1. Kents Cavern
Kents Cavern is a Stone Age treasure — a literal hidden gem. Concealed below the surface of Torquay, this underground labyrinth is full of darkened chambers and caverns. Today, it is a tourist site popular among inquisitive travellers, but in ancient times, it was a sanctuary, where humans and animals came to seek shelter. Archaeologists have unearthed many fascinating objects from beneath its calcified floor, including the bones and teeth of exotic and extinct animals, such as sabre-tooth cats, mammoths and woolly rhinos, as well as manmade weapons that date back more than 15,000 years. Helping you peel back the layers of history in this subterranean hollow is a tour guide who will lead you through the cave.
If the human history of Kents Cavern doesn’t capture your imagination, the astonishing sight of the crystalline stalactites and stalagmites emerging from the floor and ceiling surely will. The kids can be kept busy with numerous child-friendly offerings here. Let them play archaeologist for the day by digging in sand trays, have them complete their own prehistoric-style artwork or let them leave their mark Stone Age-style with hand prints on the wall. When you emerge from the cave, get some fresh air on the woodland trail or at the coastal trail, part of the UNESCO-endorsed Geopark area.
Seasonal events are held here throughout the year: Santa pops down to the caves during the Christmas season and witches show face at Halloween. Face painters are frequently present during school holidays and Shakespeare’s plays are occasionally staged in the darkened depths of the cave’s chambers. Kents Cavern is open year-round, with the exception of Christmas Day. Opening hours and tour times change depending on the season.
The billowing stream of smoke, the hypnotic rhythmic chug and the shrill breathy whistle; there is nothing quite like a steam train journey and Dartmouth Steam Railway attracts steam enthusiasts from all over.
This heritage railway line carries passengers south from Paignton to the village of Kingswear on the River Dart. Along the way, the train snakes along the Torbay coast and into the wooded Dart Valley past Greenway House — the one-time holiday home of author Agatha Christie. Fare payers can revel in the nostalgia of a bygone era as the train puffs past the historic time-warp stations of Churston and Goodrington. This train rolls along at a leisurely pace, giving travellers plenty of time to take in the dramatic scenery during the unhurried journey.
Upon arrival in Kingswear, passengers can continue exploring. Step aboard the foot ferry and cruise across the river to the traditional town of Dartmouth, home to the famous Britannia Royal Naval College and Dartmouth Castle.
Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company has several routes available, with journeys departing from Paignton, Dartmouth, Totnes, Torquay and Brixham, and combining the steam railway with other modes of transport. One of the most popular options is the Round Robin ticket, which entitles ticket-holders to take a round boat, train and bus trip from Torquay to the lovely South Devon towns of Paignton, Dartmouth and Totnes.
During Christmas, the Dartmouth Steam Train transforms into the Santa Express and passengers toast the jolly journey with mulled wine and mince pies. The train also hosts a murder mystery night, when passengers are plunged into a world of suspense, secrets and crime.
This idyllic family-run zoo is set across 33 glorious acres and is populated by all sorts of curious creatures, from big cats and bears to small primates, reptiles and insects. While the exotic animals are the main attraction here, many visitors are also drawn to this zoo because of its particularly interesting back-story.
In 2006, Dartmoor Zoo was terribly rundown and the animal inhabitants were in danger, when an unexpected buyer named Benjamin Mee came forward. A writer with no prior zoo-keeping experience, Mee purchased the crumbling facility and convinced his family to move there with him and help restore the site.
Mee’s journey was wrought with obstacles and he faced disaster after disaster — from an escapee jaguar to the death of his wife — with a steadfast spirit. With extraordinary perseverance and an unwavering will to succeed, Mee managed to rebuild and restore the zoo. Many people thought it a story worthy of Hollywood and, as it turns out, the high-flying studio execs agreed, adapting Mee’s book for the Matt Damon-led tearjerker ‘We Bought A Zoo’. Having been revamped, the zoo is now among the region’s best. Apart from the well-kept enclosures, the zoo also offers a program of additional experiences including close encounters with tigers, the opportunity to play keeper for a day and a guided photography tour with access to behind-the-scenes areas. Fans of the zoo’s irresistible backstory can hear it first-hand from owner Benjamin Mee on a special VIP tour.
A striking and stately castle set in a secluded countryside location south of Exeter, the Powderham estate is ideal for a family day out. The grand home of the Earl of Devon, Powderham Castle was originally built in the 14th century, although the structure has been remodelled, altered and extended several times since, and it is now open to the public to explore. Tours of the interior reveal a grand Georgian staircase, numerous family portraits and sumptuous furnishings, all of which offer insight into the lavish living typically enjoyed by the British nobility.
