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Idyllic beaches, a thriving art scene and an upbeat atmosphere make St Ives one of the most popular coastal towns in Britain.
Idyllic beaches, a thriving art scene and an upbeat atmosphere make St Ives one of the most popular coastal towns in Britain.

St Ives: picturesque perfect

My kind of place Artists are drawn by its unique light, but the Cornish seaside town offers much more besides.

A little slice of the Mediterranean in the far west of Britain, the resort has a film set quality. I love the way the jumble of whitewashed, slate-hung cottages climbs away from the ancient harbour. The extraordinary intensity and clarity of the light here draws artists from around the world and the town is full of galleries, including a branch of The Tate. For those of us lucky enough to live nearby, spending a day in St Ives is like going on holiday: the sea sparkles, the fish is fresh off the boats, and a happy, upbeat air pervades its narrow cobbled lanes.

The beaches are superb. Strands of soft creamy sand: Porthminster, with its palms and cabanas; horseshoe-shaped Porthgwidden that looks like the family field at Glastonbury in August (all tents and kids), and wind-blasted Porthmeor where surfers ride small but perfectly-formed waves. Go in September for the town's annual festival (www.stivesseptemberfestival.co.uk) when residents retake the streets after the tourist season with a fortnight of artistic happenings, from street poetry and open studios to pub gigs and rock concerts.

There's a clutch of newish small hotels and guest houses that reflect contemporary taste - though they book out fast. The loveliest is Blue Hayes (www.bluehayes.co.uk; 0044 1736 797129), an Edwardian gentleman's residence converted into five suites with picture-postcard views over the town. Double rooms cost from US$240 (Dh880).The Salt House b&b (www.salthousestives.co.uk, 0044 1736 791857) only opened last autumn but has already been awarded five gold stars by the tourist board inspector. There are two bedrooms, each with a sunny private terrace. Bathrooms are sumptuous; you can sit in the bath and look straight out to sea. Double rooms cost from $240 (Dh880).Families love the Primrose Valley Hotel (www.primroseonline.co.uk; 0044 1736 794939), a friendly 10-room guesthouse in a lovely balconied villa only a minute's walk from Porthminster beach. Double rooms cost from $160 (Dh588).

Head for Wharf Road that runs around the harbour, past boatmen selling excursions to catch mackerel and spot seals, to Downalong, the old fishermen's quarter. If you cross the Island, a rocky promontory with a chapel on top, there are rock pools full of crabs at low tide and boulders sculpted by the sea into perfect ovals.

Follow the coast path round to the big white bulk of Tate St Ives (www.tate.org.uk; open daily 10am-5pm) which this summer features works by leading 20th-century modernists who lived in the town. Hate art? Skip the galleries and visit the top-floor cafe for a panorama of the town's slate-hung roofscape and the ocean beyond.The Tate also curates the Barbara Hepworth Museum (open daily 10am-5pm) in the nearby Trewyn Studio, her home and workplace until her death in 1975. Works in progress, aprons and tools litter the studio as if she had just stepped out for a coffee. In the sculpture garden, which she designed before her death, there are signature works in bronze and stone beneath a canopy of exotic planting.

To hear the distinctive Cornish accent in full flow, step inside the 700-year-old Sloop Inn on the Wharf, or join the queue for a Moomaid of Zennor ice cream a couple of doors down. It's made by a local farmer and one just isn't enough. On a sunny evening everyone gravitates to Porthmeor beach to watch the sun set. Grab a ringside seat at its beach cafe and indulge in an ice-cold drink and posh tapas. If there's a cold wind blowing, join one of the large sociable tables at Blas Burgerworks (on the Warren near the Pedn Olva Hotel) for superb home-made burgers with vegetarian and vegan options.

There are art galleries catering to all tastes - even bad ones. I like the Millennium Gallery (www.millenniumgallery.co.uk) which specialises in landscape-inspired abstract paintings. Others with a good reputation include the Belgrave and Wills Lane (both just off Fore Street), the Porthminster Gallery (Fernlea Terrace near the Regent Hotel) and St Ives Ceramics in Fish Street.

Walk "Upalong", as the higher town is known, to the newly restored Leach Pottery with its famous climbing kiln. It's the birthplace of British studio pottery and the shop has world-class ceramics for sale. Fore Street is the main shopping thoroughfare and there's plenty of fudge, pasties and stripey jerseys to keep the bucket-and-spade brigade happy. But hidden among the tourist tatt are some interesting shops. Young children are well served at Fabulous Kids and LAFF, which sells Lizzie Shirt's bright, funky Cornish designs in felt, fleece and cotton.

The Porthminster Beach Cafe (www.porthminstercafe.co.uk; 0044 1736 795352) is the place to eat, and my personal favourite. A simple white cube beside an ever-changing seascape, there's often a famous face or two on its outdoor terrace. Imaginative Asian fusion menu of fish and meat dishes (scallop risotto, Barbary duck on salsify, yellow monkfish curry) and a view in a million.Alba (www.thealbarestaurant.com; 0044 1736 797222), on the first floor of the old lifeboat house, is known for its line-caught fish and modern British favourites (mackerel, fillet of beef, steamed mussels and chips, hot shellfish). Local families flock to Caffe Pasta (www.caffepasta.co.uk; 0044 1736 798899) on the Wharf, open year-round for stone-baked pizzas, homemade pasta and fresh fish.

Eating a pasty or an ice-cream on the Wharf as it will be snatched by a seagull as big as a cat. Parking in St Ives in summer. I always use the park-and-ride at Lelant because the train journey is so beautiful.

The chance to try your hand at surfing. Global Boarders (www.globalboarders.com, 0044 1736 711404) takes beginners to a quiet part of St Ives Bay for lessons with qualified instructors. The new generation of stretchy wetsuits make getting in the cold water a pleasure and it's the best fun I've had in the water - ever.

A play at the Minack open-air theatre (www.minack.com) on the cliffs at Porthcurno. Literally built out of the rock by a little old lady, it puts on classic plays, opera and musicals from top amateur companies. Often the play comes second to the antics of dolphins in the sea below. A drive along the coast road from St Ives to Land's End. It's one of Britain's best and often used in car advertisements. Craggy boulder-strewn moorland sweeps down to dramatic wild headlands. Iron Age stone walls enclose luminous green fields. This brooding timeless landscape is Celtic Cornwall at its finest, littered with prehistoric villages and standing stones.

Hidden from the road is a succession of unspoilt sandy coves, the sort of places where you backpack down with a picnic and share the beach with a seal or two and a few others in the know.travel@thenational.ae

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