Daphne du Maurier’s heroine in her 1941 novel Frenchman’s Creek flees the bustle of London for the escape of southern Cornwall
Sipping locally-grown tea, with just the sun and birdsong for company, I can understand why. It’s hard to think of a more peaceful place to detach from the unsettled reality of the last 15 months.
Nestled in a bend of the Helford River the family-run Budock Vean country house hotel promises a much-needed retreat fuelled by Cornish produce and a healthy dose of fresh air.
We are among the first guests after the four star ‘hotel on the river’ reopened its doors in mid-May, and things inevitably feel different after months of lockdown.
We call reception 10 minutes before arriving as requested, to let them know we are near, and don our face masks before crossing the threshold.
There are hand sanitisers next to the pale pink dianthus on each dining table, dishes are wheeled out on trolleys and the bedrooms are stocked with spare masks and gloves, as well as teas and coffees.
While there is less spontaneity (we cannot pop to the pool whenever we fancy) we pretty much have the entirety of the impressive octagonal pool house to ourselves during our booked session.
The hotel is operating at 85% capacity, and it is reassuring to see staff taking coronavirus so seriously, making our stay as safe as possible.
We ditch the car after the long drive and settle into the new outdoor hot tub before tucking into a champagne cream tea on the terrace. The southern aspect makes this spot a sun trap, with loungers dotting the sloping lawns.
The food served at the hotel is just as impressive. Along with seafood specialities – I’m told the Newlyn crab sandwich is number one lunch choice – there is an impressive menu of vegan and vegetarian options (the fluffy souffle swimming in creamed spinach is a must).
And diners won’t get bored with 99 wines to choose from and a four-course dinner menu that changes daily – with locally-sourced food making up almost 70% of the offerings.
The dining room underwent a dramatic transformation in February 2020 as part of a major renovation, and the result is an elegant space which pays tribute to the local area and history.
Golden-framed portraits dot a striking deep blue feature wall, with diners seated under the steady gaze of Cornish greats such as Anthony Payne, the seven foot, four inches tall ‘Cornish Giant’. Drum pendant lights of varying sizes hang from the ceiling, patterned with trees and birds, and a paddle rests atop the fireplace.
For less formal dining, guests can head to the hotel bar, conservatory, patio or one of the four lounges.
Thirty of the 56 bedrooms have also been updated, with the remaining rooms, corridors and pool next on the list, and the refurbishment expected to be complete in the winter of 2022-3.
For me, the hotel’s most beautiful feature is its 65 acres of undulating, secluded grounds, taking in a nine-hole golf course, croquet lawn, tennis courts and organic sub-tropical gardens.
The next morning we stroll down the steep path to the hotel’s private foreshore, taking in the giant rhubarb, azaleas and rhododendrons.
From here, guests can embark on a 90-minute cruise exploring the Helford River, but it’s an adventure with Koru Kayaking that’s in store today.
We are greeted by Tom, our enthusiastic guide and co-owner, who flits effortlessly between gentle encouragement, explaining the local history, taking photographs and paddling. Kitted out with wetsuit, boots and a buoyancy aid, we settle into the sit-on kayaks and paddle out to the mouth of the river, pausing halfway for a quick dip before drying off on the sun-warmed flat rocks.
We then paddle inland to Frenchman’s Creek, the location which inspired du Maurier’s swashbuckling yarn. It is an eerie, beautiful inlet, with kingfishers nesting in its banks, a shipwreck and overhanging trees – including one the Aussie singer Kylie Minogue is said to have reclined on in her music video, Flower.
But there is no sign of du Maurier’s Robin Hood-esque French pirate who plunders the coast in between winning the heart of the heroine, Lady Dona.
Unfortunately, the sunny weather does not last for our visit to the world-renowned sub-tropical Trebah Garden, less than a mile from the hotel. Visitors must pre-book slots, meaning arrivals are staggered and the steep ravine garden feels reassuringly uncrowded.
We waterproof up with slight trepidation, but the moody grey skies and drizzle only serve to enhance the striking beauty of the 100-year-old rhododendrons and the 70 varieties of camellias.
The trail slopes down to the beach (there is a step-free option), where around 7,500 US troops embarked to sail across the channel for the D Day landings in the Second World War.
In just three days, I feel I have only scratched the surface of this captivating part of the world. 80 years on, it’s still the idyllic escape Daphne du Maurier imagined in her books.
How to plan your trip
A two-night stay at Budock Vean (budockvean.co.uk), including dinner and breakfast, costs from £155 per person per night between June 4 and September 25.
A two-hour guided kayak adventure with Koru Kayaking (korukayaking.co.uk) costs £45 per person, with a maximum of six people per tour.
An adult ticket for Trebah Garden (trebahgarden.co.uk) costs £12.