Like most jaw-dropping vistas, Saunton Sands is best viewed from above. In this case, from its northern tip atop the winding cliff roads in Saunton – a tiny hamlet wedged between Braunton and Croyde on Devon’s north coast. Below, a vast belt of pristine sand runs ruler-straight before graduating into a tide-worn curve that, over three miles on, thins to form Crow Point; a sandy hook bounded by the sea and the Taw and Torridge Estuaries. Natural beauty abounds. At low tide, the waves roll back to reveal some 2,500,00 square metres of golden beach, backed by Braunton Burrows, the largest sand dune system in England.
In the glow of the late summer sunshine, this endless carpet of soft, sandy grassland takes on an otherworldly magic. A classified Area of Outstanding Beauty, the Burrows lie at the heart of the 55 square mile UNESCO designated North Devon Biosphere Reserve, home to 63 sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) including wild flowers, insects and rare species of butterfly.
This is nature’s playground at its most breathtaking, and the huge expanse of sand means there’s room for everyone. The gentle waves are ideal for beginners and long-boarders, with the option to dial up the adrenaline in nearby Croyde or Bude if bigger breaks are your thing.
Hire a beach hut, have a picnic, pedal through mudflat estuaries and hazel coppices as part of the nearby Tarka Cycle Trail or sink a few balls at Saunton Golf Club in the heart of the Burrows – it’s all here. With a clutch of top-notch cafés and restaurants within minutes’ drive, there’s little to do but surrender to simple beach living, Saunton Sands-style.
6PM Checking in
The sticky, stop-start circus of the M25 feels a lifetime away as we arrive at Chalet Saunton; seven luxury self-catering apartments perched on Saunton’s cliff-tops. Rooms are spacious, minimal and filled with lavish touches – everything from Nespresso machines and crisp cotton bedding to underfloor heating, wine cooler fridges and floor-to-ceiling windows that flood each room with natural light bounced straight from the sea.
Chalet Saunton is a slice of coastal decadence – and there’s nothing to prepare you for the breathtaking views. Beyond the lawns fronting our apartment roll only sand, sky and sea, stretching out like an infinity pool from beneath our feet. This is the house that Tim Fleming built. The property developer grew up on this very site and spent his childhood running down to surf on one of the south-west’s finest beaches. Redeveloping his family home as a chic, slate-grey ‘Apart-Hotel’ in 2017, Tim has refined the same sea views for couples and families alike, adding the kind of plush home comforts you’d find at a five-star retreat. We make a delicious supper, then throw open the balcony doors, grab a bean bag and listen to the sound of crashing waves under a navy, star-studded sky.
9AM Surf safari
After coffee and toast, it’s a two-minute walk across the garden and down a path to the beach car park, which also features a surf hire shop, café-restaurant, ice-cream kiosk, showers and toilets. I’m taking a surf lesson with Walking on Waves Surf School, which is owned by former British and European surf champion, Sarah Whiteley. My coach is England SUP pro Max Shepherd, who’s sussed out the best tides to get a scaredy-cat like me to her feet. Wetsuit on, we hop into a sand-battered Land Rover. From May-October, Walking on Waves runs Surf Safaris, which take you a mile up the beach for a two-hour private lesson away from the crowds. After running through the basics on the wet sand, I wade in. The waves are forgiving and gently whoosh me to my knees before I keel over – again and again – into the foamy shallows. Well, it’s a start, and the off-grid beach drive is a unique way to soak up this mighty stretch of coast. A one-hour group lesson costs around £40pp (07786 034403, walking-on-waves.com/).
1PM Seafood al fresco
After a quick shower at Chalet Saunton with full appreciation for the marble bathroom and Ila apothecary shower products, I head back down the cliffs again for lunch at the Beachside Grill. Here, dishes are slow-smoked over a hickory wood then grilled over open flames for a gorgeous smoky flavour. I try a small starter of grilled jumbo shrimp served with leaves, mozzarella and tomato and, for mains, Blackened Cajun Monkfish Tail served on a pancetta cassoulet. Grab a sea-facing balcony table and check the website for opening times and latest menu (01271 891288, beachsidegrill.co.uk).
3PM Visiting the Museum of British Surfing
If barrelling waves are scarce, it’s worth a two-mile trip to Braunton to see where it all began. The Museum of British Surfing is a charity set up to preserve and celebrate the UK’s rich surf heritage, which dates back to the 1700s. As well as classic photos and retro surfing memorabilia, the museum holds the largest collection of vintage surfboards in Europe. Entry is free for young surf dudes who can play pinball and design their own surf board (01271 815155, museumofbritishsurfing.org.uk).
8AM Coffee & cliff hike
We pass an hour or two – early morning cuppas in hand – simply staring at the sea’s ebb and flow. The South West Coast Path runs across our doorstep so we decide to walk to Croyde, clambering up cliff-tops patched with yellow gorse.
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2PM Lunch at the local pub
Before hitting the road we head to The Rock Inn. The 17th century pub, based in the tiny village of Georgeham, is famed for its Sunday roasts, local ales and a lengthy wine list. We grab a seat by the fire and try a starter of parsnips fried in chilli and ginger served with halloumi and a curry caramel glaze. The cheesey-mash topped Rock Inn Fish Pie lived up to its reputation (01271 890322, therockinn.biz). We hug the coastal road on our way out of North Devon, bottle the vistas and wish we could do it all again.
WHERE TO STAY IN SAUNTON SANDS?
Saltwater Living stayed at Chalet Saunton. Book a stay at Chalet Saunton from around £500 per night in a three-bedroom apartment (which sleeps six) on a self-catering basis (01271 890514, chaletsaunton.com).
HOW TO GET TO SAUNTON SANDS
By car: from the M5 head onto the A361 at Junction 27. Follow the road for 37 miles until Barnstaple, then pass through Braunton to Saunton. The nearest train station is Barnstaple (30 minutes’ drive), which has links to London Paddington changing at Exeter St Davids.
FIND OUT MORE
To find out more information about the region, go to northdevon.com