It’s 6pm on a summer afternoon in Devon and I’m sipping a mojito overlooking one of the finest panoramas in Britain. In the middle distance, sailboats sail home across a Tiffany-blue bay, towards the honey-coloured sands and colorful homes of Exmouth’s waterfront. In the distance, the lushly wooded coastline of South Devon unfolds in a series of jagged headlands.
I could easily be in Salcombe, the jewel in Devon’s coastal crown and a destination so enchanting that it attracts tens of thousands of holidaymakers every summer. But I’m further east, in a place barely mentioned in travel guides, and as the sun splits into a palette of picturesque pinks, I have it almost to myself.
Exmouth, 10 miles south of Exeter, is one of Devon’s best kept local secrets. Or at least it was until Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines embraced the potential of this Unesco-listed region and opened a luxury hotel over the water in Lympstone, complete with vineyard. Buoyed by its popularity, last spring he opened two more ventures – a £2.8m restaurant and a café-patisseries on Exmouth’s beautiful two-mile stretch of sandy beach.
This, along with a stylish waterfront regeneration which includes a water sports centre, art gallery and colorful marina, has put Exmouth firmly on the tourist map, ready to compete with its more glamorous neighbours. Admittedly, the Victorian townhouses of Exmouth town center are no match for the pretty, pastel-coloured cottages of Salcombe; the everyday shops are for residents, not tourists. Also, even if there is talk of new hotels, the options in the center are limited. But in several other ways Exmouth beats Salcombe without doubt.
Room to breathe
First, getting there is an absolute blur. While Salcombe can take an hour to reach from Totnes train station, along winding, single-track tracks thick with summer traffic, Exmouth’s railway station is slap bang in the centre, and is served by regular trains from Exeter, which has two main lines from London. A-roads provide seamless access by car and for cyclists the Exe Valley Way is a flat path linking Exmouth with Topsham, Exeter and Dawlish.
Second, parking is a breeze. There are places everywhere. I arrived on a sunny day during the school holidays and had a choice of places just a frisbee throw from the sand. It cost £7.40 for the whole day. Try doing it in Salcombe.
Third, it’s so much quieter. In Salcombe you have to push through crowds and be organized enough to book accommodation and restaurants months in advance. And although the sandy coves are beautiful, there is not enough space by the water during the school holidays for all the bodies.
In Exmouth I could have laid out several volleyball courts without stepping on anyone’s towel. The beach is sublime: warm, soft sand, a gently sloping coast, lifeguards, wooded slopes, crawling rock pools, a year-round dog-friendly section, and extremely ocher cliffs that mark the beginning of the beach. mighty Jurassic coastline, a World Heritage Site.
“Exmouth has been a sleeping beauty,” Michael Caines tells me over coffee, admitting he has a vested interest in its success as a holiday destination. “It is a charming coastal town that is very attractive and accessible and has all the ingredients to be the new sweetheart in the South West. It’s cheaper and more inclusive than Salcombe, it’s full of people who live and work here and it’s not dominated by holiday homes. With sensitive and considerate investment and a balance of accommodation, there could be a thriving staycation industry here.”
Make a meal out of it
For a provincial town, Exmouth packs a powerful foodie punch, with Caines dominating the gourmet end of the market. At his elegant Michelin-starred Lympstone Manor, discerning foodies are treated to eight-course tasting menus – think seared Lyme Bay scallops with caviar and seaweed beurre blanc, and duck with pickled beetroot and pomegranate molasses.
Caine’s glass-fronted brasserie, Mickeys, at the new Sideshore beach complex, is his take on Miami’s Nikki Beach, with sleek decor and cool music to match, and a menu that includes spit-roasted chicken and locally-caught crab and lobster. Next door, Café Patisserie Glacerie serves its Italian gelato, pastries, pies and cakes, while the independent Hangtime Café offers lunch staples and cakes from Exeter’s Exploding Bakery.
By the docks, Mitch Tonk’s Rockfish serves a dizzying array of hearty fresh seafood, while out on the estuary is the River Exe Café, a floating pontoon accessible by water taxi, serving dishes including Teignmouth oysters and sea bass. The Palm is a glamorous jungle-themed bar in Exmouth’s peaceful pedestrian square serving snacks by day and cocktails by night, while Saveur is a local favorite serving excellent French cuisine.
Fossils and herds
Exmouth’s warm and dry microclimate means lots of outdoor fun. The Edge is a water sports center run by five-time world champion kitesurfer Steph Bridge, Stuart Line Cruises run scenic coastal boat trips, and then there’s the South West Coastal Path, the Exe Valley Way and fossil hunting on the Jurassic coast.
Day trips include the estuary town of Topsham, with its lovely antique shops and cafes, Powderham Castle, the National Trust property A La Ronde, Darts Farm, one of Devon’s largest farm shops, Pebblebed Vineyard, Dawlish Warren and the Regency seafront of Sidmouth. In winter, the Exmouth estuary flaps and flutters with flocks of migratory birds, making it a major draw for wildlife enthusiasts.
A room for the night
While Lympstone Manor is undeniably special, prices for a double start from £365, so holidaymakers on a smaller budget will have to fly in from elsewhere (Topsham’s Globe or Salutation Inn are our favourites). Or they could wait for Michael Caines to achieve his next ambition: to buy Exmouth’s grand Imperial Hotel on the Esplanade, which he wants to turn into a stylish mid-budget boutique hotel. Look out, Salcombe.
For more travel inspiration to the area, read our guide to the best hotels in Devon.