Lydia Bell returns to Cornwall and the holiday haunts of her childhood to find a coastline enjoying a five-star makeover.
The poet John Betjeman is buried at St Enodoc's church in Rock. Built in 1430, St Enodoc's is lilliputian and slumped crookedly into the dunes - it was excavated once, in Victorian times. In 1940, Betjeman wrote Trebetherick, remembering his Cornish childhood. "Blessed be St Enodoc, blessed be the wave/ Blessed be the springy turf, we pray, pray to thee/ Ask for our children all happy days you gave/ To Ralph, Vasey, Alistair, Biddy, John and me."
I know how he feels. I summered in Rock from babyhood, my homesick Australian mother addicted to its wide, white-sand beaches, cornflower fields and high hedgerows. We roamed beaches and coastal paths, rock pools and smuggler's caves, and bodyboarded on wooden planks. Our rental cottages were rambling and shabby, the musty smell of winter still hanging in the air.
That Cornwall is gone. Rock is a ferry ride across from Padstow, the charming harbour town that is synonymous with the seafood supremo Rick Stein and his restaurants there. The Padstow effect has spread, and now the county is Britain's most forward-looking bucket-and-spade destination. Cornwall's new-generation hotels don't have spas; they have Ayurvedic spas and chill-out chrysalises suspended from the ceiling, or have brought in The Cowshed, the spa brand associated with the Soho House brand. Their swimming pools are not chlorinated; they are reed-filtered, or freshwater.
The Cornish, priced out of the housing market, complain about the "Chelsea tractors" - four-wheel drives - blocking their narrow roads. They complained about Little Polgarron, too, a house that heralds the rise of the super rentals in Cornwall.
Little Polgarron is ill named. On a headland facing the thrashing sea at Booby's Bay, this is an oligarch-worthy five-bedroom contemporary palace with a hotel-size living room (simonescapes.com; seven nights from £4851 ($7527.) Taking bookings from November, it is owned by Simon Nixon, the founder of the price-comparison website moneysupermarket.com, whose goal was to build the most impressive house in Cornwall. I visit before the interiors by Jill Stein (former wife of Rick Stein) are installed, but I can't help thinking Nixon has succeeded: in the vast main bedroom with its oversize stand-alone bath, you're floating on the ocean.
"The purchase was emotional, in that as soon as I saw the piece of land I knew this would be the best place to build the beach house I had always wanted," Nixon tells me. But the location offers a winning formula of "truly world-class hotels and restaurants" and "England's most stunning coastline".
Each new rental has its own spice. Tregulland, on the edge of Bodmin Moor, took two years to perfect its components: a Dutch hot tub, dream kitchens, underfloor heating, steam room, cinema room, Britain's first indoor freshwater swimming pool. Sleeping 22, this is house-party territory, with a cottage, barn and pool house for hiving off generations (though the cottage and barn, for groups of 12 and 10 respectively, can be booked separately). Marcus Crane's reclaimed interiors are elegantly bohemian, and despite the size and sprawl, nothing but cosy. A bespoke concierge arranges fitness programs, chefs, yoga, massage, wine tastings, walks and more (tregulland.co.uk; from £2057 for a three-night weekend in the barn to £10,000 for a high-season week in both properties).
Shalmar Hollow, which sleeps 12, is the second retreat for the CK Rock portfolio, whose owner, Liz Berman, has the most winsome chalets in Verbier, Switzerland. The Hollow is a clapboard gem with the light and airy rustic-chic interiors that have earned Berman a band of devotees. Outdoor fire pit, trampoline and swings, satellite television, wi-fi and children's toys mean little adventures are guaranteed (ckrock.com; from £2000 a week in low season).
The surfing beach at Polzeath was once rough. Now there are sumptuous rentals here, including Perfect Stays' The Cove, a two-minute stroll from the beach, its decor fresh and unobtrusive; and the group's vast Tristram House, a multitiered modern build with picture windows overlooking the breakers (perfectstays.co.uk; weekly from £1400).
Marver House in Mawgan Porth sleeps 12. With views of cliffs and sea, a garden leading to a private beach, a fire pit and hot tub, plus chef and chauffeur optional, this is Cornwall in style and seclusion (bigcottage.com; from £3000 a week).
Merlin Farm in the Mawgan Porth hinterland is a riot of geese, ducks and chickens, and attracts parents of young children. Owners Lucy and Darrel Wheeler have unveiled barn cottages with eco credentials such as solar panels and geothermal underfloor heating (sawdays.co.uk; from £350 a week for a studio sleeping two, from £600 a week for an eco cottage sleeping four).
Around the corner, The Park offers an eccentric take on "glamping", with eco lodges, yurts, gypsy caravans, secluded cottages and American Airstream Silver Bullet trailers, plus a kids' club.
The cafe-restaurant is run by the former Babington House chef Scott Eggleton (mawganporth.co.uk; one-bed cottages from £322 a week in low season).
