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Top 10 things to do on the Helford

The Helford really does seem to have it all: secluded creeks and tiny coves, mile upon mile of coastal path for stomping, historic homes and gardens to wander, brilliant places to eat and drink, and lovely beaches for swimming and watersports. If you’re planning a trip to the area and are seeking some holiday inspiration, look no further — here’s our guide to things to do on the Helford.

Explore subtropical gardens

Thanks to the mild climate, Cornwall is packed with beautiful gardens housing rare species that don’t thrive elsewhere in the UK, and the Helford is no exception. A particularly special example is the National Trust’s Glendurgan Gardens, a lush, tropical valley that meanders down to the little fishing cove of Durgan, with a secondhand bookshop and a 180-year old laurel maze. In spring, there are carpets of bluebells and primroses; in summer, cool and tranquil woodland glades, and ice cream on the beach.

Next door, the 26-acre Trebah Gardens is packed with 100-year old rhododendrons, giant gunneras and an entire valley of hydrangeas. It also has a private beach, an award-winning cafe, and a children’s playground with wooden forts, rope swings and an aerial slide.

Walk the coastal path

Aerial view of the Helford River close to dog friendly holiday cottage called Little Wood On The Helford

The Helford was made for walking: ancient woodlands, quiet fishing coves, beautiful views — and plenty of good watering holes to stop off at for lunch or an end of walk pint. From the Lizard Peninsula, the South West Coast Path follows the southern banks of the river to Helford, where it crosses the river to Helford Passage on the north of the river (between Easter and October there’s a passenger ferry to take walkers over) before continuing eastwards towards Falmouth. It’s one of the most tranquil sections of the entire 630-mile coastal path and hugs the river the entire way, winding through ancient oak woodland, skirting round tiny coves like Bosahan on the south and Porth Saxon on the north, and passing right in front of some of the best places to eat on the Helford.

Although the coastal path doesn’t cover the western half of the Helford making more difficult to explore on foot, there are various access points which allow you to reach the river and a number of beautiful walks, including a woodland walk to Scott’s Quay near Constantine, a walk from Helford to Frenchman’s Creek, immortalised in the Daphne du Maurier novel, and the beautiful woodland walk to Tremayne Quay. Between Easter and September you can start this walk from the Trelowarren Estate. Visit the Flora Cafe for pastries and coffee beforehand.

Soak up the Helford from the water

The 90-minute trips with Helford River Cruises are a great way to explore the secluded creeks that line the Helford. Putter down the river, ogle at the waterside mansions with grounds that stretch to the river, past the gardens of Trebah and Glendurgan. Spot herons, little egrets, kingfishers, cormorants. The incredibly jolly Roger at the helm is a font of knowledge on all things Helford — this is a history lesson and wildlife-watching trip in one. And it’s just as fun for children — those on best behaviour may even be given the chance to steer the boat.

Helford River

After something a little less leisurely? The friendly team at August Rock Adventures run tailor-made RIB boat trips around the Helford, exploring the Helford River, Carrick Roads and Falmouth Bay with the chance to spot dolphins, seals and amazing birdlife along the shores and out at sea.

South Cornwall-based Koru Kayaking run guided kayak and paddleboarding trips from a private beach near Mawnan Smith. The two-hour trips are a great introduction to the area: paddle past oyster farms and the ancient woodlands that line the Helford and down Frenchman’s Creek — see wonderful wildlife (sometimes a seal might pop up to say hello), shipwrecks, hidden creeks, and the chance for a dip on warm days. 

Explore the river beaches

The Helford is lined with dozens of little beaches, some of them popular swimming spots and busy in peak season, others tiny, hidden slices of shingle just metres wide. Whatever the season, you’ll always be able to find your own private cove, and one of the greatest joys of the Helford is ambling along the coastal path without a plan and making your own discoveries.

On the northern banks of the river you’ll find a string of lovely beaches between Helford Passage and Mawnan, where the river meets the sea just south of Falmouth. They’re all an easy walk from each other along the coast path, and favourites include Grebe, with the towering Scots Pine trees and ancient oaks lining the water, dinky Durgan next door with its picture perfect hamlet of stone cottages, and pretty Porth Saxon. To the south are some beautiful pebble beaches between the village of Helford and St Anthony at the mouth of the river, including Padgagarrack Cove, Bosahan Cove and Ponsence Cove.

