The West Country Feature

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Great Coastal Drives

The best way to explore the West Country is by car. The coast and countryside here are wondrously varied, but the area isn’t well traversed by buses or trains. A drive can take you from spectacular ocean views to mysterious moors in an hour, and the routes are nearly endless.

Choose your ideal coastal tour based on the scenery that appeals to you. For plunging cliffs and crashing seas, you'll want the north Devon and Cornwall coast. For sheltered white beaches carved out of rocky shores, southern Cornwall is the place for you. You can combine your driving route with breaks for sightseeing or for bike riding, walking on the South West Coast Path, or even surfing. If you prefer a more relaxed option, stop at a café for a cup of tea and a scone; treat yourself to the clotted cream. Stretch your coastal tour out over days, or pack it all into one busy afternoon: your route can fit your own plans. Either way, you're bound to see something beautiful along the way.

Be Prepared

Gas stations (called petrol stations here) are fairly frequent on major roads but rare on rural lanes. Don't let your tank get low if you're spending your time on small country roads. Coastal roads will be more crowded on summer weekends than weekdays, as you might expect. Heavy traffic is generally limited to the most popular towns and beaches. Outside towns, there are few lights at night—it gets very dark.

The Atlantic Highway

Length and driving time: 55 miles one-way; about 5 hours with stops, 2 hours without stops

Difficulty: Moderate, with some steep, narrow roads

Running from the top of Devon down to the tip of Cornwall, A39, known as the Atlantic Highway, takes a handy route along the peninsula's northern coast, and you can hop off and on it to see the sights. Starting at the charming hillside town of Clovelly, you can explore the steep streets and adorable cottages before driving south on A39 to Boscastle (30 miles; turn off on B3266 and follow signs), a stone-built village at the foot of a steep, forested ravine. Stop for tea and spend some time browsing Boscastle's pottery shops before driving 4 miles (on B3263) to Tintagel with its cliff-top castle ruins (linked to King Arthur). The ocean views are breathtaking. Back on A39, drive 20 miles to the beachfront town of Padstow, a perfect place to stop for the day, and perhaps indulge in a meal at one of Rick Stein's famous seafood restaurants.

St. Ives to Cape Cornwall, via Penzance

Length and driving time: 44 miles; about 4 hours with stops, 1½ hours without stops

Difficulty: Moderate, with narrow, winding roads

You can spend hours in St. Ives looking through its art galleries and relaxing on the beach, but when you're ready to explore, strike out for Penzance, 8 miles south on B3311. Park in the lots by the sea and take in the shops and cafés of Chapel Street before heading to Mousehole, 3 miles away along the seafront. In this tiny village, the Lilliputian cottages are scattered around the harbor.

From Mousehole, the winding B3315 road will take you the 10 miles to Land's End, the tip of Cornwall: you can either join in the tourist fest of the amusement park there, or strike out on foot along the coastal path for some stunning scenery.

It's less than 8 miles from Land’s End to Cape Cornwall on B3306, but the road twists and turns. It can take time to get there, particularly if you're lured by awesome coastal views along the way. Cape Cornwall is a promontory where Atlantic currents split, heading south to the English Channel or north toward Bristol. The dramatic, rocky shoreline has spectacular views and makes a great picnic spot; there's plenty of well-marked parking.

From Cape Cornwall, you're only 14 miles from St. Ives on B3306, completing your coastal loop.

Updated: 2013-10-15

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