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How England's ocean city of Plymouth found its maritime mojo

The home of one of Britain's most important Royal Navy ports is evolving into a destination of coastal cool

How England's ocean city of Plymouth found its maritime mojo
Visit Plymouth
Royal William Yard Harbor in Plymouth

The dreamily scenic train journey from Exeter St Davids to Plymouth is ingrained in my memory. It’s the kind of train journey that makes you to say ‘I love taking the train!’ for years after, even when you don’t really.

When I was a university student in Exeter, I used to travel to nearby Plymouth for nights out – but it was always more about the journey rather than the destination. The route traverses Devon’s rolling hills and the edge of its jagged coastline; a trip somehow even more beautiful in the rain.

I recently returned to Plymouth for a weekend, for the first time in years. For once, it was more about the destination than the journey. I was interested to see to what extent the city – with a population of almost 260,000, the biggest in Devon – met with prior impressions.

Plymouth Hoe – Robert Pittman/Flickr

Plymouth Hoe – Robert Pittman/Flickr

The Plymouth of old I remember for two reasons: for being a huge Royal Navy port, and for being slightly dreary and depressing (and full of empty shops).

These days, reports of poverty and social inequality coexist with reports of its local economy growing faster than the rest of the UK’s. My feeling is this is definitely a city in a state of regeneration. This is perhaps best symbolized by its bustling seafront, where classic attractions sit side-by-side with edgy eateries.


What to do

Taking pride of place on said seafront is the wonderful, award-winning National Marine Aquarium – truly an attraction becoming of a capital city. It’s the largest in the UK, and has been a huge touristic draw for Plymouth since it opened in 1998. A registered charity, it’s committed to conservation, research and educational programs, and child and adult visitors can enjoy plenty of presentations and interaction with informed staff.

It’s home to 400 species of underwater creatures – including 70 sharks – and also boasts the UK’s largest single-tank viewing panel and the deepest tank in the UK, containing 2.5million liters of water. Its most famous resident is Snorkel, an epileptic Loggerhead Turtle that washed ashore a beach in next door Cornwall in 1990.

Plymouth Hoe from Staddon Heights

Another major draw is the gorgeous Plymouth Hoe, a sloping, South-facing public space preceding limestone cliffs and overlooking the wider Plymouth Sound Bay. It’s the spiritual core of the city.

The red-and-white Smeaton’s Tower stands 72 feet tall in the center, where visitors can climb the 93 steps to take in three miles of views.

Tinside Lido

Tinside Lido

Be sure to check out the nearby Tinside Lido, a stylish Art Deco pool built in 1935 and reopened after a multi-million revamp in 2005. In the right weather, it’ll make you feel like you’re in a far more glamorous country than England.

You could also get active by renting a bicycle from Rockets and Rascals and exploring the city and surrounding countryside.


Where to eat

Unsurprisingly, Plymouth is awash with tasty, sustainable seafood eateries. We loved RockFish [above] in Sutton Harbor, located next to Plymouth Fish Market and boasting a view of the ocean.

They do a near-perfect execution of the classic British dish, fish and chips – or, for the benefit of our American readers, battered fish (typically cod) and thick cut fries (in this case unlimited). That said, the menu also features prawns, calamari, scampi, squid, crab, oysters, mackerel and scallops to name but a few.

Meanwhile the Boathouse Café, a short walk from the Aquarium is another informal, relaxed eatery with top notch, excellent quality fish and a quirky nautically-themed interior. It’s a spacious, welcoming place with huge tables across two levels. With its charming quayside terrace, it’s perfect for leisurely lunches with friends of a weekend. It’s perhaps a cop out, but we’d put the fish and chips on a par with RockFish’s.

To say the seafood is locally-sourced would be a bit of an understatement: you can cook your own catch at the Boathouse Cafe, following a fishing trip with Fish ‘N’ Trips.


Where to stay

We slept soundly at the 44-room, newly-refurbished Moorland Garden Hotel. A 20-minute car journey outside the city and thus immersed in silence, located as it is within nine acres of neatly-manicured gardens on the edge of the almost painfully beautiful Dartmoor National Park. Full marks on the free Wi-Fi, friendly staff and comfy bedding.

We also ate like kings at the charming Wildflower Restaurant therein, where we dined on elegant, locally-sourced British fare and had a break from seafood. From chicken and ham hock terrine to Devon pork belly and a confit Creedy Carver duck leg, every dish was impeccably elegant while also being familiar and comforting.

Gay Star Travel traveled to Plymouth with Great Western Railway. With thanks to the Visit Plymouth.

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