07/10/2012 07:46 am ET Updated Sep 09, 2012

Cornwall By The Sea And In The Garden

One of England's most dramatic districts, Cornwall lies to the west of London, sticking out into the Atlantic and bordered by it on two coasts. Travelers by train out of Paddington Station would hit the Cornish border in a couple hours, passing first through bucolic Devon. Cornwall ends, appropriately, at Land's End, the furthest reach of England before arriving in America.

It all makes for a perfect weekend trip outside London. While many visitors and residents of the city alike head to the idyllic Cotswold countryside, Cornwall has been perceived as a little too rustic, remote and rugged. But that is changing. The Tate famously opened an outpost in St. Ives, former supermodel Jean Shrimpton owns an inn in Penzance, the popular TV series "Doc Martin" displays the charm of the fishing village Port Isaac where it was filmed, while the Sunday Times recently ran a story about Cornish cottages renting for nearly $15,000 a week. The Big Time has arrived.

"Cornwall is where the Industrial Revolution began," claims Toby Ashworth, owner of The Nare which calls itself a country house hotel by the sea. The patio here offers sweeping views of Gerran's Bay as it curves all the way from Nare's Head and off to Falmouth in the distance. The steam engine was first used here to haul water out of mines, and fans of the British TV series "Poldark" can visit the Poldark tin mine.

Ashworth informally provides excursions to guests not keen on driving the often one-lane roads through the countryside. I was part of a small group that spent a day sampling nearby gardens which are amongst the most acclaimed anywhere.

Our tour of the Caerhays Castle Gardens was led by the owner, Charles Williams. His ancestors have owned the castle (the home of Laurance Olivier and his new bride Joan Fontaine in the film "Rebecca") and its 120 acres of garden for more than 150 years. In the early 1900s they sent plant hunters to Asia to find exotic seeds, which they planted and hybridized back in Cornwall. Today Caerhays Castle Gardens are home to the United Kingdom's National Collection of Magnolias with more than 60 species and 450 named hybrids, some titled after the Williams family. After tramping through the grounds, Lord and Lady Williams invited us into the castle for lunch.

We toured the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the Victorian estate Lanhydrock and the modern marvel The Eden Project with its biomes (giant geodesic domes) celebrating nature in all its variety, from the largest rainforest "in captivity" to a Mediterranean village.

We returned to The Nare in time for tea. The scones and shortbread were fresh-baked, the jams homemade and the Cornish cream, courtesy of the cows on the hillside, set out in big heaping bowls. As others strolled the broad beach below, I reached for more.