St Ives beaches, surfing and a surprise

St Ives Highlights

Seal Island

Seal Island

Bobbing around in the tumbling seas with seals

Alpacas and llamas, Cornwall

Walking alpacas

Strolling with llamas and an alpaca army over the Cornish countryside

Minack Theatre

Minack Theatre

Open air cliff top (wind blasted) theatre

The plan - a surprise trip to the many St Ives beaches

It was a 50th birthday treat (with a 16 friend jump-out surprise twist), so I’d had decades to prepare. Where do you take 20 people for a multi-generation 50th? I chose St Ives, probably our favourite town in the UK with its tiny cobbled white streets, crystal-watered harbour, stony fishermen’s cottages and surrounded by golden beaches.

Beware: The seagulls are evil and will steal your chips/sandwich, even if you are flanked by defensive adults who think they are ready for it this time.

How do you cater for 20 people in St Ives?
A: you split them up

Our pals had covertly booked their own tiny cottages, campsites and luxury pads dotted around the town for multi-centred party opportunities, and reduced scope for fighting over bedroom allocation or cooking. I’m not even sure if they have houses big enough for 20 anyway.

We had our eye on The Sloop, a whitewashed and heavy timbered old Smugglers’ Inn, with benches  right on the harbour. On closer inspection we could see that although they do have accommodation, there are no family rooms, and it would have broken our bank to book 2 rooms for a week. Instead I’d booked through aspects.com a pretty cottage right next to Porthmeor Beach,  that we’d seen last time we were there.

How do you get there?

Having been snarled up in the tiny toy town alleyways of St Ives before, it was decided to save the birthday driver’s sanity (and car bumpers) and opt for the luxury of train travel this time.

3 months before departure I’d received the Trainline Ticket alert  email (see travel tips – coming soon), tipping me the wink that the limited edition cheapest fare you will ever see for this journey had been released. With a family railcard, and a £25 voucher from another late train, it cost us a round £7 all in, I kid you not. One way mind.

In order to utilize the voucher – which conveniently is not redeemable online, I’d had to bike it the mile to the station before the only 4 tickets issued at this price were snapped up by someone without a voucher, ordering from the luxury of their own phone/bed. First school girl  error in the excitement was to forget to reserve seats. Oops. Be fine.

Had to do exactly the same thing a week later when, by way of a small 6am ting, I was alerted to the release of cheapy McCheap face return tickets. Having learnt my lesson – I booked seats for this one. Ha. Though it didn’t cross my mind to rectify earlier error and add seats to outwards trip.

Top Tip: Other, less driving averse, members of the party had hired parking spaces for the week on the outstskirs of town to avoid the snarling and scraping.

The day drew nearer, and we collectively  had not let the ’16 pals coming too surprise’ cat out of the bag, by managing not to say “see you in St Ives,” every time we met up prior to the event. Hee, hee. 

Harbour Beach, St Ives beache

Day 1

Outward bound

Surfing at Porthmeor beach, St Ives beaches

Day 2

Surf 'n' Sloop

View of Harbour Beach from pub in rain, St Ives beaches

Day 3

Rainy day in paradise

Seal Island

Day 4

Seal Island

Day 5

Alpaca army

Minack theatre

Day 6

Minack theatre

Day 1 - Outward bound - St Ives beaches here we come

The taxi was a bit late but everyone was still behaving nicely. Cracks appeared in veneers when it turned out there are actually 2 types of train journey from Bristol to St Ives, the scenic and the exceptionally scenic “cross country” (by way of at least 27 stops). Who knew? Not me, clearly.

Turns out the cheapest ticket is also the most scenic (yay?). Thought it was also time to fess up the seat situation. A not too impressed husband was given carte blanche to go for any upgrade he desired at the station kiosk (birthday privilege) to mend all of the above – somewhat negating the efforts to secure the £7 tickets. Still – never mind – it’s ya birthday.

Informed by desk that as the 6 hour journey to St Ives only runs about 4 times a day, waiting for the not-so-scenic quicker train would mean arriving later than taking the one we were booked on. A second blow was learning that seats are not reservable on the cheapy train, as is more like a local bus (so couldn’t have booked them if I’d tried anyway – phew?). The upshot was, this was to be our train and we’d have to fight for any seats at all (let alone adjacent ones) in a scrum each time we changed train. And the train might not have any tables. Be fine.

Train arrived, tables existed, 4 seats secured and, as the train stopped its 27 times right along the seafront, trundling past the Red Rock beach at Dawlish on its way, everyone was a little bit happier and it was agreed we should always get the train in future (but maybe not this one).

St Ives beaches 1 - Harbour Beach

Fortunately, during the previous week I had spotted in the booking confirmation that keys for the cottage were to be collected from Hayle, 8 miles out of town. Would have been a downer arriving car-free on the platform in St Ives after a 6 hour train journey to find keys were 8 miles away.

But no, I had averted such a disaster with a lucky glance at the right bit of the small print and the day was saved as I had arranged to pick them up from the harbour office.  Alighted the train and were blown away by the views over Porthminster  Beach from the station. Properly on holiday now!