Visit the Cornish Seal Sanctuary

In nearby Gweek, at the head of the Leford, the Cornish Seal Sanctuary is a great day out for families. Dozens of rescued otters, sea lions, penguins and seals, and is dedicated to educating people on the struggles of marine life and why conservation for these animals is so important. Visit the penguins at feeding time, become a keeper for a day and see seals on their way to recovery at the seal hospital. You’ll need a few hours to wander around the various pools, and there are nature trails, a team of brilliant, informative staff who hold interesting talks about the sanctuary and its inhabitants throughout the day, and a good cafe serving vegan food.

Pamper yourself

On a quiet bend of the northern banks of the Helford river and surrounded by 65 acres of parkland and gardens, the beautiful Budock Vean Hotel has a number of day packages at its natural spa available for non guests, with treatment rooms, sauna and spa lounge, as well as an indoor heated swimming pool and outdoor hot tub with views across the gardens. The ‘Refresh & Reset’ package includes a two-hour spa session followed by a Prosecco lunch, whilst the ‘Healing with the Seasons’ includes a Rejuvenate & Radiate facial treatment. Afterwards, meander through the gardens down to the hotel’s private stretch of river or stop for a Cornish cream tea at the award-winning restaurant.

Slightly north of the Helford near the village of Constantine, the beautiful Retallack Woodland Quarry Spa is a stunning all-natural spa set in the grounds of an old granite quarry with a spring-fed swimming lake, wood-fired hot tub and sauna. It’s available to hire for groups, weddings and parties. A little further east at Maenporth, at the mouth of the Helford, a traditional wigwam has been converted into a wood-fired sauna. Rentable by the hour, it’s set just paces from the sea, so you can follow your sauna session with a refreshing dunk in the ocean.

Go on a foraging foray

From hedgerows to the rocky shoreline and sandy beaches, there’s an huge variety of plants, fruits, fungi, seaweed and seafood waiting to be discovered along the Helford River. A number of foragers organise walks and seashore safaris here, many of which finish with a cooking lesson on the beach where you’ll learn how to rustle up delicious meals with your foraged finds. One of the best in the area, Cornish Wild Foods run foraging walks on Grebe beach, where you’ll be introduced to all the local wild edibles and learn how to harvest safely, what tools to use and what recipes to follow.

Explore the Lizard Peninsula

The southern banks of the Helford River former the northern reaches of the Lizard Peninsula. It’s a place of wild landscapes, fishing villages like Coverack and Cadgwith, where fishing boats are still hauled up on to the pebbles with their daily catch and sea shanty groups sing every week in the local pubs. The coast path connects a string of quiet coves, which you’ll have to yourself, even in the peak of the summer. You’ll have stretches of coast path entirely to yourself, and there are some brilliant places to eat, from cafes perched on the clifftop and fish and chips in a converted lifeboat station, to award-winning restaurants further inland.

Eat local

Cornwall isn’t short of beautiful waterfront pubs, but the Ferry Boat Inn in Helford Passage has to be up there with the best. This 300-year old pub, right off the beach, is the ultimate summer dining spot — grab a table out front and watch boats sail lazily past and children play on the beach just yards away. The South West Coast Path runs directly in front of the pub, making this a great refuelling stop for a pint and a plate of their legendary truffle chips.

Helford Passage

On the opposite bank, The Shipwrights Arms in Helford has outside terraces for eating when it’s fine, whilst the beautiful, cosy interiors with log fires are perfect for wintertime. The daily changing menu features the likes of Kynance crab, lobster, monkfish and mackerel, hauled onto the pub’s own slipway outside, and there are wood-fired pizzas and barbecue evenings on the terraces in the warmer months.

Topping the list of Helford cafes, the Potager Garden Cafe offers colourful, wholesome, feel-good vegetarian food, much of which comes from the extensive veg gardens, is served in the beautiful converted greenhouses on this former plant nursery, rescued from dereliction 20 years ago. Outside there are hammocks amongst the trees, chickens roaming about and flower gardens to explore. This is a real community hub, with artists’ studios and workshops onsite.

Also in this neck of the woods is the stylish, cedar-clad Slice of Cornwall, popular for its brunch, waffles and amazing cakes — dishes are fresh and packed with flavour. It’s a happy little place with local textiles and pottery for sale on the shelves, and a terrace when the weather’s fine.

Like the sound of the Helford River? Discover beautiful places to stay on and around the Helford.