Plymouth, England: A city rich in history, food and gin

"I wouldn't have driven down here 10 years ago," says my cab driver. "There were drugs, prostitution … you name it." I shift uncomfortably in the passenger seat. Not exactly what you want to hear about the place you're heading for dinner.

We turn into Royal William Yard, a sprawling 6.5-hectare complex of former Royal Navy victualling stores on Plymouth's foreshore, but rather than being confronted with a menacing den of iniquity, it's all rather swish. Many of the imposing Grade I listed warehouses have been turned into apartments and there's a delightful cafe-lined green and a foreshore walk with dramatic sea views. The award-winning transformation is by Urban Splash, a company that specialises in giving unloved developments a new lease of life.

The complex has a variety of bars and restaurants, ranging from Bistrot Pierre, which serves provincial French classics to Las Iguanas, a funky South American eatery. My favourite is Le Vignoble, a stylish wine bar that serves delicate tapas and more than 30 wines by the glass.

All in all, it's a delightful evening and to my slight disappointment at no point am I offered a "happy ending" or "something for the weekend".

It's hard to escape the sea's influence in Plymouth, a city that's hemmed in on three sides by water. Located on the western edge of Devon, it glares across the River Tamar at its arch-rival Cornwall.

The city has a rich marine history. It was from here that the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the US on the Mayflower in September 1620. After a storm-lashed 66-day journey, they arrived in Massachusetts with the bleak task of establishing a colony at the beginning of winter. A third died during the first year, but it's claimed about 30 million Americans can trace their ancestry back to that one ship.

There are plenty of Australian connections, too. A plaque on the harbour wall commemorates the convicts who sailed from Plymouth aboard the boats Friendship and Charlotte, part of the First Fleet that landed in Port Jackson on January 26, 1788. Another lists the many Plymouth men who helped found modern-day Australia, including Captain William Bligh, who became governor of NSW, and Captain Tobias Furneaux, the first Englishman to land in Tasmania.

The city is a treasure chest for anyone with even a passing interest in maritime history. On a walking tour with local guide Jane Dymock, we explore the Royal Citadel, an imposing 17th-century military fortress that's now a base for the elite Green Beret commandos. It's here that Sir Francis Drake allegedly chose to finish his game of bowls before heading off to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The Citadel is located at the eastern end of Plymouth Hoe, a large, elevated public park that's also home to an impressive statue of Drake and a striking 22-metre-high, red-and-white striped lighthouse called Smeaton's Tower.

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On a sunny day, the Hoe is a delightful spot to while away a couple of hours, which is more than can be said for Plymouth town centre. After being bombed into oblivion during World War II, it was rebuilt in the '50s and '60s and is now one of the country's "best" examples of brutalist architecture.

Of all the staggeringly unattractive concrete monstrosities that line the main thoroughfare, the 15-storey Civic Centre must surely be the grimmest. In what seems like a cruel joke, English Heritage awarded it Grade II-listed status in 2007, meaning it can never be knocked down.

It's enough to drive a man to gin. And thankfully Plymouth can oblige. The city has been making Plymouth Gin since 1793 and a tour and tasting at the distillery in the historic cobblestoned Barbican area is highly recommended.

Head upstairs from the distillery and you'll find Barbican Kitchen, one of several restaurants helping to establish Plymouth as a foodie destination. Run by brothers Chris and James Tanner, it's an intimate, elegant brasserie specialising in seafood. Standout dishes include a deliciously creamy haddock risotto and a flavoursome lemon sole cooked in caper butter.

If you're after award-winning fish'n'chips, head to Mitch Tonks' Rockfish overlooking Sutton Harbour. A former fishmonger, Tonks now has four Rockfish restaurants scattered along the Devon coast, and the chain has twice won best independent restaurant in the National Fish & Chips awards.

Perhaps the best indication of Plymouth's changing palate is Rock Salt, a cafe buried in an industrial estate that's blossomed from a simple sandwich shop into a highly-acclaimed Asian fusion restaurant. Over lunch, the chef's wife, Chantel Jenkins, who originally hails from country Victoria, confesses that "the locals were a bit afraid of Asian cuisine so we had to introduce it gently".

Given its history, location and burgeoning food scene, you'd think Plymouth would have a similar profile to other south coast hotspots such as Brighton and Torquay. Yet it remains largely undiscovered by the masses. Hopefully this will change. As tour guide Jane Dymock readily admits: "We're only just starting to realise the potential of tourism."

Rob McFarland was a guest of British Airways, Visit Plymouth and Visit Britain.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitplymouth.co.uk

visitbritain.com

GETTING THERE

British Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to London via Singapore. London to Plymouth takes just over three hours by train. Phone 1300 767 177, britishairways.com.

STAYING THERE

This historic Duke of Cornwall Hotel has spacious rooms, an elegant 1920s-style bar and a gorgeous Victorian Gothic exterior. See thedukeofcornwall.co.uk.

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