay, but as it’s currently not running, I’d recommend the shadier, less busy route which zigzags you back up. Even better stay awhile at the Red Lion Inn right on the quayside and wake to the sound of seagulls and the boats setting out to sea.
In the know intel: Berry Pomeroy Castle
If you love spooky castles with oodles of history and grisly tales of people being cast into dungeons, don’t miss this English Heritage-owned ruin near Totnes. Often described as Devon’s most haunted, and once owned by the family of Jane Seymour, this 15th century castle incorporates the remains of an Elizabethan mansion and has an intriguing history all brought to life with a very listenable audio tour that even kids will enjoy. Visitors have reported hearing screams in the area called Pomeroy’s Leap. Guaranteed to give you a shiver *hoo ha ha* even on a warm day.
Headliner: Gaia Spa, Boringdon Hall, near Plymouth
Need a boost? Get thee to Plymouth’s state-of-the-art Gaia Spa! It opened in 2016 and has won a raft of awards since, including Condé Nast Johansens 2020, due to its natural wellness vibe and gorgeous range of own-brand products and ritual treatments, designed with the aim of putting your mind, body and soul back together. You will love the gorgeous Relaxation Room (above) – it really is that sumptuous – where you can chill with a herbal tea post-treatment while devising how soon you can get back here for the next one. Heat rooms are currently off limits due to Covid, but the pool, gym, outside hot tubs and treatments are all yours for the pampering.
In the know intel: The Spa at Ilsington
Off the beaten track on Dartmoor is a surprising place to find a small but beautifully kitted out – and award-winning – spa, but here it temptingly is, designed in tasteful Tibetan style. Cleverly designed to include everything you might expect to find in a much bigger city spa, except without the crowds, you can enjoy a dip in a heated 11x5m indoor pool, bubble in a hydrotherapy pool, or chill in the steam room and sauna to the sound of zen yoga-music and sparkly changing colour-lights. And if that sounds just too relaxing, there’s a fitness suit for gym bunnies.
Headliner: Surfing Croyde Bay
Wanna catch a wave? This award-winning surf school on the north Devon coast will get you riding those breakers whether you’re a newbie or an aspiring pro. They supply all the kit, and you can book in for a 1 to 1 or a family lesson with your own dedicated instructor suitable for kiddies as young as five years-old, provided they can swim. Your class includes a 5 minute walk to the beach, a talk on safety and relevant techniques and then you hit the surf for a minimum of 1.5 hrs surfing. By which time you’ll be more than ready to hit Croyde’s famous pub, The Thatch, for a plate of their legendary nachos.
In the know intel: Aerosaurus Balloons
Missing flights abroad? Here’s your chance to get airborne and enjoy bucolic Devon from above. Aerosaurus will give your family holiday lift-off and a seagull’s eye view of the countryside, either around the Ivybridge or Exeter area. I took my family for a flight and it’s unforgettable, floating gently above the tree canopy and fields, so peaceful and yet exhilarating. It’s also quite hands-on, as everyone is involved in getting the balloon unfurled and filled with air and once you land (an adventure in itself) everyone helps to carefully fold and pack it up again. Hot tip: if it’s your birthday don’t let them know as they have been known to give passengers the bumps on the nearly packed-away balloon (My dignity has never recovered!)
Headliner: Crealy Theme Park & Resort, near Exeter
Ask any Devon Mudlet, from toddler to tween, where they want to go on a day trip and chances are ‘Crealy’ will be the cry. Devon’s largest theme park with over 60 rides, attractions and animals, Crealy is catnip for nippers, thanks to rides like the 40ft splashdown on the Log Flume (take your cagoule), the aqua blasters (make that 2 cagoules), rollercoaster and the Twister, to name but a few, as well as indoor slides for rainy days. (Currently open on weekends only.)
