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An ocean of possibilities in Plymouth
7:00am Saturday 27th July 2013 in Travel
Should the heatwave continue, there's a strong case for holidaying at home this summer. Anita Sethi cools off in Plymouth, named Britain's Ocean City.
Gazing out of the train window, I gasp as we reach the coast of Britain and the sea suddenly flashes into view. Three hours out of London and the city smog vanishes to give way to a beautiful vista of dramatic red sandstone cliffs falling into the sparkling sea. I am on my way to Plymouth, branded as "Britain's Ocean City".
Getting close to the ocean - in sight, taste and touch - is the main attraction of a staycation in this south west city. The natural beauty of the coast is striking; here the cliffs are decorated with bright pink flowers and covered in a thick carpet of grass.
Walking along the promenade, I pass bustling market stalls selling fresh local produce. But I decide to stop off for lunch at the delightful Tudor Rose Tea Rooms (36 New Street, Barbican). Sitting outside in the beautiful gardens, I devour fish and chips followed by a traditional Devonshire cream tea. Afterwards, I climb some stone steps leading to a lovely landscaped maze dotted with roses.
Itching to get out on the water, I book a sailing boat trip from the Royal Plymouth Corinthian Yacht Club. It's exhilarating to speed through the water and gain a view of Plymouth from out at sea.
During lunch at the Boathouse Cafe (2-5 Commercial Wharf, Barbican), I overhear conversations in various foreign languages. I close my eyes and feel the sun on my skin. At moments like this, Britain could compete with the French Riviera.
Royal William Yard's harbour, a 10-minute water taxi ride from the Barbican, is the jewel in Plymouth's crown. Here, Richard Branson's record-breaking boat, the Virgin Atlantic Challenge II, is docked - a 72ft boat that took the record in the Transatlantic Blue Ribbon Challenge, crossing in three days, eight hours and 31 minutes.
My visit also coincides with the final leg of the Route des Princes, a new bi-annual five-leg European multi-hull sailing race. As I enjoy a dinner of scampi and chips at the newly opened Rockfish (headed by chef Mitch Tonks, voted Tatler's restaurateur of the year), nine racing yachts set off for the finish line in the Bay of Morlaix, France.
To celebrate, a music festival takes place on the seafront, set against the backdrop of Plymouth's iconic red and white lighthouse. I order a gin and tonic, inspired by an earlier visit to the Blackfriars Distillery. As part of the Master Distiller's Tour, our enthusiastic guide, Harriet, filled us in on the history of gin in Plymouth. We also had the opportunity to sample five different gins and even make our own concoction. I opted for juniper, nutmeg and coriander - delicious.
Giddy with excitement - and a few gins, I take a ride on the seafront big wheel which offers spectacular night views. The informative commentary offers nuggets about the city's history.
But the highlight of my trip is a visit to the National Marine Aquarium where I learn about life below the sea in a fascinating guided tour. I gaze at beautiful moon jellyfish, white spotted jellyfish, crayfish, a sleeping turtle and even sharks.
I feel energised after a weekend that is, quite literally, a breath of fresh air.
:: Where to stay Jury's Inn, Plymouth Request a sea-facing room for the best views. The hotel is in a convenient central location on Exeter Street, approximately a 10-minute walk from both the train station and the historic harbour. The shopping centre is also close by. Rooms are furnished with large beds, desks, and TV with Freeview.
:: Standard doubles room from £53 per night with the option to book the breakfast buffet at £10 per adult per day. Visit www.plymouthhotels.jurysinns.com :: What to do Master Distillers Tour at Blackfriars Distillery The knowledgeable tour guide gives a detailed account of the history of gin-making in Plymouth. The session is both informative and entertaining, and along with sampling gins it's also possible to make your own.
:: Black Friars Distillery, 60 Southside Street, The Barbican. Visit www.plymouthdistillery.com. Tour costs £40 pp and includes a bottle of 'your own' handmade gin to take away plus a G&T from the bar.
National Marine Aquarium This is the UK's biggest aquarium and contains a fantastic collection of fish including more than 70 sharks. Marvel at the stunning array of sea creatures, ranging from tiny sea-horses and beautiful jellyfish to those hair-raising sharks.
:: Rope Walk. Visit www.national-aquarium.co.uk. Adult tickets cost £12.75 and a family ticket (two adults, two children) costs £37.
Plymouth Sailing School The school, based in Yacht Haven Quay, was set up in 1957 and is one of the UK's oldest sea schools. It offers day and weekend sailing courses starting at £60 per person. Picnic lunches and wet weather gear are provided.
:: Yacht Haven Quay, Breakwater Road, Plymstock. Visit www.plymsail.co.uk :: Where to eat The Fishermans Arms Delicious dishes include "A Taste of the Sea", featuring John Dory, sea trout, clams, lemon sole, mussels and sea greens. Enjoy great seafood in a sophisticated setting featuring quirky artwork and relaxing low lighting. It's not cheap, but well worth every penny.
:: 31 Lambhay Street, The Barbican. Visit www.thefishermansarms.com/restaurant Rockfish Plymouth This newly-opened restaurant is right on the seafront, making it the perfect place to visit after a stroll along the harbour. It is also situated just next to the Aquarium so a meal here is the ideal way to round off the day. The food on offer here is so fresh that the restaurant's motto is, "tomorrow's fish are still in the sea".
:: 3 Rope Walk, Sutton Harbour. Visit www.rockfishdevon.co.uk Tudor Rose Tea Rooms Traditional cream tea (two homemade scones, clotted cream, strawberry jam and a pot of tea) costs £5.95 per person.
:: 36 New Street, The Barbican Visit www.tudorrosetearoom.co.uk Travel facts - Plymouth Anita Sethi was a guest of Plymouth Tourist Board. Visit www.visitplymouth.com First Great Western (www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk) provides direct train services to Plymouth from destinations including Reading and London Paddington. Advance single fares from London Paddington start at £13.50 each way and Group Save tickets offer four-for-the-price-of-two on off-peak tickets, subject to terms and conditions.