St Ives beaches 2 - Porthminster beach

Pretending we were a quarter of a century younger than we are, we donned the same backpacks we had taken travelling (and wheeled the additional luggage now required for a family of 4) through the higgledy pidggley town, past the picture postcard harbour to the Aspects office – no biggie. Still got it.

We found our fisherman’s cottage where we had left it. To date we had never had any form of accommodation with a sea view. Bit of a running joke. Had once paid for a mountain view in Morocco but the mountain range had spent the week hiding in the mist. (Thought we’d been had, til the last day when they appeared).

But this time, we were right by the beach and living the dream. Nearly. We’d kind of assumed that the cottage backed onto the sea. It was so close. There was sand on the doorstep! But no, foiled again by a pesky car park and apartment block lodged between our back wall and the beach. Damn it. Despite being through some sort of tunnel and obscured by our neighbour’s semi-transparent balcony, I decided to count it as a sea view anyway. And it definitely looked like one in the reflection in the living room mirror. So, tick.

Didn’t matter anyway as stepping outside and popping 5 seconds round the corner leads to the totally fab Porthmeor Beach, my favourite of the St Ives beaches, with a coastal path at one end and headland walk at the other, from which you can look down on aquamarine water and see the odd seal. 

St Ives beaches 3 - Porthmeor Beach

I dumped the bags and looped the headland 3 times it was so gorgeous, while rest of family collapsed in the cottage.

Porthmeor headland

Lying down recovery time completed, we checked out little Porthgwidden beach on the other side of the headland (a good 5 minutes’ walk away) with its funky beach huts and café where seagulls nick your chips. 

St Ives beaches 4 - Porthgwidden Beach

 We then meandered round the corner to the Sloop Inn pirating tavern. Having been unable to actually stay there, we (I) had instead chosen it as the surprise moment jumping out place for the next night. Had tried to book a table for 20 but no bookings possible, so was surreptitiously checking out bar capacity. Fairly full. There weren’t 20 spare seats that was for sure. Bit worried. Be fine.

Day 2 - Surf -n- Sloop

Not everyone was arriving until this evening, so the plan was for our family to select one spot to hang out during the day, to avoid bumping into other gang members and giving the game away. Cover stories were invented in case of unexpected sightings. Any movements from agreed spots were to be texted through secretly in the style of the Truman show, so the other characters could move out of range. Like being spies.

Very selfishly, I selected our doorstep Pothmeor beach as our zone. and breakfasted at the lovely West Beach bakery at the end of the bay, with rustic benches, blankets, heaters and music from yesteryear.

The 2 hardier family members opted for an April surf lesson, with the remainers hiding behind a rock with hot drinks, waiting for it to be over. The sun may have been out but it was hat and scarf weather.

Having successfully hidden for the day, it was time for the big surprise. Birthday Husband keen to stay in and watch telly, or maybe try somewhere different to the Sloop tonight? Er, no. Had to get decisively but not suspiciously bossy and was reluctantly accompanied by family to designated meeting point. Phone was dinging madly, presumably saying no room at the Inn, but there was no plan B and no looking at the phone without being seen – so struck out, message–blind.

The Sloop was packed, but tables had been secured across the room. Lots of cheering broke out when birthday boy entered and there was a tear in more than one grown ups’ eye. Lots of “Did you really not know?”s and then rum, beers, and party for 20 in a cottage for 4. Hooray!

Day 3 - Rainy day in paradise

Now we could hang out altogether. Plans had been made (groups of 20 drifting around the 10 shops for a whole week had been ruled out as a workable plan).

But, as is the way in the Easter holidays, inevitably it rained and the plan and day unfolded at the harbour front Rum and Crab Shack with happy hour rum-based (always) cocktails while slightly-too-old–for- it children were sent to watch Dumbo at the town cinema. St Ives beaches are still pretty spectacular in the rain, especially when viewed from inside a rum shack.

Day 4 - Seal Rock

Super speedy seal trip boat ride on the Dolly P with www.stivesboats.co.uk booked for today.  Excited to be allowed to walk around on the wobbly deck and stick our hands out into the substantial side spray. Or just stand at the back and get totally drenched. Felt like we were in a David Attenborough documentary, bobbing around in the shimmering white froth as seals popped up to say hello.

The day ended with a different type of bubbles the Porthminster café on another of St Ives beaches, a 2 minute walk from the harbour.

Day 5 - Alpaca Army

An alpaca trek with Carthveanalpacas.com was today’s untypically Cornish scheduled activity, about a 30 minute drive from St Ives. Adults were required to accompany children under 12 on the trek, which I had thought seemed a bit harsh on the alpaca, but turns out “trek” does not mean “ride” so alpacas’ backs were safe.

All the children got their own pompom headed alpaca or hippogriff-like llama to parade around the Cornish hills. The farm was run, unexpectedly, by an international llama expert. Apparently llamas will only allow certain people to stroke them. If you are their designated leader for the day then this is sufficient.  Being an accompanying adult, as my child’s llama made abundantly clear to me, is not.

