With rugged sandstone cliffs and azure-blue waters, the coastal scenery surrounding Cary Arms is beautiful enough to rival towns in the Mediterranean. Jessica Way spends 48 unforgettable hours with her family staying in luxury and exploring Babbacombe…
Unspoilt villages, rugged moorland and golden beaches – there are many reasons to visit South Devon, though sitting proudly in the beautiful Babbacombe Bay, there’s an award winning “Inn on the Beach” – making the destination yet more inviting, irresistible perhaps. Few hotels on our British coastline have a setting as spectacular as Cary Arms & Spa, and from stepping foot inside, the views, character and warmth induce an alluring sense of tranquillity. Built in the late 1800s, the Torquay inn is steeped in history and has hosted Admiral Lord Nelson, King Edward VII and Sir Winston Churchill. There are coastal-chic memorabilia lining the walls of the cosy alcoves and hidden corners with some intriguing finds – one of which is an original hand-written thank you letter from Winston’s secretary in the 1940’s to the then owners, Mr and Mrs Cox, expressing how they “thoroughly enjoyed their Cary Arms Babbacombe Bay lobsters over dinner with Pol Roger champagne”.
Cary Arms was named after The Cary family, who have been a part of Torquay’s history since 1662 when Sir George Cary moved into Torre Abbey. Today a museum and well worth a visit, the monument itself dates back to 1196 and is set within 18 acres of garden and parkland. The Cary family owned much of the land at Cockington, St Marychurch and Babbacombe.
The hotel is privately owned and managed by multi-millionaire entrepreneur Peter de Savary, or PdeS (as he is known) and wife Lana, the inspiration behind some of the finest clubs and resorts around the world including the St James’s Club, The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle in Scotland, and Bovey Castle in Dartmoor National Park.
Acquired in 2006, they re-opened the popular seaside inn following a no-expenses-spared renovation in 2010 launching as a luxurious boutique retreat, with bedrooms, food and activities to rival any of the finest hotels in the country. Babbacombe Bay has always been one of Torbay’s quietest and least spoilt beaches, and as a guest at the hotel gazing at idyllic views, from sunrise to sunset, is a wonderful way to spend a few days.
With 10 elegant sea-facing rooms and suites at the inn, seven restored cottages, each with their own private gardens and outdoor space, and eight brilliantly quirky deluxe beach huts and beach suites, it is perfect for families – and easy to socially-distance too. We stayed in Cove Cottage, a charming characterful property with more than enough space for the four of us (my husband and two daughters), and wonderful terraces from which to admire the breath-taking sea views.
There was a fusion of romantic Tudor in the architecture with décor combining traditional seaside with a Mediterranean twist. Modern luxuries were found throughout with the homeliest of colourful coastal kitchens, complete with red Aga, blue tongue and grove, and a green statement leather armchair. Think The White Company toiletries, patchwork quilts, stylish cushions, Persian rugs and logs piled up high by the open fire. From the kitchen a back door lead straight out onto the barbeque patio area (large enough to have invited the neighbours!) leading down to the beautifully landscaped lawn with rows of inviting sun loungers.
With the South West Coast Path just yards away from Cary Arms and Cove Cottage doorstep it felt natural to begin the day with a coastal walk. So, following a hearty breakfast we decided to take the 1.5 mile coastal route to Kents Cavern, passing Long Quarry Point and Anstey’s Cove. Self-guided exploration is at its best when you have the handy yellow arrows to follow, and although there were quite a few steps along the windy path, the incredible views more than rewarded you for your effort.
The woodland areas were stunning, lined with shade-loving plants from butterbur plants with horseshoe-shaped leaves to harts tongue ferns. Then it opens up onto a grassy path between bushes of gorse, blackthorn and bramble leading onto the Downs, with a vast open space and plenty of benches from which to enjoy the scenery. You can look down on the beautiful bays from here and there is access to Redgate Beach which we may have visited for a swim if the weather had have been better. There is also an interesting pavilion which proved useful to us during a sudden rain shower!
“It opens up onto a grassy path between bushes of gorse, blackthorn and bramble leading onto the Downs, with a vast open space and plenty of benches from which to enjoy the scenery.”