After exploring the luxuriant interiors, wander around the equally impressive grounds, which include an expansive park where some 600 fallow deer roam. Take a stroll or enjoy a tractor-trailer ride to see the graceful creatures up close. During October, visitors can embark on a special deer rut safari, where they can observe the stags clashing antlers in the battle for a mate. Powderham Castle also features a children’s play area, a café and a gift shop, as well as a pets’ corner that houses several cute and furry creatures, including donkeys, pot-bellied pigs and guinea pigs.
During the summer (from late July through August), falconers host birds of prey displays here and audience members have the opportunity to get involved with the feathered predators. During school holidays and mid-terms, there are special themed weeks. The castle is open Sunday to Friday and on a handful of Saturdays throughout the year.
Miniature in scale, but large in size, Babbacombe Model Village is set across four manicured acres of garden grounds and presents pint-sized versions of British buildings and top British attractions. Within the miniature town, the structures range from micro country cottages to scaled-down stately homes and knee-high factories. Architectural styles are varied and all manner of building styles, from medieval through to Victorian and beyond, are represented.
As has happened with its life-sized counterparts, the mini town has grown and adapted to deal with the changing times. Among its modern additions are a wind farm, a hydroelectric dam and several brand name shops. The town is home to a Lilliputian population of 13,000 petite inhabitants, who travel around in fun-size cars and by miniature railway. Elsewhere in the micro world, there are smaller versions of recognisable attractions including a reduced-size Stonehenge and a miniature replica of the Shard.
The model village is also the a site of dramatic events: there’s a castle under threat from a fire-breathing dragon and a fire at a thatch village being quelled by a firefighting squad. Playful and humorous little touches are present throughout, though they are easily overlooked because of their diminutive size. Look out for streakers at the football stadium, naturist bathers at the beach in summer and a ghost haunting a tower. During late openings, the model village is lit to magical effect. From the shining streetlights to the lit-up headlights, the level of detail is impressive — you can even peer inside the tiny houses, which are illuminated from inside.
At Halloween, ghouls descend on the usually quaint little world and there are candlelit ghost tours, while Christmas sees the miniature village welcome Santa who stays out the festive season in his very own grotto. Opening times and hours vary depending on the season, so please check in advance of your visit.
If you’ve come to Devon to experience the great outdoors, to enjoy more nature and less concrete, more beaches and less crowds, then the South West Coast Path is the perfect back-to-nature attraction. Path seems too tame a word for the rugged, wild and utterly beautiful scenery this lengthy trail encompasses. It’s Britain’s longest walking route, extending some 1,013.8 kilometres (630 miles) and almost every step brings astonishing coastal views, whether of rocky headlands, sandy beaches or sleepy harbour towns. There’s no need to tackle it all in one go though; walkers can dip in with shorter, less strenuous walks. The South West Coast Path covers Devon’s north and south coastlines and has routes suited for all fitness levels and intents. There are gentle rambles that lead to nearby pubs and inns or more challenging treks with dramatic scenery. Try traipsing from Brixham to Babbacombe, where the course runs along a variety of terrain including a pretty promenade and a cliff-top stretch with views of red sandstone cliffs. Or meander along the route from Salcombe to Bolt Head to enjoy vistas of the jagged, rocky coast. For a wilder more remote walking experience, hike the path from Clovelly to Hartland Quay in North Devon, where you’ll emerge from the edge of ancient woodland to climb the barren and weathered coastal cliffs and watch the Atlantic waves barrelling into the surf-beaten beaches below.
Many of the South West Coast Path routes are open year-round, but adverse weather can make conditions hazardous.
Few places in England afford a greater sense of freedom than the untouched wilds of Exmoor National Park in North Devon. One of only a few remaining truly wild regions in the country — another being Dartmoor National Park in South Devon — Exmoor stretches up from North Devon into Somerset. It packs in a variety of diverse and beautiful landscapes within its 692 square kilometres (267 square miles), from boggy moorland and dense pockets of woodland to river valleys, sheep-filled grassy plateaus and coastal cliff faces shorn by centuries of wind and rain. Empty and expansive though it may be, Exmoor National Park provides enough things to see and do to fill a lifetime.
