Imagine rolling hills, winding country lanes, villages tumbling into the sea, glittering water, spectacular cliffs, seals, dolphins, surfing waves and a laid-back atmosphere and you start to understand why the counties of Devon and Cornwall, at the westernmost tip of the British mainland, are such a draw for UK holidaymakers. Of course you can pick one location in either county and explore from there, but when there’s 630 miles (over 1,000km) of coastline to discover and plenty more inland attractions, a Devon and Cornwall road trip makes a great choice for a UK summer family holiday.
In the Summer of 2020 we were meant to be beginning our six month family sabbatical. Like many other adventurers and holidaymakers Covid got in the way of our travel plans. We still wanted a summer break, so decided to have a UK staycation. We’ve been on many UK holidays over the years (take a look at our five favourite UK staycation spots here) but never for our main summer holiday. It didn’t take long for us to settle on Devon and Cornwall as our destination. We’d spent lockdown landlocked in West Berkshire, and hadn’t ventured to any nearby beaches as lockdown eased. We were itching for salty air and sandy toes.
How to holiday during the Covid-19 pandemic?
We thought long and hard about the best way to holiday during coronavirus times. After much deliberation we decided that renting a campervan might fit the bill, giving us our own space except for bathroom and toilet facilities. (Many campers have invested in porta-potties and showers for use during this time. As we don’t own our own campervan and are unlikely to take a long holiday in a tent, we decided to use campsite facilities.)
Why van life?
A campervan holiday would give us all of the benefits of camping – living life outdoors – but with a bit of added comfort compared to sleeping in a tent. We’d seen friends using their VW campervan and were intrigued and inspired by the concept of holidaying this way.
We did consider hiring a motorhome with its own shower and toilet but knowing the small windy lanes of Devon and Cornwall we knew that this type of vehicle wouldn’t give us the flexibility we wanted on holiday. As we drove between campsites and to beaches on our trip we often saw signs saying a particular route was unsuitable for motorhomes, and regularly found ourselves in mini-tailbacks as cars tried to reach or leave the beach. We felt like we’d made the right choice for us.
Choosing to holiday in a campervan meant we wouldn’t need to be tied to one location, opening up the possibility of a road trip. This felt appropriate, a little nod to our planned RV road trip around Washington State and Oregon in the Pacific North West, USA which was to form part of our six-month family sabbatical. We chose a campervan rental company based in Okehampton, Devon, meaning we could do the lion’s share of the drive from home in West Berkshire in our own car. While this was certainly the most practical choice, saving time and mileage, it did pose a potential problem – would we know what and how to pack? Thankfully many years of tent camping (take a look at our Camping Essentials guide), experience of packing light for our Interrail trip in Europe last summer plus a very detailed inventory provided by the campervan company meant that we felt prepared for our first campervan road trip.
Creating our perfect Devon and Cornwall road trip itinerary
Going on holiday during the coronavirus pandemic meant we thought quite carefully about how we wanted to spend our time. We chose to stick to the beach (whatever the weather) rather than visiting the many pretty, but undoubtedly busy, towns and villages of Devon and Cornwall. By focusing on the beach I knew I’d also be missing out on lots of inland beauty spots, but the sea was calling! Devon and Cornwall are both full of fantastic visitor attractions, from numerous National Trust and English Heritage sites, to the Eden Project, the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth and the Minack Theatre. In Summer 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic, access to all of these sites was restricted and required booking in advance – in some places weeks in advance! We chose to steer clear from visitor attractions and stick to the coastline as much as possible. That’s not to say we managed to avoid crowds entirely, but on the beaches we visited there was always space to spread out, especially at low tide.
My one clear focus of our summer road trip itinerary was to start in Croyde, Devon where I planned to book the boys some surf lessons. It’s the last place I surfed (on my hen weekend!) and I just love the sand dunes that back onto the beach. After that we thought we’d travel along the north coast of Devon and Cornwall, towards the western tip of the UK, then circle back along the south coast. By the time we started booking campsites, after it was announced that they would be reopening in England, many of our first choices were already fully booked. Some campsites chose not to open this summer, and others still opened without the basic bathroom facilities we needed. It took a couple of days of googling, emails and phone calls but by early July we had our itinerary planned.
