There are three very good reasons to visit St Ives right now: the ailing pound against the euro, a great new luxury place to stay, and a fantastic exhibition at the Tate
For such a tiny place, St Ives in Cornwall has a lot going for it, especially if you’re an active art fan and swimmer – not many places can offer a top gallery and surfing in the same place.
Back in the 1930s, lots of British artists moved down, and stayed during the war. For a long time there was nowhere to display their works but in 1993 an old gasworks, right on Porthmeor Beach, was knocked down and replaced by the UK’s third Tate Gallery. From January 24-May 4 2009, one of St Ives’ most famous painters, Ben Nicholson, has an exhibition there. 'A Continuous Line' is a fascinating journey, from a painter of naive landscapes through the influence of cubism. The highlight has to be a 1947 painting called 'November 11 (Mousehole)'. It’s a picture of a beach - turn around and you can see the same view out of the Tate’s window.
Nicholson was married to Barbara Hepworth, and her former house, now a museum and a brisk walk away, is the other must-see in St Ives. The upper floor contains several of her lovely sculptures, which have a more feminine Henry Moore-like quality. But it’s the garden that is the real selling point, a south-facing space that packs in lots of sculptures without ever feeling cramped.
The reason many people descend on St Ives, though, is its beaches, even in winter. It has three sandy, clean beaches within 10 minutes’ walk of each other, and more if you’re up for a bracing walk. The depth of the water means it’s a surfer’s paradise, and its microclimate means surfing and swimming are possible even in the off-season.
While the town has plenty of plain B&Bs, what it has lacked is a really luxurious place to stay – there are still no five-star hotels in the town. What there is, though, is a brand new apartment complex, Sail Lofts
, which has received a five-star rating. This complex emerged last year from the ruins of an old pilchard pressing factory, in a Grand Designs
-like project. It cost the owner Philip Griffiths and his partner £2m, and for that he has 12 highly-fitted, airy, beautifully finished apartments
set around a garden courtyard.
Each flat has its own front door – there is no shared space – fitted kitchen, well-finished bathrooms and massive lounges, some with a view of Porthgwidden Beach. Even if you can’t see the beach, you can hear the booming surf, it’s that close. They are all fitted out with designer furniture pieces, digital TVs and iPod docks. Some have a waterproof TV in the shower, and a great view of the harbour. There is a wet room for your wetsuit or surfboard, beach towels and even a bucket and spade.
If you’re staying at the Sail Lofts you get a picnic basket, and with several delis and bakeries on your doorstep it’s a shame not to make the most of them. At Fore Street Deli you can stock up on fine local cheeses, a bottle of Camel Valley wine and, of course, a Cornish pasty, load up the basket and walk the 10-minute climb to the chapel at the point of the peninsula. The tiny chapel has benches outside where you can drink in both the wine and the view.
For more substantial eating, the Porthminster beach cafe looks like a simple wooden shack from a distance – and 20 years ago a shack is exactly what it was. Now it has been transformed into a whitewashed, bespoke restaurant, with clean lines and quite outstanding seafood all caught locally where possible. The salads and vegetables come from even closer – the garden out the back - so you can eat with a clear conscience. The fish and chips (£10.95) is fantastic.
For superb local produce cooked to perfection, another great place to eat is the Alba Restaurant, right next to the lifeboat house and named after a local shipwreck. The only wreck here was the state of my liver after quaffing some excellent wines, and the house selections are sympathetically chosen to match the food. The food is all seasonal, so it’s difficult to recommend anything specific, but the seafood and cheeses are outstanding.
St Ives is at the top of a long bay; the other end is Gwithian, and in between there are miles of sandy beaches right along Carbis Bay. You can walk the dog, swim in the sea or simply watch the seals frolicking in the water. Take a picnic and enjoy the microclimate and the very clean sea water, but beware of that wind - it can take layers off your skin.
You can reach St Ives by train or by car, or you can fly to Newquay on Air South West or Ryanair and get a taxi or rental car for the 45-minute journey from the airport. The train is a hefty six hours from London Paddington, but the last leg, along a single track to St Ives, hugs the coastline and is a glorious way to go if you’re not in a hurry.