This historic town rests on the west side of the Fowey Estuary, a flooded valley cut by meltwater after the last Ice Age.
The safe waters allowed trade to prosper in Medieval times, and during the 100 Years’ War a band of privateers used this natural harbour as a base to steal French vessels.
Guarding the opening to the estuary are blockhouses from this time, as well as an artillery fort, St Catherine’s Castle, ordered by Henry VIII. Fowey is a treat, most of all along the lofty Esplanade overlooking the estuary, while the wider Polperro Heritage Coast is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty easily accessed on walking paths like the South West Coast Path National Trail.
1. Fowey Estuary
Rising on Bodmin Moor, 20 miles to the north, the River Fowey weaves through south Cornwall before reaching the English Channel in impressive style at Fowey Estuary, which is like a broad canyon.
In Fowey and Polruan on the opposite bank the houses are huddled in terraces onto the precipitous wooded slopes.
As a natural harbour the Fowey Estuary has always been a centre for sailing, and in summer the hundreds of yachts anchored in the water add to the spectacle.
On land the best thing to do is strike out on foot, venturing down to the panoramic Gribbin Head on the west side.
Standing tall here is the Gribbin Headland Daymark, which went up in 1832 as a navigation aid, and is opened by the National Trust every summer.
To fully appreciate the estuary’s beauty there are a few circular paths to walk, like the “Hall Walk” along the Pont Pill creek to the west.
A magical walk down to Readymoney Cove and St Catherine’s Castle, the Esplanade is a narrow street, high on the west side of the Fowey Estuary and with views to fall in love with.
Try to walk the Esplanade as early as possible to see the sun come up behind Polruan and the rows of houses zigzagging up the wooded east bank.
At the top end of the Esplanade is the Tow Quay in the centre of town where there are little attractions like the Fowey Museum and Fowey Aquarium, and a pub and bar with terraces.
The Town Quay links with Fore Street, Fowey’s main shopping artery, lined with gift shops, bakeries for Cornish pasties, restaurants, galleries and tearooms.
3. Polruan Ferry
Zipping across the Fowey Estuary every 10-15 minutes until 21:00, every day of the year except Christmas Day, the Polruan Ferry is a crucial service for residents and tourists alike.
The ferry is so reliable it is even part of the South West Coast Path.
In the quieter winter months you can catch the ferry right from the Town Quay, while in high season the departure point is a little way down the Esplanade at Whitehouse Quay.
Tickets are £2.20 for a single, and there’s an idyllic village waiting for you on the other shore.
On its snug winding streets, Polruan has a few inns and restaurants and Polruan Castle, a 15th-century blockhouse raised above the harbour mouth.
4. South West Coast Path
Often hailed as one of the best walks in the world, the South West Coast Path is a national trail hugging the coastline on England’s south-west peninsula.
Much of the trail is through national parks or protected Heritage Coast, and because of the countless rocky inlets, creeks and estuaries, the walk is often testing but always exhilarating.
The trail is an epic 630 miles long, between Minehead, Somerset and Poole Harbour in Dorset, but is fine for day hikes.
In fact the South West Coast Path website has details of a 6.1-mile circular walk, which is typically challenging and includes two ferry crossings, first to Bodinnick at the head of the estuary, and then from Polruan back to Fowey.
Spring brings wildflowers to the heathland over the estuary, and in the tidal creeks you may catch sight of waders like herons, little egrets, redshanks and curlews.
5. Polkerris Beach
This sandy private beach is ten minutes away on the other side of Gribbin Head.
Polkerris Beach is on a little bay, closed off to the south by a sea wall.
The water quality here is rated “Excellent” by the Environmental Agency and the beach is oriented towards active families.
You could hang out on the beach, go rockpooling and build sandcastles, or take part in all kinds of water activities.
You can learn to sail and windsurf with qualified instructors, or take off on a paddleboarding adventure along the coast.
Attached to Polkerris Beach is a highly-rated restaurant, Sam’s on the Beach, while on the shore you can take part in occasional yoga classes.
6. Fowey Aquarium
Facing the estuary on the Town Quay, the Fowey Aquarium dates back to 1952 and is housed in a solemn 18th-century stone building.
Although small the aquarium is well looked after and shows off the marine life found around the Cornish coast.
Many of the inhabitants, among them turbots, conger eels, bream, bass, wrasses, octopuses and pollock, were caught by local fishermen and anglers before ending up in these tanks.
The tanks also need a second pass, as you might miss the crabs and lobsters lurking in the corners.
Youngsters will love the shallow touch pool, home to starfish and small crabs.
7. St Catherine’s Castle
During the Reformation in the 1530s Henry VIII was anticipating an invasion from France or the Holy Roman Empire and set about fortifying the length of England’s southern coastline.
On the cliffs at the entrance to the harbour is one such artillery fort, completed around 1540. Now an English Heritage site St Catherine’s Castle was repeatedly updated, during the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War and again during the Second World War when it was equipped with an anti-aircraft gun and ammunition store.
