A Guide to the Best Places to Visit and Things to Do From Doc Martin to Sea Shanties: The Best Ways to Experience the Charm of Port Isaac
Maybe it’s not essential, but if you know a little about Port Isaac’s background and history, it tells you something about why it – and Cornwall – are the way they are now. Fishing’s always been crucial to Port Isaac, ever since the 1300s. But where there are boats there’s trade, and the chance to make money from the movement of all kinds of goods. ‘Porthysek’, the original Cornish name, means ‘corn port’, but this port also saw the transport of stone, ceramics, salt, coal and wood. Much of what’s here now was built in the 18th and 19th centuries, easily pre-dating the age of the car (which is why they’re not a good match for its narrow, winding streets, where you’ll find many of Port Isaac’s pubs).
If you’re looking for activities in Port Isaac and you’ve watched ITV’s long-running “Doc Martin”, then yes, you have. Clearly, if you know, you know (and will be keen) and if not, then not so much. But for the programme’s many fans, there’s an hour and half walking tour to show you round Port Isaac’s fictional alter ego, Portwenn, and its most familiar landmarks and locations. The tour’s run by someone involved with the show, so you can expect some stories and background colour as well as just geography.
Anywhere welcoming visitors in this part of Cornwall is well placed to feed them in a variety of ways, and there’s no shortage of places to eat in Port Isaac. As we’ve recently mentioned elsewhere, celebrated chef Nathan Outlaw has two restaurants in Port Isaac: Outlaw’s New Road and the Fish Kitchen. Both serve high-quality seafood prepared with award-winning invention and care.
The Golden Lion is a traditional pub in a central spot with far-reaching views; its terraces, open fires and warm welcome to families and dog-owners mean it’s the perfect spot all year, as do its excellent menu and well-stocked bar. If you’re looking for excellent pizza in Port Isaac, The Angry Anchovy is small, lively and describes itself as a ‘bohemian pizzeria’, The Mote, on Fore Street prides itself on the care it takes with the best local ingredients, and Port Gaverne Hotel & Restaurant is an AA 5 star, 1 Rosette rated 17th-century building with a reputation for fine dining in Port Isaac to match its awards.
Depending which way you look, there’s Camelford in one direction (east, slightly north, ten or so miles) and Wadebridge in the other (due south, a bit closer) .
The latter’s lively, vibrant and home to more independent shops and boutiques than you might imagine.
Camelford’s an ancient town with close links to the adjacent Bodmin Moor: beautiful, wild, sometimes forbidding, a little other-worldly and strewn with reminders – like Bronze Age Hut circles and ancient churches – of how long it’s been inhabited.
Why not consider cutting back from four to two?
Better for you, for everyone else, and better for noticing what’s going on, close up and slowed-down. The best way to do it is the Camel Trail, an 18-mile, surfaced, virtually-level, disused railway line between Wenfordbridge, Bodmin, Wadebridge and Padstow. It’s also popular with walkers, horse-riders and runners; if you’ve no bike with you, there are various places in Wadebridge to hire one.
The informal, round-at-a-mate’s bunch of blokes who liked a shanty and a pint became a global phenomenon and stars of TV, film, album charts, the Albert Hall and Glastonbury, but are from – and began in – Port Isaac.
Explaining on their website why they no longer regularly sing on the beach in Port Isaac, they say:
“What started out as a bit of fun on a Friday night soon became a must-see event for locals and holidaymakers alike, a highlight on their calendars and a sociable way to end the week with a song or two.”
“Due to the success of the film … It was no longer safe or considerate for the residents of Port Isaac to have over 4,000 people turn up to hear us sing. So it’s with a heavy heart that we have had to stop putting on amplified and organised Platt gigs … Every now and then in the summer months … we do venture out for an impromptu (and unadvertised) shanty and a cheeky bottle of Tribute. If you are lucky you may catch us!!!”
Of course, the South West Coast Path extends in both directions and is worth exploring not just because of where it might lead (any number of lesser-known and slightly harder-to-reach beaches) but also because of what it looks like (standalone beautiful, and worth walking even if you’re going nowhere in particular).
Cornwall is home to several beautiful and borderline tropical gardens, but they’re almost exclusively close to the better-behaved south coast, where creeks and trees feature more heavily than high cliffs and higher winds. But in St. Endellion, a couple of miles away, you’ll find Long Cross Victorian Gardens, a north coast one-off which manages to survive, and thrive in, the saltier and more melodramatic local environment.
The sea, and all it offers, remains one of the best ways to sample what’s unique about the area. Guided swims, coasteering, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding can all be sampled locally (as can sealife-watching and boat hire). Try Cornish Rock Tors, Cornish Adventures and Cornish Coasteering, as well as out partners at Wavehunters, who may be still be able to help despite not having a Port Isaac branch any longer.