For those living in Cornwall, the A39 – or more fondly labelled Atlantic Highway – is a mere transport route to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’, but if you’re visiting Cornwall and have time to explore, we’re sure you’ll appreciate its splendour. Passing through rolling fields, with snippets of the sea (particularly visible if you’re in a higher vehicle), and the occasional quaint Cornish village, the route begins in neighbouring Devon before winding down south.
A 70-mile strip that runs from Barnstaple to Newquay, for the must-see sights in Cornwall you’ll need to deviate slightly from the A39 to head for coastal vistas and the best seaside spots, a few of which are reached by narrower country roads.
We’ve rounded up 10 beauty spots which run along this rugged stretch on the north Cornwall coast, for an epic Atlantic Highway road trip to remember. Tackling these 10 stops in a day would be challenging to say the least, why not book yourself a short break in Cornwall to experience this scenic stretch of the country to the fullest? You’ll also find our recommendations on the best places to eat along the way…
Hawker's Hut at Morwenstow, Cornwall © National Trust Images Chris Lacey
Our first stop as we cross from Devon to Cornwall (hoorah!) see us take a pit stop in magical Morwenstow. Turning off the A39 at Crimp, it’s a three mile drive to the parish of Morwenstow off the main road.
Steeped in history, it’s home to the smallest building that the National Trust owns, Hawker’s Hut. Built on a cliff top by Reverend Hawker in 1843 out of driftwood, there’s also some breath-taking walks to be enjoyed here. The church is in a rather enviable coastal position too and worth a visit as it’s been standing for over a thousand years.
The first beach resort town in Cornwall you’ll reach, just moments off the Atlantic Highway, is beautiful Bude. A must-stop for your Cornwall road trip, just over a mile off the A39 and you’ll be in the thick of it, from the iconic Bude seapool, dramatic award-winning beaches loved by surfers, families and dogs too, an impressive castle and collection of independent boutiques to visit. Whether it’s a short break in Cornwall out of season, of week-long Cornish holiday in the summer, be sure to have Bude on your radar.
Where to eat: From Wednesday to Sunday, you’ll find wonderful baked goods, chunky bacon sandwiches, dhal pasties and more at the fabulous Electric Bakery. If it’s slap-up seafood you’re after, head to Potters.
Book a short stay in Bude
Widemouth Bay is adjacent to Bude and definitely worthy of a road trip pit stop. Pronounced wid-muth and not wide-mouth, drive through Bude and you’ll follow a breath-taking coastal road to this beachside village. With a laidback vibe, there’s a handful of cafes and bars, but it’s all about the beaches, Widemouth Bay and Black Rock which are connected at low tide. A two mile drive south will see you back on the Atlantic Highway for more Cornwall road trip adventures.
Book a short stay in Widemouth Bay
Penkenna Point, Crackington Haven ©National Trust Images Sue Brackenbury
A tiny coastal village, with a rather humorous name, Crackington Haven is a rugged example of north Cornwall’s beauty just a three mile diversion from the Atlantic Highway. A somewhat secluded retreat, Crackington was originally a small port for coal, slate and limestone, but never expanded. The beach itself is dominated by majestic cliffs, a tell-tale sign of the strenuous walks that can be enjoyed around here.
A five mile diversion from the Atlantic Highway will take you to Boscastle. Postcard perfect, beautiful Boscastle sits at the bottom of Valency Valley, with its captivating medieval harbour. While there is no beach, there is a blowhole beyond the outer harbour wall, and visitors will enjoy simply meandering this charming Cornish harbour village with a small collection of pubs, cafes and shops. For those that want to clock up the steps, head for the South West Coast Path to really feel the burn.
Where to eat: The Rocket Store’s small blackboard menu changes daily depending on what fresh produce is available and come highly recommended.
Book a short break in Boscastle
Tintagel Castle's new bridge, Island Courtyard for English Heritage
Five miles off of the A39, follow the B263 to reach Tintagel, a village like no other and a worthy pitstop on your Atlantic Highway road trip. It’s best known for the medieval Tintagel Castle owned by English Heritage; a place where history meets legend, it’s a pretty spectacular coastal location oozing magic.
Tintagel has a legendary reputation built up around the mythical tale exciting legend of King Arthur, Merlin and Excalibur. Small but mighty, it won’t take you long to explore Tintagel’s beauty, making it a tempting location for a short break in Cornwall.
Where to eat: On the outskirts of Tintagel, you’ll find Tintagel Brewery Bar & Bistro which is famed for its home-brewed beers and Wagyu beef.
15 minutes from the Atlantic Highway, Port Isaac is one of Cornwall’s picturesque villages and has become a household name by the hugely TV series, Doc Martin, where it’s fictionally known as Portwenn.
Starting as a fishing village in the 14th century, it’s full of history, and is one of those Cornish beauty spots that has to be seen to be believed. You won’t want to drive down to the centre though, as the village comprises of tiny passageways with charming higgledy-piggledy cottages. Visitors will appreciate the quaint and quintessential vibe of this bustling little village, which is reminiscent of times gone by.
Still on the north coast, pretty Padstow is a must-visit Cornish town, but it can get very busy during the summer making it a great destination for a short break in Cornwall out of season. Just six miles from the A39, Padstow Harbour is a hub of activity, whatever time of year, with an array of fishing boats and quintessential Cornish charm reeling visitors in.
It’s a traditional Cornish fishing town in many ways, and you’ll often find visitors enjoying fish and chips on the harbour-front while the collection of boats bob up and down on the water. The houses surrounding the harbour are painted in bright colours, adding to the charm and character of the town, too.
Book a short break in Padstow
As you approach the end of the Atlantic Highway, before well-known Newquay, is Mawgan Porth, Cornish for bay or harbour. A five mile detour from the Atlantic Highway, you’ll pass Cornwall’s only airport, Newquay airport as you navigate your way to Mawgan Porth.
A prime example of the dramatic north Cornish coast, the beach here is breathtakingly beautiful. The beach certainly takes centre stage here, offering stunning views all-year round for those looking for a short break in Cornwall.
Where to eat: If you’re looking to grab and go Beach Box offers flavoursome takeaways to get you refuelled and back on the road.
Newquay is where the epic Atlantic Highway ends, and what a destination to finalise your Cornish road trip? As with many Cornish towns, historically Newquay was a fishing port, which is where its name derives as the town’s ‘new quay’ was funded in the 1400s.
Nowadays, it’s most famed for the awesome Newquay beach scene, but this surfing destination offers something for everyone, whether it’s a week-long family break, a short stay in Cornwall, or a day trip. With attractions galore, coastal walks and wonderful independent eateries, there’s a real buzz here and an array of things to do making it a must see when visiting Cornwall.
Where to eat: The Fish House, which overlooks stunning Fistral Beach is not to be missed, while The Boathouse on Newquay Harbour offers a relaxed vibe, with a global mix of vendors offering street food on the beach.
Book a short stay in Newquay
Enjoy a short break in Cornwall with Cornish Secrets