You can go wildlife spotting, look for deer, barbastelle bats and bright kingfishers, or explore the numerous marked trails and footpaths that criss-cross the land. Look out for the hardy Exmoor ponies, an endangered species that roams the moor and keep an eye out for the beast of Exmoor, a phantom cat said to haunt these lonely tracts and the focus of many local legends.
Take guided walks to learn about local folklore or about archaeology in the region, go geocaching (a kind of high-tech treasure hunt played using a smartphone), or bike or horse ride across the vast landscape. For watersports, head to the sheltered Wimbleball Lake, where there are opportunities for windsurfing and sailing. To see the region’s best beaches, venture to the far west coast, where some of the finest stretches of seafront can be found near the quaint seaside towns of Combe Martin and Lynmouth.
Visitors flock to this family-friendly woolly wonderland, which is devoted to Devon’s fluffiest inhabitants. There are lambs to pet, sheep aplenty and numerous other livestock-related attractions. You can watch sheepdogs rounding up ducks, listen to advice from a horse whisperer, bottle-feed adorable orphan lambs or get familiar with the various different breeds of sheep from all across the globe during a daily sheep show. Then place your bets on the sheep race as six of the woolliest Devonians — complete with a miniature knitted jockey on their back — negotiate Shepherd’s Brook and other hurdles in their quest to take first place.
Apart from the animal attractions, the Big Sheep also offers other ways to pass the time. You can embark on tractor rides, take a kitschy swan-shaped pedalo out on the lake or ride the vintage pony carousel. That’s not all — there is also a large indoor soft play barn, train rides and an adventure centre next door, which includes a climbing wall. Families can find sustenance in the café and restaurant on site.
The Big Sheep has special themed events that vary depending on the time of year, but may including Easter lambing and a Big Sheep Grand National, as well as Halloween and Christmas fun.
The Big Sheep is open year-round (weekends and school holidays only during winter), but certain attractions and shows are only open during the summer, so be sure to check the website and plan your visit in advance.
South Devon’s wild inland expanse, covering some 954 square kilometres (368 square miles) is an untamed wilderness. Largely unspoilt and undeveloped, Dartmoor National Park is an appealing place to escape to. Its remote and rugged landscape makes a striking contrast to the resort idyll of Devon’s coastal towns.
Comprised of a varied patchwork of terrain — oddly shaped rocky outcrops, barren tracts, wooded plots, rolling hills and boggy moorland — the park is epic in scope. It was the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ and when the fog rolls in over the moor here, it’s all too easy to imagine a ghostly canine roaming around. Walk, hike or cycle across its numerous paths and trails, making pit stops in the rustic country inns and snug tea houses at local towns. When the weather is fine, visitors can picnic in its flower-filled meadows.
As in its North Devon counterpart, ponies roam free, and sheep and cattle can also be spotted grazing on its grassy knolls. The park’s steep granite rivers offers challenging rapids for white water rafting and further opportunities for canyoning, while the sheer rock walls are suitable for rappelling. If the park’s notoriously fickle weather takes a turn for the worst, find shelter in the Grade I-listed Castle Drogo or explore the macabre exhibits of the Dartmoor Prison. This prison has housed several well-known inmates, including the Mad Axeman murderer and Irish leader Éamon de Valera, and now functions as a museum.
Devon’s main draws are its countryside and its coastline. And nowhere is the coastline more pleasing than on the pleasant stretch that runs between the towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham. Known as the English Riviera, this coastal district is pretty when seen from land, but in order to fully appreciate its breathtaking beauty, it’s necessary to get out on the water.
Greenway Ferry offer several different boat cruises and ferry crossings in the region, including a regular trip between Torquay and Brixham, which costs just £2 return. Cruising over the estuary, this passenger ferry provides unrivalled views of the coastline. A glimpse of Brixham’s pastel-painted fishermen’s cottages, which rise in steps on the hillside above the harbour, are more than worth the paltry fare, as are the vistas at the other end of the route, which includes the bobbing boats of Torquay’s attractive seafront. During the journey across the estuary, look out for dolphins and seals, which are occasionally spotted in these waters.
If you are hankering for further water adventures, Greenway offers additional cruises, including a trip along the River Dart in the restored World War II heritage ship Fairmile and wildlife boat excursions that take passengers in search of seals, ospreys, dolphins and porpoises. Greenway also operates sunset cruises later in the day, where those on board can toast the end of the day with a drink from the bar and admire the shimmering Torquay Bay as the lights of the town are gradually illuminated behind it.