Where England Comes to an End
The last town before Land’s End, Penzance is famous for its pirates and for a climate so mild (courtesy of the Gulf Stream) that palm trees and subtropical plants are commonplace. As a favorite base for exploring the westernmost county in England, Jean Shrimpton’s Abbey Hotel is the town’s first choice and one of the most eclectic and charming hotels around. In the deft hands of the 1960s supermodel, this rambling row of 300-year-old townhouses built on the foundations of a 12th-century abbey is filled with antiques and a certain bohemian air.
Much of Penzance’s importance is as the starting point for a trip to the castled island of St. Michael’s Mount, attached to the mainland by nothing more than a cobbled causeway. For centuries it has been the subject and inspiration for the local artists’ community, seeming to float ethereally just above the sea. It was originally created in 1135 as a sister abbey to the more famous Mont-Saint-Michel across the Channel in Normandy. From afar, the parapets and terraced cliff gardens of the monastery-castle-fortress create a romantic profile against skies of changing light and scudding clouds. The arduous climb to the top of the castle, rising 250 feet from the sea, is well worth it for the views.
Nearby Land’s End is an obligatory day trip. Often called the “toe” of England, this is the southernmost and westernmost point in the ancient duchy of Cornwall with a distinctive flavor and coastal beauty. It is one of Britain’s most visited natural attractions, since the craggy promontory’s tip (more officially called Penwith) is where England ends—or begins. The ancient Cornish called it “Pen von Laz” meaning “end of the earth.” For those seeking bleak end-of-the-world solitude or moved by geographical extremities, lonely heather moors that overlook the point where the Atlantic Ocean converges with the English Channel are a gull’s cry away. Facing west, on a clear day you’ll see the outline of the Isles of Scilly.
Of the group of 100-plus rocky islands (five inhabited but many more named) with exotic palms, rare seabirds, and some of the most beautiful beaches in Britain, Tresco, privately owned since 1834, is most visited— primarily for its world-famous gardens. With more than 3,000 species of plants, they are considered the finest in the British Islands, a subtropical wonderland thanks to the Mediterranean-like climate provided by the Gulf Stream. The only place worth staying on the car-free island is also one of its highlights: The Island Hotel sits on its own little promontory, surrounded by gardens and open views of the sea and off-islands.