While it may boast a reputation as the ‘surfing capital of the UK’, there is far more to do in Newquay, Cornwall, than catching waves.
While its most famous exports – Fistral Beach, Boardmasters Festival, Watergate Bay, and a thriving nightlife favoured by post-exam students – may dominate the agenda when it comes to this Cornish coastal town, but as a family holiday destination it shouldn’t be overlooked.
Writer and dad of two, Colin Henrys, visits Newquay with family almost every year, from the first trip as a young child, through to teenager, young adult, and now as Dad. So what keeps bringing families back?
Newquay itself boasts plenty of places to eat and family-friendly attractions, and its location on Cornwall’s North Atlantic coast – relatively central in the county – makes it a handy base for wider excursions as well. Thanks to its airport at St Mawgan, with direct flights to/from the UK’s major destinations – Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast, and so on – as well as selected European cities too, it is easy to get to too, even if you don’t fancy the journey to the South West by car. On that note, though, if you do fly in – or even take the train to the town centre station – it is well worth hiring a car in order to explore more of Cornwall than just Newquay itself during your stay.
Newquay features a typically maritime climate – the wind can whip up from the coast, but if the sun is shining (and it does shine a fair bit through summer months with June to August being your best chance for warm seas and sunshine) it’s t-shirt and shorts weather.
If you can, it is worth heading down outside of the school holidays – the beaches and attractions are quieter (but still open), the hotels have more availability and the weather in late June, early July and early September is still generally pleasant. But even during peak season while undoubtedly busy, there is plenty to be getting on with.
Newquay is a great base for accessing the whole of Cornwall – Truro, Padstow, St Austell, and the Eden Project are among the places within just 20 miles – but you can pack loads into your trip without ever leaving the town.
Surfing: Let’s start with the obvious. Newquay is the surf capital of the UK, and if you want to hit the beach then you are in the right place. For regular surfers, there’s a wide choice of beaches to enjoy, with Fistral Beach being the most famous.
There are surf schools operating on several of Newquay’s beaches which are ideal for beginners and families too. The NQY Surf School on Great Western Beach offer private family surfing lessons (minimum group size is four) from £140, and you get to enjoy a quieter beach than the more famous Fistral. Likewise, the Escape Surf School on Towan Beach (next to Great Western Beach) offers private family lessons for two adults and two children – over eight years old and can swim 50m – or one adult and three children, for £160. If you want to hit Fistral Beach, the Fistral Beach Surf School – the only one on the beach – offer group lessons from £35 per person and there are kid’s only (aged 8-16) group lessons available in July and August from £35.
Newquay Zoo: A short walk from Newquay town centre, Newquay Zoo is a 13-acre site boasting more than 1,000 species of rare and endangered animals. You can hear the lions roaring from the surrounding area, while other more unusual animals include red pandas and a sloth. Its size means the zoo is ideal for an afternoon out; it is easy to walk around with young children and won’t take up a whole day. On the flip side, the zoo is too small to house bigger animals, so no tigers, elephants, giraffes and such like. The lion’s enclosure has also been criticised for being too small, but this issue is addressed and explained well in one of the many excellent talks and feeds throughout the day.
To keep children entertained, there is also face painting, the Tarzan Trail, a children’s play area, a Woodland Walk and a Dragon Maze. The tropical house – where the sloth lives – features free-flying birds, while there is also a children’s petting zoo. One thing to note, however, is the parking – the council-owned car park is expensive (as with the rest of the county) and shared with a swimming baths so it can get busy.
Blue Reef Aquarium: Looking out over Towan Beach, the Blue Reef Aquarium is part of the national Blue Reef chain and features more than 40 living displays, covering everything from tropical sharks to seahorses.
A large ocean tank with an underwater walkthrough tunnel and the Tropical Shark Lagoon – complete with views of the sharks and rays from above and below the waterline – are among the aquarium’s highlights.
Like the zoo, its size means you do not need to dedicate the whole day to it – just a couple of hours should be more than sufficient, so not enough time for young legs to get too tired. Its sea-front location even means you can tie it in with a trip to the beach, or as a way to spend a bit of time walking off your pasty or cream tea from the town centre.
