In England’s west country, Devon is a holiday favourite with sensational contrasts and variety.
In the south are the gentle resorts of the English Riviera, the fossil-riddled cliffs of the Jurassic Coast and long estuaries with beautiful waterside towns.
Inland are the ancient wildernesses of Dartmoor and Exmoor, places of legend and folklore, where wild ponies graze and run free.
And then there’s the rugged north coast, all rocky headlands, generous sandy beaches and rolling surf . But wherever you go you can’t leave without indulging in tea and scones with Devon’s luxurious clotted cream.
The largest and least-inhabited open space in southern England, Dartmoor is as mysterious as it is visually breathtaking.
This wilderness is suffused with stories of headless horsemen, ghostly beasts and pixies, and has been inspiring artists and writers for centuries, most notably Arthur Conan Doyle when he wrote the Hound of the Baskervilles.
Giving the landscapes their incomparable ambience is the granite, which bursts through the surface at the summit of Dartmoor’s tors (hills), the highest points in Southern England.
Granite has been sculpted into a multitude of monuments around Dartmoor going back to the Neolithic and Bronze Age, all standing the test of time for the durability of this stone.
The name of this wonderful university city gives clues to its ancient origins, and Exeter was in fact the most southwesterly Roman fortification on the British Isles.
Lose no time in getting to the gothic cathedral, rightly considered one of England’s most beautiful.
Just stand in the nave and be astounded by the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling of any building in the country.
See the 14th-century Guildhall, which is the oldest civic building still performing its civic function, and suss out Exeter’s rich trading history at the historic quayside.
There’s much, much more besides, like the medieval subterranean tunnels and the fantastic Royal Albert Memorial Museum.
Few places could claim to have a maritime tradition as rich as Plymouth’s, which will forever recall names like Sir Francis Drake and the Mayflower, which set sail for America from this port.
Survey the seascape of Plymouth Sound from Plymouth Hoe as Sir Francis Drake is claimed to have done over a game of bowls, before boarding his warship Revenge to meet the Spanish Armada at the Battle of Gravelines in 1588. The Barbican is the most historic area in Plymouth, a waterside district of tight cobblestone streets, old inns and now artists’ studios and galleries.
Devon’s mild climate makes it a more reliable beach getaway than almost anywhere in England, and at the forefront has to be Torquay.
There are nine sandy beaches on the seafront of this endearing coastal town, three of which have the Blue Flag for the quality of the water and services for visitors.
And these glorious beaches go hand-in-hand with some seriously good family days out.
At Kents Cavern there’s 700,000 years of human history, so there’s a thrilling anthropological dimension to the tour of this outstanding natural formation.
Add to that, Babbacombe, a cliff-top district with a remarkable miniature village, the Living Coasts Zoo and the elegant Cockington Country House and park.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a prettier coastal town in England than Dartmouth.
On the western bank of the Dart Estuary, the harbour has been a seafaring hub for many centuries.
Knights departed from the Crusades from Dartmouth and privateers were based in the town as early as medieval times.
Many alleys and lanes like Smith Street and Duke Street look much like they would have done in Tudor times and are crowded with old inns and merchants’ houses.
See the Grade I-listed Butterwalk, a delightful row of corbelled houses supported by stone columns.
And fans of whodunits can pay a visit to Greenway, holiday escape of Agatha Christie.
Overlapping with the neighbouring county of Somerset, Exmoor is the second of Devon’s two national parks, pushing up against the north coast of the county.
It’s a world of untamed sandstone moors, accessible via more than 1,000 kilometres of footpaths and bridleways, crossing rivers and snaking along green valleys and up summits like the 520-metre-high Dunkery Hill.
From the middle ages up to the 20th-century the local economy was sustained by the wool trade.
Left behind are interesting and beautiful vestiges of this industry, like water mills and yarn markets.
Exmoor Ponies run free in the park, and aren’t so much a breed as a species of pony, closely related to wild horses.
On the North Devon Coast, the beach at Woolacombe, often listed as one of the greatest in Europe, is vast, sandy, cradled in greenery and with waves that are more than surfable.
So this packs in a mix of families and sun-seekers, but there’s more than enough space for both along these three miles.
For the best waves, surfers need only go a couple of miles down the coast to Coryde.
The beach there has what could be described as the best beachbreak in the country in the right conditions; a perfectly formed A-frame barrel best ridden in winter because of the on-shore winds and healthy Atlantic swell.
On the River Dart in the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Totnes is a town a little out of the ordinary.
This is an upshot of its alternative community, fostering artists and musicians and giving rise to a twice weekly market with organic and fair-trade items.
