On a sunny bank holiday weekend, Salcombe Tourist Information Volunteer Jane Tyler is busy pointing holiday makers to local attractions – a dog beach, a pub overlooking the water, the most spectacular section of the South West Coastal Path .
A few days ago, the Halifax mortgage lender revealed that this south Devon yachtie resort is now the UK’s most expensive coastal town to live in, dropping Sandbanks, Dorset, into second place. Jane, who moved from Sandbanks to Salcombe 26 years ago – well ahead of the curve – isn’t surprised.
“Salcombe is definitely nicer than Sandbanks,” he says. She moved in 1997 to set up what is now one of the city’s most popular cafés, The Winking Prawn, just up the coast at North Sands. She also owns the Island Street restaurant in town and volunteers part-time at the information center to help keep it open. “In Salcombe the houses are older and prettier and the town is very picturesque. In Sandbanks it’s all fake tans, jet skis and Porsches – it’s really gaudy. There are still fishermen and boat builders in Salcombe; it’s much more authentic and charming.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Theo Spink, who has lived in Salcombe for 10 years and is director of the Luscombe Maye estate agency. “Yes, you have Grand Design style houses in Salcombe, but it still manages to have a very traditional, old fashioned, bucket and spade feel.”
Theo says Halifax’s findings are heavily skewed by Salcombe’s handful of multimillion-dollar waterfront properties (it currently has a two-bed waterfront penthouse on its books for £2.6m). Pastel-coloured cottages in the city centre, meanwhile, average around £600,000, nearly a haircut, but half the £1.2m average.
Theo estimates that more than 80% of his sales are from holiday home purchases, but is quick to defend suggestions that tourism is ruining the city. “Tourism drives most of the industry in Salcombe. The locals are totally dependent on it. Most of us wouldn’t be able to live here without it,” he says.
I ask Jane about the claims that Salcombe becomes a ‘ghost town’ in winter, in the lull between tourist seasons. “It’s much quieter,” she says. “But this is the case in all coastal cities. When I first opened The Winking Prawn we only opened for the summer as business completely died in the winter. Now we open all year round because there is more demand, and the shops remain open, even if with reduced hours. Second homeowners are as important here as locals because they keep us going. Many of them have been coming here for generations and have a real passion for this city. We all love it and contribute to it.
Jane’s colleague Sarah Burnett, who has lived in Salcombe for 50 years, agrees: ‘Salcombe is much busier now, but the essence of it hasn’t changed. Its beauty is still breathtaking: house prices don’t spoil these incredible views.”
So how to avoid the crowds? Visit outside the school holidays if you can. If you can’t, make the most of the city in the morning before the hordes descend, and schedule beach visits during low tide when there’s plenty of sand to spread out on. Alternatively, hop on the passenger ferry to East Portlemouth, where the beaches are quieter and offer picture-perfect views to Salcombe across the water. For total solitude, put on your walking boots and walk the South West Coastal Path to find your own little piece of peace and quiet.
Salcombe’s three alternatives
Twenty miles up the coast from Salcombe on the River Dart, Dartmouth offers a similar nautical feel, fresh and salty, with sparkling seas, narrow lanes, boutique shops, art galleries and a busy calendar of cultural events, including a sailing regatta and Festival food. There are many walks along the water (take the ferry to Agatha’s Christie’s house, Greenway, for the best views), but you’ll need to travel for the beach. Blackpool Sands is a firm favourite: this privately owned shingle crescent, immaculately clean and protected by forest, is a 10-minute drive from Dartmouth.
Highlights in and around the town itself include a visit to Dartmouth Castle and Bayards Cove, a tour of Dartmouth Naval College and wine tasting at nearby Sharpham Estate. Book dinner at Andria or The Seahorse, which serves seafood cooked over an open charcoal fire. Or, for a gourmet meal with a twist, charter the new Banquet Boat, which cruises down the River Dart in the spring and summer months. The best places to stay are the Dart Marina Hotel or Kaywana Hall B&B, across the water in Kingswear.
With a train station at its heart and plenty of cheap parking, this Victorian seaside resort south of Exeter is at the start of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Jurassic Coast and is a breeze to navigate the lanes at a Salcombe platform.
The biggest draw is the two-mile gently sloping swath of sand offering safe swimming, rock pools and a new waterside complex including an art gallery, water sports center and stylish brasserie- glass-fronted cake shop run by celebrity chef Michael Caines. Exmouth isn’t the chi-chi like Salcombe, but it has a charming town square and excellent restaurants abound, including the floating River Exe café, accessible by water taxi, Mitch Tonks’ Rockfish and the beautiful two Michelin-starred Lympstone Manor, just above the Exe estuary. If your budget doesn’t run out, settle into the Globe or Salutation Inn in pretty Topsham, just up the road.
Just over the border in Dorset, Lyme Regis is a beauty, with sandy and shingle beaches, pastel terraced houses, Regency villas, tea rooms, beach huts and crumbling limestone cliffs encrusted with fossils. Sea-to-fork restaurants, independent shops and designer B&Bs make it a great Salcombe alternative. The best spot for lunch is Town Mill Bakery, which serves specialty breads and still-warm scones at trestle tables. As for boutique places to stay, choose from Dorset House or Hotel Alexandra, a family-run B&B with far reaching views over Cobb’s harbor wall and Lyme Bay.