We started our search for campsites using the Cool Camping website. If we were unable to find something suitable in our ideal location we simply reverted to using Google Maps to find campsites then looking at reviews to help us choose good spots. We aimed to choose campsites which had some character or an attraction of its own and in general chose a wild camping feel over more regulated pitches.
Our 10 day road trip itinerary of Devon and Cornwall
Pick up our home on wheels, a rented VW T6 California Ocean campervan called Virgil from O’Connors Campers based in Okehampton and drive up to Croyde on the North Devon coast. Overnight at Combas Farm, Croyde.
Morning surf lesson for the kids with Surf SouthWest in Croyde Bay, afternoon spent body boarding and playing on the sand dunes. Overnight at Combas Farm, Croyde.
Second morning surf lesson for the kids, but MrP joined in too this time! Afternoon spent on the beach body boarding and playing in the sand again. Overnight at Combas Farm, Croyde.
Drive across the Devon/Cornwall border to our second campsite, Cornish Tipi Holidays near St Kew, via picture-perfect Port Isaac for a quick wander and lunch. If I’d been a tad more organised I would have booked in a visit to Tintagel for this day. Sadly we missed our chance on this trip. After lunch and some rock pooling drive to the campsite, set up the van and awning, then enjoy the afternoon on the lake at Cornish Tipis. Overnight at Cornish Tipis, St Kew.
Lazy morning at Cornish Tipis, ‘camp’ keeping and revisiting the lake. Drive to Padstow via gorgeous Trebarwith Strand where we had lunch at the Port William Inn. We veered off our original itinerary with a kind invitation to join friends on their boat for a ride on the donut and to spend the evening at their lovely home on the hills above the Camel Estuary. Overnight with friends near Padstow.
On day 6 of our road trip around Devon and Cornwall the weather turned for the worse. We had persistent rain and 40mph winds. We also had a couple of tired kids (and grown ups) from a late night with friends. Without any indoor activities planned and booked we decided chilled time driving in the car with audio books and music would do the trick, so we drove from Padstow down to Lizard Point for a blast of fresh air at the most southerly point on the British mainland before looping back to our next campsite near St Ives. The weather app indicated we might have a drier set up time the later we arrived which was a good reason not to get to the campsite early. Overnight at Trevalgan Touring Park, St Ives.
More surfing! This time we’d booked lessons with Eskinzo Surf School on Porthtowan Beach. Some friends were camping in their VW campervan at a site not far from ours, so their kids joined ours in the surf lessons. We had lunch at The Unicorn on the Beach (it was raining, but we were lucky to have outdoor tables under shelter), and the boys played at the neighbouring playground. Back to the beach after lunch for more body boarding and playing in the sand. We popped into St Ives for takeaway fish and chips that evening and ate them as we explored the quieter streets away from the picturesque but busy harbour. Overnight at Trevalgan Touring Park, St Ives.
The sun came out to play, so we couldn’t leave north Cornwall without visiting another great surfing and body boarding beach. After packing up the van we headed to Chapel Porth where our friends met us for a few glorious hours in the water and on the beach. Covered in salt and sand we then clambered back in the van for the long drive to our final campsite of our road trip where we had dinner booked in a meadow. Dinner and overnight at The High Nature Centre, East Portlemouth, Devon.
The heatwave was building up so after a fairly lazy morning at camp we walked to our closest beach, Gara Rock, from the campsite. 20 mins over fields to the South West Coast Path, then down to the beach. Wonderful day spent in the water, on the rocks and jumping in between. Our food stocks were low for dinner so after washing all the sand and salt off we drove over to East Prawle with a picnic blanket and had burgers and pub drinks from The Pigs Nose sitting on the village green as the sun went down. Back at camp, fire lit and clear skies for our last night. Overnight at The High Nature Centre, Devon.
We’d originally thought we might do something with our morning on Day 10, explore a little more, but it was extremely hot and we had a long drive ahead of us, so we decided to head straight home, saying a fond farewell to Virgil, our campervan, at O’Connors Campervans. Back in our trusty Landrover we drove home to West Berkshire, plotting our next escape on the way.