In the know intel: Board, Exeter
Monopoly geeks in da house! Brilliant for peeling kids off phones and, you know, playing properly like we did in the olden days! Board on Exeter’s South Street has more than 350 board games, including old classics like Battleship and the Exeter edition of Monopoly, and loads you probably won’t have heard of, themed into strategy, quick and easy, co-operative, family and party. Open all day every day (and Covid-proofed) so the perfect pitstop for rainy days where you can plan world domination or sink a battleship while munching on a burger and shake, or yay!, a cocktail. Make mine an Elderflower Collins, might help with the word games. Collins Dictionary, geddit? Maybe I’ll just stick to Kerplunk.
Headliner: Drake Circus, Plymouth
Rainy day shopping required? Here are seventy shops, all conveniently under cover and right in the ocean city’s centre. I popped in recently and it’s well laid-out to be Covid-safe and last year they introduced later opening hours to 7pm on Mon, Weds, Friday and Saturday. All the usual High Street suspects are here, including M&S, Primark, Lush, Waterstones, Joules, Monsoon and Jack Wills. Good eateries include Bills and Yo! and the new entertainment hub, The Barcode next door, which has a Cineworld (and 400 parking spaces including electric) plus a gorgeous Cosy Club for a cocktail or two.
In the know intel: Totnes and Narnia – The Time Travellers Shop
Only in Totnes, a town known for its hippy vibe and bullish opposition to its high street being overtaken by chains, would you find a shop called Narnia. Don’t miss this kooky shopping cornucopia, dedicated to rare vinyl and music memorabilia. And when you’re finished rootling in here, Totnes High Street is lined with fabulous indie boutiques, art galleries, and foodie shops selling wine, amazing gelato and more. Let the rummaging commence!
Headliner: The Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth
Cute, furry, totally affectionate animals? Check. Cracking countryside location with views out to the Jurassic Coast? Check. Loads to do, plus a cafe worthy of a visit alone? Checkity check-check. The donkeys nuzzle you for strokes and you can read all about them, as well as watch one of the displays in the main barn area. It’s fascinating to hear some little-known facts about these creatures and heartwarming to know that many have escaped difficult past lives and are now living it up near Sidmouth. Don’t go thinking you’re just going to Instagram a few gorgeous donkeys; be prepared to get lost in a maze, follow trails and become immersed in the interactive displays. Plus there’s usually some extra fun to be had during the school holidays.
In the know intel: Dartmoor Zoo, Sparkwell
Just fifteen minutes from Plymouth is the zoo made famous by the Hollywood movie, We Made a Zoo, with Matt Damon. It has a the biggest collection of big cats in the south west, including cheetahs, tigers, a lion and a jaguar, as well as well as cute meerkats, wallabies and marmosets. My kids loved the hands-on experience days (we had fun handling bugs and reptiles *eek*) and you can book in to be a junior keeper for the day or feed the meekats.
Sand and sea – it’s our middle name! This award-winning three-mile stretch of the North Devon coast is generally considered the best that Devon has to offer thanks to acres of pristine golden sand and rolling waves perfect for surfers and body-boarding, plus there’s loads of space for 2000 cars in the car parks and it’s dog-friendly. The bonus is unlike some beaches, you don’t have to squeeze down a narrow lane with zillions of cars coming in the opposite direction to get there! Hot tip: walk the cliffs from Woolacombe to Mortehoe and you might see the seals basking on the rocks below.
In the know intel: Ness Cove Beach, Shaldon
Accessed via a long, windy tunnel, said to have been used by the old smugglers, Ness Cove is a small sheltered beach, perfect for a gentle swim. It’s a favourite with locals and it’s dog-friendly, though there are a few steps you might struggle with if you’re own with a pushchair. No worries though, as there’s also a lovely sandy beach in Shaldon itself. There’s the award-winning eco cafe, Ode, right next to the car park which has fabulous views over the Teign estuary to Teignmouth opposite where you tuck into an ice-cream, wood-fired pizza or burger brunch accompanied by the sounds of the lemurs at Shaldon Zoo. A fun spot to monkey around with the kids afterwards.