Dorset & Devon: Discovering the underrated gems of the South West

Zoe Gunn

17 June 2021

St Ives is sophisticated and Padstow is pretty but, end your journey a few hours early, and you’ll discover there’s much more to the South West than Cornwall

17 June 2021 | Zoe Gunn

A great editor once told me that no travel story should start on a plane, train or automobile. Journeys, you see, are boring. Unless something truly exceptional happens, like Mick Jagger sitting down next to you on the 14.27 to Slough, no one really cares how you got somewhere. The destination is, after all, the whole point.

This advice is usually solid – but I think we can all tell where this particular travel story is about to begin. Because the journey from London to the South West truly is exceptional. As the bland verges of the M26 give way to the rolling hills and small towns of Hampshire, Stone Henge rising on your right – close enough to be admired but too far away for any passenger to get a decent photo of – you can almost feel the weight of London life lifting off you.

The drive is, admittedly, nostalgic for someone who spent much of their early twenties ferrying their belongings up and down the A303 as a student at Exeter University, but it is also key to the appeal of staycationing in Dorset and Devon.

A Victorian Potting Shed Suite at The Eastbury

There’s no denying the charms of Cornwall. It is home to the UK’s best beaches, some of its most reliably warm weather and, of course, seriously good seafood. But the drive to Newquay is five hours on a good day. Hit traffic on the way to Penzance and you’re looking at seven or eight. That private plane Boris Johnson took to the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay last week is looking a little more attractive now, isn’t it?

End your journey a few hours earlier (the drive from London to Dorset takes a mere two and half hours), however, and you’ll find stunning countryside and a Jurassic coastline to rival anything Dorset and Devon’s more illustrious neighbour has to offer. This is a point the de Savary hotel group is keen to emphasise and, accordingly, it has twinned two of its most luxurious properties – The Eastbury in Sherborne and the Cary Arms & Spa in Babbacombe – to create a Country to Coast package aimed at highlighting the natural beauty and variety of Cornwall’s more easterly rivals.

We check-in first at The Eastbury, a 17th-century Georgian townhouse hotel that, by manager Gemma Wells' admission, was a slightly tired three-star place until is was bought by hotelier Peter de Savary in 2018. Since then it has undergone extensive refurbishment and expansion, with interior design upgrades and a self-contained cottage added. There are also plans to create a brilliant-sounding treehouse room in the next year.

We, however, are staying in one of the five new Victorian Potting Shed suites. Set among The Eastbury’s tranquil gardens, each is named after a local herb and features a kitchen garden to match, as well as a private terrace with fire pit which proved the perfect place to toast our good fortune at finding this peaceful enclave worlds away from the bustle of London.

Step outside the hotel and you’ll find this calm way of life is something Sherborne specialises in. A 16th-century market town which sprang up around the imposing Sherborne Castle, built by Sir Walter Raleigh, Sherborne in its modern iteration blends charming historic architecture with modern conveniences and a clear appreciation for keeping things local. Despite the presence of two large supermarkets, the local baker and butcher do great trade, while niche stores – think second hand curtain dealers and specialist pasta shops – thrive in a way that suggests the residents care more for supporting the community than next day delivery and the convenience of Uber Eats.

Tickets to the 42-acre Sherborne Castle Gardens, which were designed by Capability Brown, are included in the Country to Coast package. An easy 20-minute stroll from The Eastbury, they’re well worth a visit, even if only to better appreciate a massage at the hotel’s small but perfectly formed spa on your return.

The Cary Arms & Spa

Meals at The Eastbury are best taken in the conservatory of the hotel’s two rosette Seasons restaurant, where head chef Matthew Street whips up everything from crowd-pleasing favourites to fine dining show stoppers that highlight the abundance of quality produce in the area. Available at a supplement, the seven-course tasting menu is well worth upgrading to and, during our stay, featured a truffled ricotta tortellini with porcini broth and toasted hazelnuts that left us momentarily speechless in appreciation.

While all good things must come to an end, the bitter pill of leaving The Eastbury was sweetened by the knowledge we were headed a little further west to the dramatic Devon coast and the Cary Arms & Spa. The two hotels are around an hour and a half from each other but, with plenty to see inbetween, it isn’t hard to plan a route that turns a travel day into a day out. Dorset and Devon abound with stately homes and, after a leisurely meander around the house and grounds at the National Trust's nearby Montacute House, we couldn’t resist detouring to Topsham for a pub lunch – an all too literal hangover from my student days doing the infamous Topsham Ten.

Arriving at the Cary Arms in the early evening, we were shown to our Beach Hut, a name which describes this suite in outside appearance alone. I’m fairly confident the mezzanine level king-size bed, vast wet room, plump velvet sofa and glorious sun deck are not features of the more traditional huts perched on the beach below.

After some early morning excitement (dolphins and seals are common in Babbacombe Bay but quite the treat when spotted by city dwellers like us) and a generous breakfast, we set out to explore the local area. Babbacome itself is a traditional seaside town complete with arcades and ice cream parlours, but much more worth your time is one of the hotel’s guided walks, which take in local highlights you’re unlikely to stumble upon yourself (including a few of former local resident Agatha Christie’s favourite haunts).

The terrain is, admittedly, hilly – the hotel itself is built into the side of a cliff – so if walking doesn’t sound like your thing, the Country to Coast package also includes a paddle boarding session. If that still sounds like too much work, simply retreat to the Cary Arms spa for a dip in the hydrotherapy pool and hot stone massage. You are, after all, on holiday.

Appetites worked up, there’s no better way to end your stay than with dinner in the hotel’s one rosette restaurant. Book ahead and request the Captain’s Table, which seats six on an elevated round table away from the main restaurant to give unobstructed views of the coastline. Sip something deliciously chilled from the restaurant’s extensive wine list as the sun goes down or linger over the catch of the day while watching the comings and going of the boats below, safe in the knowledge that, when the time comes to leave, you’re a mere few hours from home.

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Rates start from £925 based on two people sharing and are valid for a stay between 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022. Guests can book to stay at either hotel first. Visit theeastburyhotel.co.uk and caryarms.co.uk.