Three hundred miles southwest of London, and a 5-hour drive away, the town of Penzance is the western-most city in England, and an excellent spot from which to explore this part of Britain.
A historic port, once affluent and known for tin-mining and industrial-scale fishing, these days Penzance is mostly visited for its excellent fish and seafood restaurants, for the surrounding fine sandy beaches and for the spectacular cliff top walks scattered throughout the county of Cornwall.
Penzance is a charming, although not chocolate-box pretty town, with a buzzing high street, plenty of shops and some fine Georgian architecture.
Just ten miles from Land’s End, Penzance is surrounded by an area of Celtic culture and outstanding natural beauty.
Majestic cliffs, rocky coves and crystal clear seas vie with the heather and gorse of the moors and early Christian and Bronze Age sites to form a landscape that supports a proud Cornish culture, and has long been a source of inspiration for artists and writers.
Where to Stay in Penzance
The historic, gorgeous Chapel House was named the UK’s best B&B in the Sunday Times ‘Ultimate 100 British Hotels 2015’, and this is where we headed in Penzance.
This fine town house was built in 1790, and during its long existence it was at one time a shelter for WWII evacuees, as well as being for many years the home of the Penzance Arts Club. It was purchased and painstakingly restored over 2 years by former City of London Finance Director Susan Stuart, who moved here from Stockwell in 2013.
Chapel House opened as a boutique, 6 bedroomed hotel in 2015, combining carefully preserved original features with some striking contemporary design.
The building is flooded with natural light, the décor features soft greys, greens and blues, modern art works, and the elegant double drawing room has views over the harbour. The chosen furnishings create a light, clean and uncluttered look.
There is a large and beautifully kitted out open-plan kitchen and breakfast/dining area in the basement, leading onto a gorgeously landscaped garden.
All the rooms have en-suite bathrooms, and ours was on the top floor. This is a light-bathed contemporary part of the hotel, with its own open plan landing with a sofa, books and games under a glass roof, with panoramic views over Penzance and out to sea.
The room had a Georgian arched window with a spectacular view of the harbour. Our room was light, with a comfortable, bespoke king-size bed made by a local joiner, smart TV, fast Wi-Fi, and an iPad loaded with information on places to go and things to see, including hidden gems like local secluded beaches or advice on where best to catch the sunset.
Breakfast is served from dawn, with freshly baked breads and pastries, a selection of cooked dishes to order, smoothies made on the premises daily, and good coffee or tea.
The English breakfast, cooked by Susan Stuart herself, was one of the best I have had in years, with excellent quality, locally supplied bacon and aromatic black pudding. Equally delicious were Susan’s bacon sarnies, I had these twice during my 2-night stay! Outside of normal meal times, guests are welcome to help themselves to complimentary cake, tea and coffee in the kitchen.
Susan goes to some trouble to make Chapel House feel like the home we all would love to have (rather than just a hotel). She runs the entire operation with the help of just one employee – Susan is the owner, the marketer, she is the chef (she makes her own jams, cakes and biscuits), cooking and serving both breakfast and dinner to all her guests.
A massive foodie, Susan is an excellent cook as well as being super knowledgeable about all the best places to eat in and around Penzance, her recommendations were spot on for all restaurants we visited. The produce she uses for her cooking, from the bacon to the black pudding and the seafood all comes from top independent local suppliers in town. It was interesting to see that her incredible eye for detail was not only limited to the beautiful design of Chapel House but also to the quality of its food and supplies as well as the service provided to its guests.
We loved our stay at Chapel House and I cannot think of a better place to stay in Penzance. In fact, Chapel House is a reason in itself for a visit to Penzance and I very highly recommend it.
Where to Eat in Penzance
Chapel House offers a 3-course dinner (reservation required), at a very reasonable £25 per person for all guests any day of the week. Non-residents are also welcome to book for Fridays and Saturdays.
We were lucky enough to enjoy one of her dinners on a Friday night with a mixture of guests and locals. We enjoyed a glass of sparkling wine in the drawing room, then made our way downstairs to the shared dining table, for Susan’s home-made meal.
I had joined Susan that morning for her trip to Stevenson Fishmongers in Newlyn, and the Cornish selection of fish and seafood she purchased looked tip-top.
Situated in Newlyn Harbour, Stevenson Fishmongers is a family run business in operation for over 100 years. I would strongly recommend a visit if you have access to a kitchen during your stay.
Back at Chapel House, we kicked off with a delightful roasted butternut squash, served with ginger tomatoes and lime yoghurt. With fresh and vibrant flavours, this was a great start to our meal.
The highlight however was yet to come – Susan’s Cornish Bouillabaise had big chunks of hake, diver-caught scallops, tiger prawns in an aromatic fish broth and a scattering of samphire. This was magnificent, and in my opinion merits a trip to Chapel House in its own right.
And just when I thought it could not get any better, we were served dessert – a heavenly saffron cake bread and butter pudding with clotted cream.
On Sundays, brunch (£12.50 per person) is available from 10am to noon, which includes the usual breakfast items plus specials like kedgeree, devilled kidneys, smoked haddock and buttered samphire.
Apart from the option of dinner at Chapel House, there are many other good places to eat in Penzance. Our visit was only for two days, but we managed to explore a few restaurants.