They are a proud species, and hate it, for instance, if anyone is taller than them. As they pass a small hillock on the walk, they must each have their own opportunity to stand proudly upon it, and if one llama takes pride of place for too long, they are bumped right off it by the next in line.

An errant alpaca, who had been upsetting the smaller pompoms, had been moved to the big boy llama field to be taught a bit of a lesson. They would be able to handle him. As we cleared the hill, we saw that “handling” involved having a huge spitty scrap, sending the gangsta alpaca to Coventry at the other end of the field and giving him daggers.

For our £15, we were also witness to hairy tusked boars begging for food  (why did I not take a picture of this?) and helped to feed an oncoming alpaca army. 

No family holiday is complete without a first aid incident. And so it came to pass in a wrestling/head collision moment amongst our mini-me offspring, who seemed to have become beach feral as their adults hit the beach bar. A lifeguard was involved, a diagnosis of “probably not broken” nose made but also a precautionary suggestion of a trip to A and E. (We declined on this occasion. He lived. All good).

Day 6 - Minack Theatre

Bit of backwards running on the beach from child 2 led to a bonus second first aid incident, which we initially chose to ignore. The arm hurt, but it wasn’t going to get worse watching a show, so the full group theatre trip plan was still a go.

If you have never been to the Minack Theatre, you might want to make a small addition to the bucket to visit this Agatha Christie/Roman Colosseum inspired cliff top open-air theatre with sea views to die for.

Minack Theatre

That said, it can be a bit nippy. It’s either sun or wind burn. Or both. No middle ground – bring blankets and sun cream to cover all bases.

Ours was a windy day – so windy, I was totally prepared to abandon the show at the interval and spend the second half defrosting in the café. The children agreed. Disappointed to learn that the cafe closes during the performance, we were turfed back out to turf-covered cliff edge seats.

Top tip: I used a 13 year old child as a wind break on my lap, which helped. Didn’t see much of the rest of the show through his hair, but looking out for seals on the rocks below kept me occupied.

It would be criminal to go the Minack theatre, without taking a trip down to Porthcurno beach next door. My favourite beach ever. Just don’t use the cliff stairs. Deadly.

Porthcurno Beach

Post-theatre and beach, child 2 was still tearful if arm was bumped and was holding it in a funny way. Time to be dropped off at Penzance A and E (still carless). Waited the usual couple of hours for x-ray to confirm not broken. Phew. Run like demons to catch last train back to St Ives at 10pm just in time for last night party.

Day 7 - Home

From nowhere – heat arrives. Its 22 degrees. It was sleeting on Monday. But we’ve checked out and are sitting on a week’s worth of luggage on the beach until the train leaves at lunchtime. Doubly saddening is that not everyone is leaving today – the party in the sun will go on without us, as we leave for our all-day train ride. Still – it has been a blast (and not just of wind and rain).

Time for a final luggage drag through the now very sizeable Good Friday crowd in town, past Christ the Redeemer and his many followers, in fact. Pull slowly and sadly out of station and arrive 10 minutes later at St Erth, for our first change of the day.  Lug all bags off the train only to learn that the next one is a bit broken and may be cancelled. It’s a Bank Holiday and the chances of another one coming soon are significantly lower than on a normal day.  And we had seats on this one! Agh.

It rolls in an hour later, just long enough for the prospect of any connections (with seats) to disappear over the horizon. Spend whole journey listening to announcements advising which trains are, and then it turns out, are not being held for us and where we should, then shouldn’t, change.

7 hours later, in scorchio sun, we arrive, just shy of the delay required for full refund (of £7), and just as everyone else is off to the bar in magical St Ives.

The next day the hospital calls to say the arm is broken after all, and asking if we can we go back to A and E on the hottest Easter ever for another x-ray?

St Ives beaches holiday - Lessons learned

  • Book seats (on trains and in restaurants).
  • Book the fast train. Or maybe just take a car and hire a car parking space as you will probably need it to visit alpacas, the theatre or to go to A and E at some point.
  • Go for a balcony to secure a sea view. Some apartments on Porthmeor had one on each side to get sun in morning and evening. Clever. 
  • If you have no need of an outside area with your view, and about £1500 to spare, the totally gorgeous Saltings with its huge windows straight on to Porthmeor beach is the one to go for.
  • Avoid August.  As we can only ever afford to go at Easter, or May half term at a push, we have not experienced this, but there are rumours that the crowds are shoulder to shoulder in the summer holidays. You can wait for 2 hours on the park and ride platform at Levant Saltings to get on one of the trains into town which run every 30 minutes.
  • Llamas have more in the way of personality than you’d think.
  • I can think of no other town  that can beat St Ives beaches with their blue seas, yellow sand, bobbing boat and seals.

St Ives beaches holiday summary

St Ives, with your beaches, boats, seals, haughty llamas and alpaca army, you rock.

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Or why not try staying in an old Victorian village school in Devon?

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