Most incredible places deserve a full week, at a minimum, to explore properly. But time is often the biggest hurdle to travel. Between job obligations, school and activity schedules, and crappy weather it can be hard to carve out time to travel. Such was the case with our Cornwall vacation. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to dedicate an entire week to explore Cornwall (part of the West Country), we had hoped to spend at least three full days exploring the highlights. But life happens, and suddenly we had a day. From an original plan to leisurely explore Cornwall to a modified highlights tour of the area to our final plan: the ultimate must-sees in a day. Not quite the trip we’d originally envisioned. But as soon as the weather forecast promised sunshine, we rolled into action.
From a list that originally included Minack Theatre, the Lost Gardens of Heligan, Lands’ End, Lizard Point, Beer Quarry Caves, Penzance, and the Bedruthan Steps, we chose only St. Michael’s Mount and Tintagel Castle for our day trip. (Note: The Eden Project never made my list. It’s just not something I’m interested in, but is a popular attraction for people visiting Cornwall.)
St. Michael’s Mount
With no traffic and no stops along the way, it’s possible to make it to St. Michael’s Mount in five and a half hours. But, originating in East Anglia and heading to the far end of the ‘West Country’ typically takes closer to six and a half hours because there is ALWAYS traffic, especially on the M25. Or at least we thought… Turns out, 4AM on a Sunday morning in early July is an excellent time to attempt the drive. Not only was there no traffic, we hardly saw another car for the first half of our journey. Anyone who has young kids can tell you, though, traffic is not the only factor that will slow down a drive. But I’m happy to report that even with two “potty breaks” and a snack stop, we still arrived at St. Michael’s Mount before 11AM and with plenty of time to walk across the causeway at low tide.
St. Michael’s Mount isn’t simply a fascinating castle-esque moated monastery on a hill. It is located just off a beautiful beach and its unique location takes advantage of tides to limit its accessibility throughout the day. The tidal island can only be reached on foot during low tides. A boat is available to ferry people across the rest of the time.
The tide/causeway opening schedule is here and definitely worth noting when planning a trip. My kids loved walking out at low tide and barely making it back out on foot once the tide had started to come back in.
The ‘castle’ itself was less impressive to my kids. Much like touring an English manor house, I found the Mount’s origins much more fascinating than its current form. Believed to have been occupied by a monastic order as early as the 8th century, a priory was built on the site in the 12th century and then rebuilt in the 14th century following a devastating earthquake. It shares its name with the much larger, and more famous, monastic island commune in France: Mont Saint Michel. Edward the Confessor, one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings of England, gave St. Michael’s Mount to the Benedictine order at Mont Saint-Michel in the 11th century. The connection between the two mounts remained until Henry VI gave St. Michael’s Mount to be administered by Syon Monastery in 1424. But by the 16th century ownership of the Mount had reverted back to the Crown and it was soon sold to the St. Aubyn family who have owned it ever since.
Our trek up the mount was the real fun. The National Trust provides kids with a free “Castle Quiz” worksheet with numerous items to find along the path up to the castle and within it. The path up the mount starts out pretty easy but gets much steeper towards the top. We rather quickly toured the castle as my kids were much happier exploring outside. I don’t blame them. The views were spectacular.
St. Michael’s Mount was only the first half of our whirlwind Cornwall adventure. It’s about a 90-minute drive from the Mount to Tintagel Castle. We grabbed a quick bite at a drive thru and headed on our way. If St. Michael’s Mount was breathtaking, Tintagel was epic. While I’d classify it more as an incredibly scenic hike along cliffs overlooking the Atlantic with a few ruins along the way, and less a castle experience—epic is still the word I’d use. And fittingly enough. Legend holds this is the place where King Arthur was conceived. (Since we’re a family blog I won’t get into the details about how Merlin helped Arthur’s father disguise himself and sneak into the castle and bed another king’s wife…)
In trying to trim a trip down from a week-long adventure to a whirlwind day trip, I’d failed to research Tintagel Castle. I knew it was an English Heritage site linked to Arthurian legends and remembered reading something about a windy climb over some rocks. So I knew I wanted to go and that I’d need the husband accompanying me to visit with all three kids. But somehow I completely missed the part about climbing up and down cliffs. Although, I’m not sure my husband would have been as willing to make the trek out to Tintagel Castle if we’d realized what was in store, so perhaps my lack of prior research was a good thing. And now knowing what to expect, I’d still do it again in a heartbeat.
While there’s no way to avoid the climb up and down the cliffs to Tintagel Castle, if you’re not up for the half-mile trek back up the main hill to the town, you can pay a few pounds for the EH land rover shuttle to drive you back. We did.
The views of the Atlantic Ocean were so much more than we’d anticipated. It didn’t hurt that we’d managed to be there on a gorgeous summer day with perfect blue skies. Once you’ve explored the small ruins of Tintagel Castle, you MUST continue your trek along the cliff. Foundational remnants of an ancient village are marked along the way, and if you continue along far enough, you’ll come to a unique sculpture of King Arthur on a ledge overlooking the ocean.
Our afternoon exploring Tintagel was the perfect amount of time to enjoy the area. My only regret was not also making it there at low tide. At low tide, the caves at the base of the cliff can be explored on foot. We will definitely have to go back to explore the caves another time.
A Few Tips for Families with Kids
- We “stroller” almost everywhere. We left our stroller in the car at Tintagel Castle and St. Michael’s Mount. Between the cobblestone causeway and steep incline up the Mount to 250+ steps at Tintagel, a stroller would have been useless. Do wear whichever kid can’t walk 3 miles without collapsing (or complaining endlessly).
- St. Michael’s Mount also is a gorgeous beach (Marazion Beach) at low tide. My kids begged to play in the water when we arrived. And they’re going to see the beach. We walked across it from the parking lot as we made our way to the causeway. If we’d had more time, I might have brought swimsuits and let them play at the beach after exploring the mount.
- In summer, if you visit Tintagel and arrive at low tide, you can head to the beach and explore Merlin’s Cave.
- Bring lots of water.
- Bathrooms. There are toilets just past the National Trust office/entrance at the base of the mount and toilets at the top of the mount. There’s also a tea shop in the parking lot that you could probably ask nicely. The only toilets on the grounds of Tintagel are at the base of the cliffs over a half mile past the English Heritage entrance. There are numerous bakeries and tea rooms near the car park in Tintagel, though, that might let your kids use their facilities.
And here’s a few more photos of Tintagel. Just because it was that incredible. And worth it.