Daily Express, April 25, 2009

A CORNISH FLIGHT OF FANCY

DUNCAN CRAIG tests out an affordable new air link that is bringing the laid-back delights of the West Country within reach of the capital

A DAY out in west Cornwall – for much of the country this notion is as fanciful as it is appealing. The big toe at the foot of Britain’s outstretched leg is truly a region out on a limb.

Reaching it by road or rail is akin to scaling a horizontal mountain, an expedition requiring precision planning and huge reserves of stamina. Many turn back in the foothills of Devon or Somerset.

Which is why an airlift to the summit is so enticing. Launched this week by Air Southwest is a new, twice-daily service from London City Airport to Newquay.

I was first in line to test it out; or at least I would have been if there was a queue. London City is noted for its effi ciency, not to mention its genuine proximity to the capital; for once the “London” prefix isn’t infuriatingly misleading.

A quick wave of my bank card (no passport needed here), leisurely stroll through an empty security lane and I was in the departure lounge. Five minutes, tops. Our 50-seater Dash 8-300 twin-propeller aircraft had the look of a private jet, the feel of a village bus.

The spacious seats face in both directions and there are few enough passengers that everyone chats readily. Bubbly West Country stewardesses patrol eagerly, serving cider and calling everyone “my lovely”. Maybe I imagined the cider.

There was a slight judder as the propellers began dicing the morning sunshine streaming into the cabin and suddenly we were airborne. There was barely sufficient time to read up on the airline’s green credentials – it claims to produce less CO2 per passenger than the same journey by train or car – before we were dropping down into first Plymouth and then Newquay.

It had the look of a private jet, the feel of a village bus with bubbly West Country stewardesses calling everyone ‘my lovely’

The “surf capital” of Cornwall is surrounded by no less than 14 golden beaches. Minutes after landing at Newquay’s intimate, hill-top airport, I was striding across arguably the pick of them – Watergate Bay, a vast expanse backed by headlands that rear up either side and plummet vertically down to invitingly creamy sands.

There’s nothing like a dip in the ocean for cementing your sense of arrival. For me it was with a surfboard under my arm and in the care of one of the instructors from the bay’s Extreme Academy, run in conjunction with the excellent Watergate Bay Hotel.

The academy has something for everyone, and every set of conditions, from waveskiing (kayaking for surfers) to mountain boarding (skate-boarding without the road rash). Its admirers are plentiful, and eminent; Wills and his mates spent a day here last summer.

Lunch is a key ingredient of a memorable day out, and this stretch of coastline is awash with quality and high-profile options. Padstow, a short taxi drive north, has no less than four Rick Stein restaurants, while Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall presides over Watergate Bay (albeit with inferior views to the hotel’s romantic yet ultra-contemporary Living Space bar/restaurant).

Eschewing all of these, I set off for The Headland hotel in the direction of Newquay itself, an invigorating four-mile hike south along the coastal path. One of the town’s best-known landmarks, this Grade II-listed, terracotta-and-stone edifice sits in glorious isolation on an outcrop surrounded on three sides by ocean. From a distance, silhouetted, it could almost be a Norman castle. Or the Bates motel.

From a distance, silhouetted, it could almost be a Norman castle. Or the Bates motel.

A dignified yet far from pompous four-star, its Terrace restaurant boasts great views of Fistral Bay, the northern hemisphere’s premier surf spot. That was the entertainment taken care of, as I sat al fresco and dined on steamed Cornish mussels with dill, white wine and cream, and tender tuna Niçoise.

With my return flight not departing until 5pm, I had time to explore the town. Newquay is a curious blend of the brash and quaint, the gentrified and the jaded. Superfluous, sub-par hotels are gradually being replaced with slick, sea-view apartments.

Away from the garish hub to which stag and hen groups flock are some wonderfully picturesque pockets. Trenance Gardens, a mile from the centre, is one such place. Subtropical plants and vivid blooms lit my path as I ambled past fountains and gurgling streams.

Spanning this manicured expanse is the Trenance Viaduct, a towering Victorian structure beyond which lies a leisure park with miniature railway, crazy golf and award-winning Newquay Zoo. I knew I was getting close when I heard Connie the lioness roar (although, to be fair, she can be heard six miles away).

New at the zoo for this year is the “African Savanna”, showcasing a veritable antelope to zebra of exotic animals. With an emphasis on conservation, the zoo boasts some astonishing creatures; my final hour in the West Country was spent gawping at sinister Carpathian lynxes, and emperor tamarins with comical moustaches.

My arrival back in London coincided with rush hour. I fell into step with the weary commuters on their way home from the office, the smile on my face the only giveaway.

* GETTING THERE: Air Southwest (0870 241 8202/www.airsouthwest.com) offers return fl ights from London City Airport to Newquay, via Plymouth, from £58. The Hotel & Extreme Academy, Watergate Bay (01637 860543/www. watergatebay.co.uk) offers rooms from £152 per night (two sharing), B&B, and half-day surf lessons from £30pp. The Headland (01637 872211/www.headlandhotel.co.uk) offers rooms from £93, B&B. BioTravel Taxi & Minibus Company (01637 880006/www.biotravel.co.uk).
Tourism Newquay: 01872 322900/www.visitnewquay.co.uk