For a casual visitor one of the many great things about Totnes’ independent spirit is the amount of locally-owned shops and eateries, a real breath of fresh air compared to a typical English high street.
For history and culture, explore the ruins of Totnes Castle, be transported to the 14th-century at the majestic Dartington Hall and track the history of the famous Pomeroy and Seymour families at the Tudor Berry Pomeroy Castle.
Unlike many of the places covered so far, Sidmouth was just a small fishing village until wealthy Georgians and Victorians came to make the most of the sea air and waters at its shingle beach.
This sudden growth over the space of few decades gave the town many streets of stuccoed and painted hotels and houses, as well as a regal esplanade behind the beach.
Landward, Sidmouth is bounded on all sides by the East Devon Area of Natural Beauty and on the coast are the classic red cliffs of the Triassic period.
For real local culture come in the first week of August for the Sidmouth Folk Festival, with 700 events put on at venues around the town.
10. Jurassic Coast
Both east and west of Sidmouth is Devon’s stretch of the Jurassic Coast, which is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Here 185 million years of geological history have been revealed by coastal erosion.
In different stages of its distant prehistory this part of the world has been many different types of environments, including marsh, sea and even desert, and emerging from the cliff faces and rocks are the fossils of the massive variety of animals and plants that lived here.
So needless to say, if you’re a fossil hunter the East Devon coast will be a dreamland, following in the footsteps of Mary Anning, whose amazing fossil discoveries in the 1800s changed the world’s understanding prehistoric life.
Right in the heart of Torbay, the length of coastline unofficially known as the English Riviera, Paignton is a seaside escape for both families and couples.
If you require lots of entertainment for little ones then Paignton Beach is the way to go, with a long pleasure pier and the imaginative Geoplay Park on the foreshore.
Paignton Zoo Environmental Park is an animal attraction with a conscience and up there with England’s top zoos.
And if you need a wide open, seemingly boundless beach Goodrington Sands next-door or the divine Broadsands will do the trick.
Adding some Victorian atmosphere to the setting is the Dartmouth steam railway, with grand locomotives passing above these beaches in the summer.
The seaside resort of Exmouth has a location full of drama on the east bank of the River Exe where it enters the sea.
On the town’s esplanade the vistas over the estuary are incredible, and at Exmouth Landing you can set sail on a ferry for a short voyage across to the village of Starcross on the west bank.
The sandy Exmouth is a joy, and the Southwest Coast Path, which encompasses all of Devon and Cornwall’s coastline will lead you to the rugged Orcombe Point in a couple of minutes, and then the high bluffs and natural beaches of the Devon Cliffs a little way beyond that.
An eccentric stately home close by is A La Ronde, a 16-sided house from the 1700s open to the public, thanks to the National Trust.
An alternative to Devon’s seaside resorts, Tavistock is a rural market town on the edge of Dartmoor to the west of the county.
For several hundred years Tavistock was known for its stannaries, tin mines that were exclusive to Cornwall and Devon.
Just across the border these chimerical old sites are listed by UNESCO. And throughout this time, all the way from the 1300s to the present day, the Pannier Market has been in business.
Unlike many of the country’s markets this one is as bustling as ever, and has stalls selling anything from furniture and handicrafts to regional treats like fudge and jams.
And after that you can do a circuit of Tavistock’s low-key but endearing landmarks, such as the ruins of Tavistock Abbey and Bedford Square where you’re greeted by the lovely gothic town hall.
Nestled in hilly scenery that plunges to the water down sharp cliff-sides, Ilfracombe is a charming rural town that also has all the fun of the seaside.
On the South West Coast Path you’ll be treated to some of the region’s prettiest views as you approach Ilfracombe from Hillsborough Hill to the east and see the greenery and the headlands protecting the town.
Right above the harbour is Lantern Hill, topped with a 14th-century chapel that has carried a beacon to guide boats into port since the 1600s.
And from the harbour you could catch a boat to Lundy Island, which has large numbers of seals and puffins.
The sleepy seaside town of Seaton could be a good choice if you’re in need of a convenient location on the Jurassic Coast.
There’s a new visitor centre that gives you some extra insights about the coastline, and would go well with an afternoon hunting for fossils.
The Seaton Tramway is a heritage line that runs inland next to the Axe River Estuary to the charming towns of Colyton and Colyford.
Just west of Seaton is the village of Beer, with soaring limestone cliffs that were quarried extensively from medieval times for stone that was used in many churches and cathedrals like London’s Westminster Abbey and St Pauls.
The quarry’s tunnels are now a fascinating tourist attraction.