At the far end of the Downs, the path disappears into the trees again and from this small path you can see down into Anstey’s Cove, one of Agatha Christie’s favourite haunts. Also, on the left of the path, you may be interested in a partially-hollow ash tree – a natural work of art. It is not long before you see signs to Kents Cavern, where you can enjoy a pre-historic experience on a tour into the limestone cave – as Britain’s “oldest home”. This popular attraction is also one of the key sites to justify the English Riviera (the name given to the nine-mile stretch of coast between Torquay and Brixham) UNESCO Global Geopark status, one of only 7 in the entire UK. Exploring the extensive labyrinth of caverns and spectacular natural formations is fascinating – the most significant artefact is a 38,000 year old human jawbone; Europe’s oldest human fossil. I would take a warm jacket as it can be quite chilly down in the caves – the coffee and cake was welcomed afterwards (hot meals also available).
From Kents Cavern we took a slight detour, joining the coastal path a little further along at the brilliantly named, Brandy Cove, from which I’m sure there will have been a few smugglers’ tales! You can see Hope’s Nose from here, an odd-shaped piece of land looking out over the sea in all directions. Back towards Cary Arms, another interesting peninsular, Long Quarry Point with its horns of different sizes looks like the nose of a rhino!
The path tucks close in under a limestone cliff, passing Anstey’s Cove. Make your way down the steep hill for the fabulous beach café selling paninis, baked potatoes, sandwiches and burgers.
All the senses are engaged by smooth and enchanting notes of frangipani blossom, the sound of the surf, and the gentle rocking of the body in time with the waves, the ultimate feeling of relaxation and total escape.
Once back at Cary Arms we enjoyed a delicious alfresco lunch of Lyme Bay lobster and line caught seafood on the sun garden terraces, while watching the kayakers and scuba-divers enjoying themselves in the blue waters below. The sun came out and amidst the glorious scenery I couldn’t agree more in that moment as one of the friendly waiters described it as surely one of the most romantic spots in the British Isles. Inside, big windows show off views across the bay. Portland Bill, fifty miles away, is visible on clear days.
By the late-afternoon I was ready for some more seaside therapy at the hotel spa. This came in the form of pouches of hot sand during an incredible Polynesian-inspired massage. All the senses are engaged by smooth and enchanting notes of frangipani blossom, the sound of the surf, and the gentle rocking of the body in time with the waves, the ultimate feeling of relaxation and total escape. The waterfall hydrotherapy pool is equally as impressive, with an innovative floor-ceiling glazing framing the views out to the ocean. The spa also has a sunbathing terrace decorated with exclusive American Art illustrations from Peter de Savary’s own private collection.
Once refreshed back at the cottage it was time to head out for dinner – the best of both worlds. It is just a short stroll to the charmingly restored historic inn, still brimming with the charm and character from when it was built in the 1880s. Beamed ceilings, original stone walls, planked floors, books and boardgames. A crackling log fire for cooler evenings – the informal mood is achieved with effortless style.
For those who enjoy a proper pint, Otter Ale and Bays are just two of the highlights, and there is an impressive selection on the wine list, with a few local gems to include; Devon’s Harpham Pinot Noir & Précoce, Hampshire’s Nyetimber, Devon’s Sandford Orchards Ice Cider, as well as Plymouth and Salcombe gin. I opted for their Cary Arms signature cocktail – a blend of Crème de Violette, Malibu, coconut water, lime juice and almond garnished with a Viola flower.
In addition to the fabulous local food, liquid refreshments and warm atmosphere, an evening meal at Cary Arms is made even more special by the quirky alcoves providing the perfect cubbyholes for private dining – with views.
There’s the Captains Table, seating six, the Pod, seating four, or the Wheel House, where we sat, with panoramic sea views enclosed by original stone walls.
Head Chef is Steve Poyner, a Devon local, born in Torquay, he joined the kitchen of Cary Arms following the reopening after Peter and Lana de Savary’s extensive refurbishment in 2009. In 2010 he went to work at de Savary’s Oxfordshire hotel, The Old Swan and Minster Mill, where his skill and enthusiasm to learn led to his promotion to Chef de Partie after only eight months. Four years later and with much ignited passion and experience under his belt, Steve chose to return to his roots back at the Cary Arms & Spa as Sous Chef. Since 2014 he’s been working with a talented and close-knit kitchen team and has been instrumental in the philosophy and success of the restaurant – from their use of the finest local ingredients to their AA rosette. At only 30 he’s an inspiring young talent.
