Our arrival in Shaldon instantly put me into a holiday mood. Driving over the bridge from Teignmouth, the harbour sparkling in the sunshine, we entered the village in full celebratory swing, bedecked in bunting for the annual Shaldon regatta, with sailors spilling out of the pubs. The road got narrower and narrower, and just as I thought we’d have to get out of the car and walk, we turned the corner and there was the hotel.
Built in 1812 as a summer home for Lord Clifford, the Ness stands above the village, apart not just in location but in style too. In the heart of the village it’s all pastel Georgian cottages, while the Ness looks like a colonial villa, with a wrought iron balcony running round the front and sides.
If there’s one word to sum up this nine-room property it’s “jaunty”. They’ve taken the nautical theme and run with it. There are upturned boats for seats in the dining room; the stairway and landings are covered in sea charts and photos of boats and bathers; and every spare space is covered with quotes – “Work like a captain, play like a pirate!” – and “Gone sailing!” signs. Given that half the village had actually gone sailing it felt just the right side of naff.
In our room there was more seaside paraphernalia – above the pale blue tongue and groove on the bedroom walls, the dado rail supported a legion of wooden boats and birds, starfish and glass bottles of shells. We had views of the harbour from our balcony, bed and the freestanding copper bath – even the TV was screening webcam footage of the fishing boats zipping out to sea.
Sitting on our balcony at sunset, watching the sky turn pink, a soundtrack of waves and screeching seagulls, it was all going swimmingly. Until dinner. Whoever is in charge of the food at Dorset-based brewery Hall & Woodhouse, which owns the Ness, needs a good talking to. Every aspect of our meal was bad – the menu a sorry selection of uninspiring pub food: potato skins, kebabs (“make it a main with an extra kebab!”), pineapple upside down cake. I had the seabass, which was overdone; my partner had an overcooked steak. If the food had been better, I might not have noticed the terrible music or our waiter calling us “guys” with each visit to our table.
The brewery clearly thinks it can get away with churning out substandard food – the Ness’s idyllic setting makes it a popular spot; the night we stayed it had 140 people in the restaurant. But in a town that has built a reputation as a foodie hotspot, this prime venue is letting the side down.
We retired to our room and, calmed by the comfortable bed and the sounds of the sea, I was prepared to forgive and forget. Until breakfast, which was woeful: a 1970s-style spread of tinned peaches, grapefruit and prunes, stale croissants, and a plate of sweaty cheese and ham. When my eggs finally arrived they were overdone. Until the chef is given free rein to create dishes using fresh ingredients, I’d recommend eating out in the evening and skipping breakfast.
Directly behind the hotel is Ode cafe, sister to award-winning Ode restaurant in the village, where you will get decent coffee and a good breakfast with a similar view.
Despite grey skies and rain in the morning, we decided to head out. I felt a pang of guilt that I’d left my five-year-old with his grandma because Shaldon is a brilliant place for kids. Directly behind the hotel is Shaldon zoo, specialising in endangered species, and behind the zoo is the Smugglers’ Tunnel. Built in the 1860s, it cuts through the cliff to Ness cove, a red-sand beach. Now thoroughly soaked from the sheeting rain, we wandered through the village in search of tea, past the fudge shop, several pubs, snazzy beach huts that can be rented out, and the gift shop – selling, what else? “Gone sailing” signs.
Shaldon is idyllic but has been mysteriously bypassed by the tourist trail. Once the Ness sorts out its food, it’ll be a great place for enjoying this gem of a seaside village.
•Accommodation was provided by The Ness (doubles from £85 including breakfast), 01626 873 480,theness.co.uk
Ask a local
Tim Bouget, chef owner of Ode restaurant
Shaldon is known as a drinking village with a fishing problem. We have five pubs. My favourite is the London Inn on the green. In the summer they put on a play for kids, Zebediah Hook, every Wednesday.
The Shaldon-Teignmouth ferry is the oldest passenger ferry in England. It takes a few minutes and drops you off near the Crab Shack restaurant in Teignmouth. Wander over to the pier where you can play the arcade games.
As well as the sailing regatta in the last week of August, we have a Water Carnivalon 1 August, where boats are decorated, and there are games, shows and food and drink on the beach.