I rarely sleep on overnight trains. And the Night Riviera Sleeper – which spirits through the darkness from London Paddington to Penzance – was no exception. But feeling mildly dazed and slightly confused is worth it, and perhaps rather apt, for I've arrived in Cornwall, a stunningly picturesque part of Britain that the late, great poet Sir John Betjeman described as "like another country".
In any case, I'm confident I'll catch up on my beauty sleep over the next five days as I road trip around this dreamy region.
As well as boasting its own Celtic language (Kernowek), flag (white cross on black) and cinematic landscapes that you may have admired in those TV hits, Poldark and Doc Martin, Cornwall has a charming array of hotels, resorts and guesthouses that leave travellers refreshed and refuelled. The Godolphin Arms is a fine example.
It nestles above a tidal bay, eight kilometres from Penzance in Marazion, a quaint, artsy south Cornish village that, with its whitewashed buildings and palm-like trees, wouldn't look out place in the Mediterranean (especially on a sun-kissed spring day like today). My room – one of 10 en-suites in this family-run boutique property – is about six times larger than my solo train sleeper cabin. I'm also chuffed by the cosy king-size bed, the chorus of gently breaking waves and the mesmerising view, through the round captain's-porthole-style window, of St Michael's Mount. Looming a few hundred metres offshore, this medieval abbey-fortress island is the Cornish counterpart of France's Mont St Michel (they both flourished during the reign of William the Conqueror).
Now National Trust-managed, it's accessible either by ferry at high tide, or a brick causeway at low tide. After a restorative night's shut-eye, and a tasty "full Cornish" on the Arms' bayside terrace (regionally sourced bacon, pork sausage, tomato, portobello mushroom, sauteed potato, scrambled eggs and buttery toast, with a flat white), I make the crossing on foot and roam the multi-storied abbey and its canon-dotted ramparts, invigorated by the mild weather, salty air and coastal panoramas.
My next abode – The Cornwall Hotel, Spa & Estate – can't match the Godolphin Arms for sea vistas, but it's gorgeously positioned, enshrouded by 17 tranquil hectares of parkland and woodland near St Austell, an hour or so's drive from Marazion. It's a springboard for my trips to the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan – two of the region's most enchanting flora-blessed attractions. While The Cornwall's core is 19th century – it's set in a stately manor house – it sports a slick contemporary makeover and extension. I stay in one of the spacious, wood-fronted, self-catering lodges behind the main property and soak up the sunshine and birdsong from my balcony, while a rabbit hares around the garden below. Guests can also unwind in the hotel's infinity pool and receive pampering treatments in the wellness centre, which occupies the estate's converted stables. The Cornwall's Elephant Bar & Brasserie is big on local ingredients, serving dishes like Cornish crab cakes, roast rump of Cornish lamb and fillet of Cornish hake.
Good locally sourced food is one of the high points of my next stop: Fowey Hall Hotel. A handsome Victorian country hotel and restaurant, it lords above the estuary of Fowey (rhymes with joy), 15 kilometres from St Austell. Period features and antiques flavour its public areas and 36 rooms, and nods abound to The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame's 1908 novel.
A former guest, Grahame is said to have used Fowey Hall as the inspiration for Toad Hall, where his characters, Ratty, Mole, Badger and Mr Toad, would hang out. Resisting the offer of afternoon tea on the hall's garden terrace, I stroll through Fowey village, past waterfront pubs, cafes, tearooms and bookshops (they're particularly well-stocked with the works of Daphne du Maurier, who lived locally and wrote several novels here).
Another pit stop is Jamaica Inn. Isolated on the rugged Cornish moors, it was the windswept setting for du Maurier's chilling eponymous 1936 story. There's room at this stone inn – 20 rooms, in fact, though the owner, Allen Jackson, tells me, with a raised eyebrow, that a few might be haunted. I spend my last two nights in Cornwall at the Treglos Hotel, which is tucked down a narrow country lane in the Seven Bays area near Padstow. Cast and crew from Poldark stayed here while filming a few years ago, but most of the time Treglos draws retired couples and repeat guests, who value the peace and quiet, friendly service and magnificent scenery on the doorstep.
If you fancy a break from driving, bed and breakfast at Treglos (try the kippers or haddock), then tackle the coastal path to Padstow. Skirting grassy clifftops, past wave-battered headlands, sandy beaches and turquoise-tinted waters, it's a memorable 12 kilometre (three-hour) hike. Reward yourself with a seafood lunch – say, fish and chips or a platter of oysters, langoustines and sashimi at one of Rick Stein's restaurants – then take a cab back to Treglos for a well-earned siesta.
The Godolphin Arms has rooms, with breakfast, from £99 ($160); godolphinarms.co.uk
The Cornwall Hotel, Spa & Estate. Room only from £70; thecornwall.com
Fowey Hall Hotel. Bed and breakfast from £190; foweyhallhotel.co.uk
Jamaica Inn. Rooms, with breakfast, from £35; jamaicainn.co.uk
Treglos Hotel. Rooms, with breakfast, from £157; tregloshotel.com
There are 11 daily trains from London Paddington to Penzance, with travel time between five and six hours. The nightly Night Riviera Sleeper leaves Paddington at 11.45pm, arriving at Penzance at 7.53am; firstgreatwestern.co.uk. For car hire, there's a Europcar office at Penzance station; europcar.co.uk
Steve McKenna was a guest of Visit Britain and Visit Cornwall
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