Hotels are also raising their game. At Mawgan Porth, the once-tired 1970s Bedruthan Steps is now the coolest retro hangout, with two great new places to eat: Red Herring, the seafood outpost of St Ives's successful Porthminster Beach Cafe, and the Wild Cafe for brasserie-style lunches (bedruthan.com; from £116 B&B).
Nearby, Watergate Bay Hotel has gone from Victorian white elephant to Cornish icon. It promotes itself as a "ski resort on a beach", pushing pink-cheeked outdoors fun in its Extreme Academy: surfing, wave ski, traction kiting, kite surfing and more. The latest renovation has added a swim club (with inside-outside infinity pool) to its variety of food spots, surf-in-surf-out facilities, sociable sun deck and free-for-guests kids' club. Absorbing the views of the beach from the sun deck, below which perches Jamie Oliver's Fifteen, is one of the delights of "new" Cornwall (watergatebay.co.uk; B&B from £105).
The managing director of Watergate Bay Hotel, Will Ashworth, is emphatic about the "real affinity" between Cornwall and Australia. Cornish miners travelled in droves to Australia in the mid-19th century, taking with them names and traditions (such as Cornish pasty eating). Now, expat Australians congregate around the surf and tourism industry here.
If you want to be in the environs of Watergate but prefer self-catering, a holiday lettings company named Beach Retreats concentrates on the area and its apartments, cottages and lodges. I like the White House, contemporary-modern flats in a mansion block set back from the bay in communal gardens (beachretreats.co.uk; weekly rental from £580).
The St Moritz hotel in Daymer Bay - which created a funky contemporary resort from a 1930s deco lady gone to seed in 2009 - has extended, with a summery pool area and cafe serving excellent burgers and salads to complement its seriously good Cowshed spa and kipper breakfasts (stmoritzhotel.co.uk; B&B from £135).
Lewinnick Lodge, a bar and restaurant loved by locals and serving good Cornish cuisine on a headland north of Newquay, has become a restaurant with rooms by adding a top floor. The 10 guest rooms are elegantly simple. They are reached via a Stygian-dark navy corridor, the point of which becomes obvious when you throw open the door to a light-filled room (hospitalitycornwall.com/lewinnicklodge; B&B from £130). The lodge's designer, Guy Bostock, has The Wheatsheaf, the Cotswolds' pub hotel du jour, on his CV.
Cornwall's wilder west is also coming up trumps. Edged into the Gulf Stream, it is hotter than the north, and remote. The sea road between St Ives and Land's End passes fields cleared by Iron Age farmers. Their walls and stone circles still stand, and moorlands extend to sea cliffs. St Ives, with its Metropolitan Tate, petite slate cottages, and sun-dappled cerulean waters, is where artists and writers gather. But there are brooding valleys and secret coves in spades.
The season's bolt-hole is the Old Coastguard, refurbished and named County Dining Pub of the Year for Cornwall in the 2013 Good Pub Guide. With a coveted position overlooking St Michael's Mount, and serious, local-seafood-driven cuisine, it bears a cosy British informality with its deep sofas, open fires, walls hung with works by local artists and profuse welcome of dogs and children (oldcoastguardhotel.co.uk; B&B from £110). Nearby, Polurrian Bay Hotel, perched on a cliff above Lizard Peninsula, is part of Luxury Family Hotels, a reassembled group of family-friendly boutiques that includes Fowey Hall, the inspiration for Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows.
The Polurrian has a new Vista Lounge, with 180-degree views, to add to its private beach and five hectares of gardens, pools, spa and children's facilities (polurrianhotel.com; B&B from £125, children up to 16 years can sleep in their parents' bedroom free).
Melodie Manners is a coastal rental expert who runs Boutique Retreats based in western Cornwall (boutique-retreats.co.uk; summer weekly rates from £750). She recognises the recent shift in self-catering quality in Cornwall.
"The old sofas, dingy damp cottages, avocado bathrooms and chintz are gone. But there are plenty of spots in the west that are still too much for the townies," she says, "beautiful spots but an hour's drive from Truro station through badly lit lanes, with no satnav and no mobile reception."
So if you seek the Cornwall of yesteryear - but with wi-fi - my advice is: hit up Manners for a room.
Getting there Qantas has a fare to London from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2250 low-season return, including taxes. Fly with one stop (about 24hr including transit time in Singapore). See qantas.com.au.
By car It takes five hours to get from London to the heart of Cornwall by car. Drive along the M4 motorway from London, or M6 from Manchester, and then the M5 to Exeter, and finally either the A30 or the A38 through Plymouth and Saltash into south-east Cornwall.
By train High-speed train services run frequently from London's Paddington station, including the Night Riviera Sleeper Service to Penzance, where customers are welcome to remain on board until 7am. See firstgreatwestern.co.uk.
There are also direct trains daily from Edinburgh, Birmingham, Bath and Bristol to Cornwall and its branch lines. Every weekend from May to September, and every day during July and August, direct, intercity rail services are available to Newquay. CrossCountry also operates some train services into Cornwall from the midlands, the north and Scotland. See crosscountrytrains.co.uk.
By air Newquay Airport is serviced by London Gatwick and other British and European destinations. See newquaycornwallairport.com/.