Pirate’s Quest: Duncan Bannatyne, formerly of Dragon’s Den fame, embarked on a quest to revamp Newquay’s small, tired, dated (and very pink) Tunnels Through Time exhibition as part of his Seaside Rescue TV series. The result was the interactive Buccaneer’s Bay pirate adventure, which has since rebranded as Pirate’s Quest. Housed in the old Newquay Theatre, Pirate’s Quest features a live pirate guide to lead you through the history of piracy – complete with caves, 18th-century streets and, for braver guests, the Davy Jones’ Locker scare section. The immersive experience – a significant upgrade on the original Tunnels Through Time exhibition – takes an hour and is designed to cater for all ages. All visitors are presented with a treasure map on entry with different quests to complete for different abilities, with the chance to claim some pirate booty afterwards.
DairyLand FarmWorld: Located just outside the town centre, DairyLand is a great day out for younger children. It boasts tractor and pony rides and the chance to milk cows, feed animals and enjoy the outdoor adventure park, complete with slides, trampolines and more. When the weather is bad, the indoor play area, The Bull Pen, covers 12,000 square ft. and is suitable for all ages, with Mum and Dad encouraged to supervise and join in. Other daily activities include the Pat-a-Pet section, while there are Cornish heritage museums to check out too.
Newquay boasts plenty of family-friendly hotels and guest houses, although it’s always worth checking our holiday home rentals such as AirBnB – particularly if you’re travelling out-of-season – as there are numerous ‘home from home’ options too. Fistral Beach and the town centre are the most popular areas with out-of-towners, but there are plenty of convenient options that allow you to escape the hustle and bustle during open season. Porth Beach, for example, boasts sea-front hotels and is just on the outskirts of Newquay.
I can personally recommend the Pensalda Guesthouse, which features family chalets to the rear of the hotel and is well-catered for very young guests (travel cot, nappy bin, super-friendly owners), but look around and there is plenty of choice. If you have a car, make sure you check the parking situation though; town-centre parking is expensive and on-street parking can be busy, so if there is nothing available at the hotel you might struggle to find a convenient spot. If you want easy beach access, and are happy for a slightly longer walk into the town centre, look near Porth and Lusty Glaze beaches for quieter spots.
Trenance Gardens: In addition to the attractions listed above, Newquay features plenty of places to enjoy some quality outdoor time. Trenance Gardens is one of those, complete with play parks, a miniature railway and crazy golf. Newquay Zoo is within the Trenance Leisure Park, as is the Waterworld Leisure Centre – ideal for keeping children occupied on bad-weather days, thanks to its fun pool (including big slides and waterfall).
The Gardens themselves are available to wander through, with the Trenance Cottages tea room a hidden spot for some cream tea and the boating lake including the chance to hire a pedal boat (as well as eat at the restaurant). If you are not bothered about the attractions, it can be a nice place to wander of a summer evening to get you out of your hotel/accommodation.
Beaches: We have already covered the majority of the beaches in Newquay. Each have their own perks, from the convenient town centre locations of Towan and Great Western, to the surfing and popularity of Fistral. Our family favourite is Porth, however. It is on the outskirts of the town but parking – either on the beach or in the small car park across the road – is ample. We have never had problems in nearly 25 years of visiting. The beach itself is long and narrow – the sea can be quite a walk away when the tide is out, but that means there is plenty of space to set up and play on the golden sand.
Newquay is like any typical seaside town, in that there is no shortage of beachfront eateries, catering for a wide range of tastes, alongside top-class chippies and – being Cornish – plenty of places to grab a pasty too. Let’s start with the pasties (when in Rome, etc). The town centre has plenty of bakeries, including national chains, but I’d recommend you head to Lynn’s on The Crescent, just off Bank Street (the high street). Alongside a wide range of flavours (savoury and sweet), it’s also handily located to walk straight to the end of the road and onto the beach-facing benches looking out to the iconic Towan Island over Towan Beach. Just beware of the seagulls! For fish and chips, meanwhile, there’s a good reason Francine’s Fish & Chips on Chester Road (slightly away from the town centre) does a roaring trade even out of season.
Seriously, on a freezing cold February evening on a recent trip the queue was still out of the door. The food is incredible, and the portion sizes are huge. If it is a sit-down meal you are after, meanwhile, Newquay caters for a wide range of tastes; Señor Dicks is Cornwall’s most popular Mexican restaurant, for example.
Seafood restaurants overlooking the beaches include the not-so-imaginatively-named Fistral Beach Restaurant and Lusty Glaze Beach Restaurant. Newquay Harbour boasts The Boathouse, where, when the tide is in, you are very much sea-side. Their menu includes freshly-caught local crab and lobster, which are housed in sea water pools at the entrance; fresh really does mean fresh.