Falmouth, Cornwall, England: This historic English port is not short on drama

For all the advancements the cruise industry has made in recent years - not least in the quality of on-board wining and dining, wellness and entertainment - getting a good flat white at sea can still be a bit of a struggle. It's all the more satisfying, therefore, when you arrive in port and enjoy a caffeine boost similar to one you would get back home.

With its trendy minimalist decor, artisan brews and coffee tasting flights, Beacon Coffee wouldn't be out of place in most hip inner-city neighbourhoods. The fact that it's in Falmouth, in the south-west corner of Britain, makes it even more of a pleasant surprise. One of the cafe's co-founders, Alex May, caught the speciality coffee bug when living in Melbourne, and nursing a flat white in this cool, chilled-out joint almost takes me back Down Under. Yet the coffee isn't the only thing to make an impression in this historic Cornish port town.

Earlier we'd admired its cute, bucolic setting by the Carrick Roads, the estuary of the River Fal, just inland from the English Channel. Approaching port on our ship, Viking Jupiter, we peeked down at the 16th-century coastal artillery forts of St Mawes and Pendennis - both commissioned by Henry VIII to thwart a potential French invasion. Lush, rolling green hills, country mansions and whitewashed cottages also caught the eye on the peninsula facing Falmouth across an estuary that's speckled with yachts and criss-crossed by little passenger ferries.

Some fellow cruisers are taking shore excursions to Cornwall's big-name draws: the scenic filming locations of TV hits Poldark and Doc Martin, and the Eden Project, which houses the world's largest indoor rainforest. Having experienced these delights on a previous Cornish road trip, we're happy to potter around Falmouth, with the town centre just a 10-minute stroll from the port via gritty docks and quiet residential streets fringed by handsome Victorian houses with colourful flowers and palm trees decorating the front gardens. Helped by mild micro-climates, and the warming currents of the Gulf Stream, plants that would otherwise wither at these latitudes flourish in Cornwall (Falmouth is "level" with Canada's Newfoundland).

With gulls soaring and squawking above, we stop at Discovery Quay, a revived waterfront district with contemporary apartments and attractions such as the National Maritime Museum Cornwall. The museum occupies an oak-clad building, its design inspired by the boat sheds that once loomed here, with a lighthouse-like viewing tower overlooking the world's third largest natural deep-water harbour. Temporary exhibitions and permanent galleries delve into all things nautical, including the seafaring heritage of Falmouth and the wider region. Nowhere in Cornwall is more than 30 kilometres from the sea, and you'll hear tales of Cornish smuggling, pirates, boat-building and dramatic coastal rescues.

During the British Empire era, Falmouth buzzed with ocean-going cargo ships, merchants and foreign dignitaries (25 countries had consular representatives here), but the town's fortunes have ebbed and flowed since. Boarded-up shop windows scar one thoroughfare, Market Street, but elsewhere there's a prosperous, artsy vibe, especially along Arwenack Street and Church Street, where we browse maritime-themed boutiques, surf shops, craft stores and galleries with paintings of ruggedly-pretty Cornish land and seascapes.

Sloping High Street is worth the climb, home to the aforementioned Beacon Coffee and groovy Jam Records (where you can sip coffee and leaf through vinyl LPs). Falmouth's hilly historic core also has bakeries and cafes plying Cornish pasties and cream tea, and a raft of independent bars, old sailors' inns, gastropubs and seafood joints. Celebrity chef Rick Stein has a fish-and-chip shop and restaurant at Discovery Quay.

From sailing regattas and oyster festivals to sea shanty gatherings and open-air theatre, Falmouth has a vibrant annual cultural calendar, and if the sun's out, the sandy beaches on the town's south side are worth the diversion. Caressed by sparkling blue waters, Gyllyngvase and Swanpool beaches look almost Caribbean-esque. As it happens Falmouth has myriad links to that exotic part of the world, giving its name to a few port towns, including the one in Jamaica's Cornwall County, where Usain Bolt grew up.

TRIP NOTES

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CRUISE

Falmouth is a port of call on Viking's 15-day cruises between Barcelona and Bergen, available in 2020 from April to October and priced from $6695 a person, based on double occupancy. See vikingcruises.com.au

Steve McKenna was a guest of Viking Cruises.

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