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Devon - staying south in the two coast county

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There is so much to do in Devon, the county of two coasts, that one holiday is not enough. The writer looks at the bottom half of this great West County draw, from the palm-tree fringed English Riviera of Torbay to Dartmoor's noble wilderness, from a mistress of murder to a wonder aquarium.

Sleep Easy

One of the great British travel experiences is back, spruced up and refreshed.
The old train was ailing; there were fears the service might be axed. But in 2008 First Great Western
re-launched the Night Riviera Sleeper
between London Paddington and Devon and Cornwall, complete with new
colour scheme and carpets, and that ''funny little basin you supposed to wash
your face in'' from Cats. It may look like one of the rare luxuries surviving from
the great old days of train travel. But the overnight journey west (saving a
night in a hotel into the bargain) now makes excellent cost cutting sense, as
petrol prices soar.
Leaving Paddington at 11:45pm, you reach Devon in time for early breakfast.
0845 678 6980. www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk
During the day direct trains run from S.Wales, the Midlands, and the North to
Devon stations. Whenever you go, be sure to be awake for the dramatic
section between Dawlish and Teignmouth, where the railway hugs the coast,
under a red Devon cliff.

Mistress of Murder.

Murderers and super sleuths stalk Torbay at the annual Agatha Christie
Festival in September. The Queen of Crime was born in
Torquay in 1890, and her birthday is celebrated with walks, talks, a Cluedo
championship, a murder mystery event and a classic car treasure hunt. Picnic
in the grounds of Oldway Mansion and watch, in the open air, something like ''Appointment
With Death'' (Peter Ustinov as Poirot). There are tea dances in Oldway
ballroom, where Agatha danced. Her classics are also screened at the tiny
cinema at the Blue Walnut Café. A coastal cruise takes in Greenway, her
summer home. The National trust reopens Greenway in 2009, after restoration:
the splendid gardens are open year round. www.NationalTrust.org.
Agatha attractions available at any time include the Christie walk around the
Torquay seafront, and her story told in Torquay Museum.

Relax on the Riviera.

The proof is in the palm trees. Torquay has always had the climate to back
its claim to rival the South of France resorts. Now all of Torbay is marketed as
the ''English Riviera''. (That includes Brixham, with its pretty harbour and the
buzz of one of Britain''s busiest fishing ports. And Paignton, with its long,
sandy beaches, and paddler-friendly waters, as well as 22 miles of coastline.)
Torquay’s Hotel Gleneagles, the inspiration for Fawlty Towers, was recently
refurbished, but without Basil''s endearing managerial style.
(Www.englishriviera.co.uk.) In 2007 Torbay became one of only 53
geoparks in the world (just six in the UK). This is global recognition for the
good work local agencies do to promote this beautiful bay’s amazing geology.
There are traces of once tropical seas and scorching deserts, raised beaches and
drowned forests, hippopotami and mammoth, straight-tusked elephant and
sabre-toothed tigers. www.englishrivierageopark.org.uk. Kents Cavern’s
Palaeolithic caves, near Torquay, has lot to see.

Plymouth Ho!

One of my great memories of childhood holidays in Devon was climbing to the
lantern room atop Smeaton''s lighthouse on Plymouth Hoe. Transplanted stone
by stone in the 1880s from the Eddystone reef, it was recently restored. And
it’s just as far from the ground. Adult, £2; Child, £1.
Plymouth is the big wet weather day-out draw of South Devon holidays.
Star attraction is the National Marine Aquarium, opened in the 1990s with a
serious conservation brief. New in 2008 was the 4D Screen on the Sea.
In your virtual dive you “feel” the vibrations from a shark cruising past, and
the spray of a whale crashing into the sea. 4000 creatures from 400 species are shown in habitats ranging from local
shorelines to coral reefs. One of its three gigantic tanks is Britain’s deepest.
Don''t miss shark feeding time – you can walk under the monsters in their
holding tank. Adult £11, Child £6.

Moor Marvel

Dartmoor is Devon''s sudden, thrilling change in geological gear, a wide
wilderness rising to 2000 feet, studded with towering granite tors. And all this
a short hop from the south coast resorts.
Forget the gaunt, grey prison, and the howling Hound of the Baskervilles stereotyping. On
sunny days the moor is a benign maze of pleasant strolls across purple
heather where Dartmoor ponies graze. One knockout attraction is Castle
Drogo, a huge granite castle at Drewsteignton, designed by Lutyens in the
style of a film set medieval castle. The new way to see Dartmoor is by bus
and bike. The Freewheeler bus (summer Sundays) runs from nearby towns,
towing your bike on a trailer. You cycle, or freewheel back down (£5):
www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk. The all-day go anywhere in Devon Explorer ticket
is £6. Family Explorer (up to 5 people travelling together) £16.
www.stagecoachbus.com/devon.
Best bed on the moor is at Gidleigh Park, with its two star Michelin restaurant.

Discover a valley

Among the many charms of south Devon are its river valleys, winding deep
inland under wooded slopes. On the river Exe valley, trains become mobile bird
hides. Ride the Avocet Line from Exeter to Exmouth, and you may spot the
namesake avian among the rich birdlife on the mudflats.
www.nationalrail.co.uk.
The boat trip up the Dart Valley from Dartmouth (an ancient port of tight
streets) to Totnes is my favourite. See it with the Round Robin ticket, which
includes steam trains on the Paignton and Dartmouth Railway. (Adult,
£15.25; child £10.50, www.paignton-steamrailway.co.uk). The South Devon
Railway runs steam trains from Totnes to Buckfastleigh. The Tamar Valley,
from Plymouth, includes the UNESCO World Heritage sites, known as the Cornwall and
West Devon Mining Landscape. Devon’s other UNESCO site, the Jurassic Coast, starts
just below Exmouth.
Many of the valleys have vineyards, offering tours and tasting.

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