The faded Victorian grandeur of Torquay, the smart beaches of Paignton and the quaint harbour of Brixham still hold their charm, and in high season the Riviera resorts buzz with a holiday throng. Along the coast spectacular sandstone cliffs totter into the Channel and inland, at the heart of the county, gently rolling hills give way to the jagged granite tors and stark heaths of Dartmoor.
Take the time to explore the countryside in between, however, and you’ll find a delightful tapestry of quintessential English farmland dotted with some surprisingly hip market towns masquerading as quaint, sleepy villages.
Shabby-chic Totnes, snuggled divinely against the banks of the River Dart, is a prime example. Dilapidated half-timbered buildings, sagging at every beam, jostle incongruously with the bustle of henna-hued hippy chicks and dreadlocked dudes at street level. Overlooking it all, and well worth the hike for its spectacular views over the Dart valley, is the Norman castle.
Similarly situated on a vantage point above the River Exe, the county town of Exeter sprawls lazily across the floodplain from the revamped Quayside. From there densely packed shopping streets lead steeply up to the smart, shady square surrounding the magnificent Gothic cathedral.
WHAT TO DO
Arts and crafts
There are gadgets, gifts and gizmos enough to occupy the most reluctant of shoppers at the Dartington Cider Press Centre, two miles north of Totnes 01803-847 500; www.dartingtonciderpress.co.uk). Pick up some gorgeous glassware for the boss, extra strong local cider for your workmates, a Cranks cookbook for your vegan flatmate and funky jewellery for that impossible-to-buy-for aunt. And don’t forget to treat yourself to a bar of fabulously indulgent homemade fudge.
Rent a canoe (or a bike, if you’re not keen on getting wet) from Saddles & Paddles 01392-424 241; www.sadpad.com) on the Quay in Exeter, and take a gentle paddle (or pedal) along the Exeter Ship Canal. Reward yourself with a leisurely drink beside the water at the Double Locks pub or, if you’re still feeling energetic, carry on through the idyllic RSPB nature reserve to The Turf Locks Hotel, keeping an eye out for kingfishers and herons.
Wine and cheese
If good wine comes from contented grapes, the Sharpham Estate’s vintners must have an easy life. Perched peacefully on a bluff overlooking a picturesque meander of the River Dart, about three miles downstream from Totnes, the Sharpham vines have to be the most happily situated in Britain. For £3.95 you can take a stroll among them, and sample the finished product at the cellar door when you’re finished. The estate’s cheese is phenomenal too 01803-732 203; www.sharpham.com).
Hang out on the Quay for dustbin-lid pizza at The Waterfront 01392-210 590), or follow in the footsteps of famed Devon-born explorer Sir Francis Drake and sink a pint at the Ship Inn 01392-272 040) in the city centre. For budget burgers check out the Wetherspoons-branded Imperial 01392-434 050), worth it for the ample beer garden set in the grounds of a former hotel.
There are pubs galore in this cute little suburb, four miles south-west of Exeter on the banks of the Exe. The Bridge Inn 01803-873 762) and The Passage House Inn 01392-873 653) serve the best beer and bar food.
It’s all organic juice bars and hippy cafés in this olde-worlde, new-age ghetto. Wills 01803-865 192), beside the River Dart, has a divine menu will all meals based around local produce.