The 16th-century Henrician fort is set high, controlling the estuary, while below you can view the two-gun battery installed during the Crimean War.
8. Fowey Museum
Small but packed to the rafters with miscellaneous exhibits, the Fowey Museum is in one of the oldest buildings in the town, a 15th-century house with narrow lancet windows.
On show are model ships, traditional shipyard tools, artefacts from sailboats and maritime photographs.
You can also find out about some illustrious locals, like the author and playwright Daphne du Maurier.
During a recent excavation a Medieval garderobe (toilet) has been unearthed.
This has proved full of insights about the local diet, but also a minor treasure trove, yielding household rubbish like a shoe, scraps of fabric and broken pottery.
9. Fowey Parish Church
Dedicated to St FInbarr, Fowey’s parish church is Grade I listed and went up in the first decades of the 14th century.
A lot of what you’ll see is from the second half of the 15th century following an attack by the French in 1457 in the 100 Years’ War.
At that time the beautiful clerestory was added and the aisles were made unusually wide.
One thing that will strike you inside is the stunning wagon vault, also from the 15th century, while the baptismal font is Norman and hewn from local Catacleuse stone.
There’s also a hexagonal pulpit from 1601 and a series of fine monuments for the Rashleigh family, including two brasses from 1582 and 1602.
10. Polridmouth Cove
Keep an eye on the tides, because when the sea goes out Polridmouth Cove has two appealing south-facing beaches that almost disappear at high tide.
When the tide is out the beaches are divided by a low headland, and although there are no lifeguards the water is considered safe for bathing as it is far removed from the open sea.
Naturally the cove is on the South West Coast Path, and has spellbinding views down to Gribbin Head, which offers shelter from the west.
At the back of Polridmouth Cove is little more than the coastal path and Polridmouth Cottage, which sits beside a lake.
11. Fowey River Gallery
In a grand townhouse built for a Georgian merchant, the Fowey River Gallery is a private art gallery putting on around six exhibitions a year.
These provide a platform for talented local painters, watercolourists, illustrators, sculptors, graphic designers and printmakers, on solo or thematic exhibitions, while the gallery also sells scarves, jewellery, bags.
cards and other gifts downstairs.
The Fowey River Gallery is open seven days a week in summer, and Monday-Saturday for the rest of the year
12. Fowey River & Sea Cruises
If the crossing to Polruan isn’t enough, Fowey River & Sea Cruises is a cruise operator in the harbour, scheduling a range of trips up the River Fowey or out along the coast.
For £8 you can take a 45-minute commented cruise on the river, passing the home of 20th-century playwright Daphne du Maurier and checking out the china clay docks, mussel farm, the 15th-century blockhouses and the scenic harbour entrance.
There are departures for this cruise every 20 minutes from 11:00 to 16:40 in summer.
For a real voyage into the Cornish countryside you can book trips upriver to Lostwithiel and Lerryn, depending on the tide, or out on the sea to Polperro and Mevagissey.
13. Lantic Bay
On the other side of the estuary, past Polruan is a dreamy white sand and shingle beach under tall green cliffs.
Lantic Bay is on National Trust land, and is certainly remote, so you’ll need to pack supplies and keep up with the tide times and weather conditions.
You could walk to Lantic bay from Polruan in about an hour, and it’s that needs to be made, with only a couple of tricky climbs.
Leading off the South West Coast Path are signposted circular trails, into woodland and high over the sea.
There’s a play train for mini-adventurers just by the car park at Lantic Bay, and you’ll get down to the beach via a quarter-mile zigzagging path.
The beach pitches quite sharply into the water, but is mostly safe for swimming depending on the tide.
14. Bird Lady of Fowey
On a farm just outside the town is a small company offering up close encounters with birds of prey.
With a falconry qualification and extensive owl training experience, the Bird Lady of Fowey has four owls and four hawks, which you can meet, handle and fly during sessions for up to two hours.
If you’re in town with children, you could try the more casual hour-long experience, meeting owls, seeing them up close and finding out about their diet and behaviour.
On a close-up handling and flying experience you’ll head out across the fields with a Harris hawk perched on your flying glove.
There’s a pagoda and yurt at the farm for cream teas and coffee, which are included in the experiences.
15. Water Activities
The Fowey Estuary has all the right conditions for water activities like kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding, while the scenery on both sides of this large flooded valley will make your adventure unforgettable.
Out on the water you may see the estuary’s cast of wading birds, as well cormorants, kingfishers and possibly mammals like seals, otters and dolphins.
There’s a choice of operators based in Fowey, arranging escorted canoe, kayak trips and paddleboard trips or renting out all the equipment for a self-guided excursion.
Fowey River Expeditions, Encounter Cornwall and Adventure Cornwall are local and will tailor guided tours to your interests, whether you want to explore the little creeks to the sides, see as much wildlife as possible or learn more about Fowey’s 1,000-year history.