Newquay, Cornwall: What to see

It goes without saying that Newquay's popular with tourists – really, really popular – and as ever, that's a double-edged sword. On the one hand it means there's masses going on and no shortage of places to stay, eat and drink; on the other, it's a small British seaside holiday town with all that brings with it, like packed-out beaches, cheesy bars, and souvenir shops full of slogan t-shirts and dodgy fridge magnets.

Luckily, Newquay's got plenty of natural charm, and it doesn't hurt that it's based on one of the most beautiful and dramatic stretches of coastline in the whole country – or that it's still a key spot on the UK's surfing scene, particularly thanks to the huge (and hugely popular) Fistral beach.

Beyond Newquay itself there's plenty to explore, from the cliff tops of the St Agnes Heritage Coast to the south – which you may or may not remember seeing Ross Poldark ride his horse along, looking all brooding and sexy (apparently – we haven't seen it) – to the giant dark granite rocks of Bedruthan and the cutesy (and busy, occasionally a bit gap yah) vibes of Padstow, Rock and Polzeath just beyond it in the Camel Estuary.

Closer to Newquay, the neighbouring coves of Mawgan Porth and Watergate Bay offer a slightly calmer atmosphere than Newquay's main town beaches (Towan, Great Western, Tolcarne and Lusty Glaze, from south to north), along with plenty of accomodation, shops and pubs that make a good alternative if you don't want to be in Newquay itself.

Newquay, Cornwall: What to do

You've come to Newquay, so there's no way we're letting you leave without trying your hand (or rather your feet) at surfing. Fistral, separated from Newquay by a large rocky headland, is probably the most iconic surfing beach in the country, and its long stretch of sand is a great place to soak up some proper North Cornwall atmosphere even if you barely dip your toes in the water. Its most iconic wave is the Cribbar, named for the reef that lies at the end of the headland that occasionally whips up the closest thing the UK gets to monster swells.

You might not be quite ready for that, so work your way up to it with lessons – there are a few good local schools, but the Quiksilver surf school at the southern Pentire end of the beach, comes highly recommended. The school runs coasteering sessions too, where you'll scramble, jump and swim your way around a gorgeous and vertiginous bit of North Cornwall coast – if you've got a head for heights, it's an experience you won't forget.

Newquay, Cornwall: Where to stay

Beach Retreats has a big range of self-catering properties throughout Cornwall, from chilled-out rustic cottages to modern beach apartments. We stayed at 12 Pearl, a bright and airy modern flat in Fistral with huge windows that offer a spectacular view over Newquay and the headland. Fistral beach is just around the corner, while walking to the centre of Newquay will take around 15 mins. Good news for surfers and beach lovers, too – there’s use of a shared, lockable surf store and shower for rinsing sandy gear. 12 Pearl sleeps 4 people and is available for 7 night stays from £675. beachretreats.co.uk

If Fistral's a bit busy and the clientele's intimidatingly surfy, Watergate Bay – about three miles up the coast from Newquay – is a little quieter and wilder, and home to the excellent Extreme Academy. You'll find them between the main car park and the beach, and they'll tailor lessons to your ability and the conditions – or you can hire all the gear you'll need to head out into the water and take on the waves yourself.

Sticking with the surfing theme and Watergate Bay – for the most part, anyway – this part of the world's also home to one of the UK's best-loved festivals, Boardmasters (August 8-12). Rooted firmly in beach and surf lifestyle, this five-day festival in August packs in a strong music lineup (this year including the Chemical Brothers, Fat Freddy's Drop, George Ezra and plenty more), surf competitions, and a hell of a lot more besides. It's a twin-centre affair – most of the music arenas and accommodation is based in Watergate Bay, while the surf competitions are held on Fistral Beach, with a shuttle bus that runs between the two sites.

Newquay, Cornwall: Where to eat

Food at Fifteen Cornwall
Pulling a pint at Sharps brewery in Cornwall

It's no secret that Cornwall's awash with some of the best produce in the country – if you see Cornish seafood on a London menu that's often a pretty good sign the chef knows their, er, onions. Fortunately not all of it leaves the county, and there's a fast-growing number of places to get great food in and around Newquay, whether you want to sit on a sea wall with a greasy paper cone stuffed with chips or work your way through a seven-course tasting menu with brilliantly paired wines.

If it's the latter you're after – though frankly we'd do both, if not at the same time – the biggest name in town is probably Jamie Oliver's Fifteen Cornwall in nearby Watergate Bay. Set up by the chef/author/food crusader, and now run by Adam Banks, it's as much about social responsibility as it is about innovative-but-approachable cooking. All profits go to the Cornwall Food Foundation, which offers training and opportunities for young people in need, and the menu takes its influence from both Italy and the local area. Proof, if it were needed, that food can taste good and do good at the same time.

Fifteen Cornwall is as much about social responsibility as it is about innovative-but-approachable cooking

Sticking with the big names (but sliding down the price scale somewhat), ubiquitous Cornish seafood god Rick Stein has an outpost in Fistral, where you can grab excellent fish and chips (and curry, too) to take away or eat at the canteen-style tables, plus a good selection of local beers. Rick isn't without compeition, though because many locals reckon Francine's, on the edge of Newquay itself, does the best fish and chips in town.

For something a little more leftfield, try Gilmore's, as you head from Newquay towards Fistral – this brightly painted shack looks a bit crazy (and is a bit crazy) but the tacos made with local meat and fish, tequila cocktails and crazy golf are great fun.

If you want jaw-dropping views of the Atlantic to go with your local and seasonal (and very decent) pub food, head to Lewinnick Lodge in Pentire, just beyond Fistral. There's a good bar, too, and ten tastefully decked-out rooms if you like it so much you can't bear to leave.

Newquay, Cornwall: Where to drink

Rosé at Trevibban Mill winery in Cornwall
Drinking on the terrace at Trevibban Mill in Cornwall

In recent years, North Cornwall's become something of a breeding ground for great drinks producers, from gin and wine to beer, and perhaps the best known of all these is Sharp's Brewery, whose Doom Bar ale is the best-selling cask beer in country. Obviously you don't have to go all the way to North Cornwall for a taste of Sharp's hugely popular beers, but for an insight into the people and philosophy behind the brand, you can't beat a trip to its headquarters in Rock. Pick up a bit of knowledge and a few bottles direct from the source, including the aforementioned Doom Bar, Atlantic pale ale and its excellent new pilsner, Offshore. Alternatively, check out nearby The Mariners, a pub run in partnership with celebrated local chef Nathan Outlaw.

If you're more into wine – or you're ready to move from grain to grape – the area has plenty of great vineyards to visit, but one of our favourites is Trevibban Mill. You'll find this organic vineyard just 20 miles north east of Newquay, not far from the harbour town of Padstow. The super-modern winery, set in bucolic North Cornish countryside, is the perfect place to find out more about English wine – not to mention a great spot for glugging back a glass or more of its award-winning produce. If you're there on a Sunday and feeling sprightly, join a two-three-hour tour of the vineyards, with a seven-glass wine tasting and light lunch. There's also an on-site restaurant, Appleton's at the Vineyard, run by Fifteen Cornwall alumnus Andy Appleton and his partner Lyndsey.

And while you can't yet visit the distillery, don't even think about leaving Cornwall without trying Tarquin's gin. Made about 10 miles outside of Newquay, using hand-sourced botanicals (picked by Tarquin himself) and traditional distilling techniques, it's a regular award winner in the world's biggest spirits competitions – and absolutely killer in a G&T, obviously.