With such a fantastic range of Devon fish, seafood and farm produce, Steve and his team do not need to look far to find great ingredients. From perfectly hung steaks to the freshest local shellfish, their menu changes frequently according to what ingredients are available locally and in season. For me, the ‘catch of the day’ was the obvious choice, caught from Brixham less than 12 miles away – this is a Devon, sea-to-fork dining experience at its finest. They describe their dining as simply ‘gastro food cooked simply’ but it feels more special than that to me. However, the unpretentious friendly approach to their fantastic service is hugely welcomed and relaxing, especially when making the most of time together as a family. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful day.
Following a fabulous night’s sleep (must be all that fresh coastal sea-air) and another leisurely breakfast we decided we wanted to explore Babbacombe a little more before heading home. From the jetty in front of Cary Arms it is easy to spot the Babbacombe Cliff Railway adjoined to the red sandstone cliff – on the shore of Oddicombe Beach, and so we could see our first stop and the route we needed to take. In the opposite direction of the morning before we headed off, picnic in hand, for our second adventure.
Taking the wooden catwalk to the path under the limestone cliff there becomes a choice to follow the coast path to Babbacombe (signposted off to the left), or to continue along the beach route (signposted right to Petit Tor). We wanted to experience the Cliff Railway and decided the best route would be to take it up and walk down rather than the other way round – so continued until we reached Oddicombe Beach. From this path there are fine views on a clear day across to Sidmouth and even as far as Portland Bill.
A waterfall cascades down the cliff on our left and huge boulders keep us dry as the gentle waves brake to our right.
The Babbacombe Cliff Railway line runs every day, with a closure period in winter for maintenance. Dating back to 1926, it has shuttled holiday makers to and from Oddicombe Beach for over 90 years! 2 parallel tracks, each over 700 feet long, take you on a carriage ride tour up (or down) the cliff – and there is an informative Visitor Centre on the beach. There is also the highly recommended Three Degrees West café, bar and bistro, perfect for coffee, cakes or a spot of tapas. At the top station there are fine views over Lyme Bay and it is only a short walk to Babbacombe Model Village – another must visit on our list, and one of Torquay’s most famous attractions.
This miniature world is quite a spectacle! You can get lost in admiring the details and impressive creativity at every twist and turn. As seen on BBC’s comedy drama ‘Don’t Forget the Driver’, and the ‘One Show’, there are 4 acres of award-winning gardens showcasing hundreds of model scenes, vehicles & people. This is an evolving attraction too, Mike Rhodes, General Manager, who has worked previously at Walt Disney World, has in the last few years started using 3D printing to create some of the smaller figures and details such as lampposts. We visited during the day – but during the summer you can also visit in the evening and experience the creation of illuminations – with every car, van, lorry, street lamp and model being carefully wired to create authentic lighting as you would see in any real street scene.
“This miniature world is quite a spectacle! You can get lost in admiring the details and impressive creativity at every twist and turn.”
The walk back to Cary Arms took us on a bracing route along Babbacombe Downs – the highest cliff top promenade in England. From here you can not only take in the spectacular coastline, but also spot seabirds, seals and even dolphins. For adrenaline junkies there is plenty to challenge you with coasteering, sailing, scuba diving and hiking.
If you are a keen sailor, Babbacombe makes a convenient departure point for a Lyme Bay crossing: to Portland Bill, from Devon Riviera to Jurassic Coast.
The charming and characterful village of Babbacombe is quite enchanting with its colourful promenade and picturesque buildings. There are also plenty of independent shops, boutiques, bars, restaurants and cosy tearooms. We passed Babbacombe Theatre – host to many fantastic performances throughout the year, one of the most successful theatres of its size in the country. We followed the woodland path back down to Cary Arms as it was sadly time to go home. My only regret was not staying longer, with so many more coastal and woodland walks on our doorstep, and such a treasure trove of hidden coves and tranquil settings, we could have easily stayed for a week discovering something new every day. From Cary Arms you could even walk all the way along the South West Coast Path to Torquay – and Torbay, at the very heart of the English Riviera. Just one reason of many to plan a return!
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