Ben’s Cornish Kitchen
Ben's Cornish Kitchen in the nearby town of Marazion is reputedly the most talked about restaurant in the area. This is a small restaurant, and reservations are a must – we were fortunate enough to bag the last two available seats for lunch.
Run by Chef Ben Prior, with his mother and brother, Ben's Cornish Kitchen offers a choice of three seasonal starters, mains and desserts. Lunch menus are great value for money - £13 for one course, £17 for 2 or a very reasonable £20 for 3, which is what we went for. There is a range of wines by the glass, and a good selection of bottles from Berkmann Cellars.
To start, we chose the smoked haddock chowder - well made, richly flavoured, and served with a brunoise of celeriac and a topping of powdered cornflakes and pickled fennel.
The spring vegetable veloute was light, fresh and delicious. Made from spinach, broad bean and pea, it was served with a tangy goat’s curd and truffle oil. The flavours were so fresh and clean, and indeed it was like Spring on a plate.
For our main course, we had pan-fried Parmesan gnocchi with pine nuts. These were excellent, but better still were the accompanying vegetables - beans, peas, greens, sprouting broccoli, white asparagus tips, and little courgette spheres. The vegetables were intensely flavoured and cooked just right, still retaining some lovely bite.
Our other main was a gloriously pan-roast hake served on a bed of Cornish earlies (new potatoes), wilted spinach, and a deliciously tart caper and herb butter. Sublime.
On the sweet side of things, we shared a couple of desserts – the fruit and nut chocolate pave was beautifully glossy served with salted caramel and roasted peanut ice cream.
The second dessert was strange sounding but spectacularly good – the sweet curry plate. Bringing together a number of elements from a classic Indian curry, but sweet enough to be a dessert, this combined sweet popadoms, cardamom ice cream, spiced rice pudding, mango curd, coconut purée, ginger jelly and coriander cress. Finished with some shards of spiced caramel, brown sugar, coconut and mint essence, this was a hugely creative and delicious end to our meal.
Dinner is available at £24 for 2 courses, £29 for 3, or £39 for 5. I thought that the cooking at Ben’s Cornish Kitchen was superb. I would not be at all surprised if they were awarded a Michelin star in the very near future, as cooking of this quality and inventiveness at this price level is rare indeed. Very highly recommended.
Mackerel Sky Seafood Bar
There are two branches of Mackerel Sky – one in Penzance town centre, the other in Newlyn, and it was to the latter that we headed for lunch.
This cosy spot, made of white painted wood and glass is situated next to a stream, and has 2 tables and 2 window ledges, with seating for 20 people. With an open-plan kitchen and stripped wooden floor, it has a relaxed, casual vibe.
Mackerel Sky Seafood Bar serves fresh fish and seafood from the local Mount’s Bay Area in a menu of small eat (tapas-sized) options. The menu offers a variety of tasting plates, sides of chips, new potatoes or house salad, with a choice of four desserts.
The beer-battered monkfish with tartare sauce (£7.50) had a thin layer of light, crisp batter, and the fish itself was firm-textured and delicious.
The Cornish crab rarebit (£6.95) was also good, served on sourdough, with melted cheese and chunky pieces of fresh local white crab meat.
The salt and pepper squid with aioli (£6.50) though tasty was the weakest link of our meal – tender squid coated in a floury, semolina-like batter. It was served with mayonnaise and not an aioli as described on the menu.
With a portion of well made chips (£3), a glass of La Sablette Muscadet (£7) and a Bloody Mary (£5.50) for me, this was a fine lunch. Recommended.
What to Do In & Around Penzance
There are a number of nearby towns worth a visit - Newlyn, a major fishing port that nowadays has virtually fused with Penzance, and also Mousehole, a tiny fishing village that has retained its original character and charm.
Other attractions that are worthwhile visiting include St Michael's Mount, a medieval castle near Marazion (www.stmichaelsmount.co.uk), a stunning location and just a few metres from Ben’s Cornish Kitchen.
Also within a short drive of Penzance are the white sandy beaches of Prothcurno, the fishing village of Larmona, and just 7 miles away the town of St Ives, with its Tate Gallery (www.tate.org.uk/stives), and the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden (www.tate.org.uk/stives/hepworth).
Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens are situated just a couple of miles from Ben’s Cornish Kitchen – the place is the brainchild of a local GP, who bought the land to avoid it being developed into flats.
As well as having a sculpture garden set over several acres, the site also includes a fine café, a bookshop and a garden centre with an excellent range of succulent plants seldom seen in London. We came away with a bumper crop for our own townhouse garden.
Other noteworthy places to visit in Penzance, although we did not make it to them on this occasion, are the Penlee House Museum and the recently reopened art deco Jubilee lido swimming pool, located on the only promenade in Cornwall which looks out over Mount’s Bay. It is open from June to the end of August.
How to Get There
We drove from London, it was a 5 hour drive door to door. If you are taking the train, the nearest station is Penzance, which is a 10 minute walk away. The train to Penzance from Paddington takes around 5 hours. Newquay Airport is a 1 hour drive away.
Room rates start from £150, (£170 to £190 in high season) per night, with a single occupancy discount of £30. This includes breakfast, unlimited tea, coffee and cake and an early evening drink. The 3-course dinner is a fixed price of £25 per person.
Ben's Cornish Kitchen
Mackerel Sky Seafood Bar
Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens