With rollercoasters, rockpooling and reptiles aplenty, there’s no chance you’ll run out of things to do in Devon. This unspoilt county, in the southwest of the UK, has expansive moorlands, ancient sites and wide beaches that are guaranteed to delight the whole family.
Kids will adore this real-life treasure hunt searching for 200m-year-old relics before they are washed away. Some Devon beaches were once the seabed itself and are now studded with ancient sea-life fossils, carried in with every new tide. Eagle-eyed hunters can search for fossilised sea urchins or even the preserved backbones of the marine reptile ichthyosaurs, famously discovered here in the early 1800s by 12-year-old Mary Anning, who became a renowned fossil hunter.
There’s much more to beaches than sandcastles. When the waves retreat at low tide on the pebbly Shoalstone Beach, a blanket of rock pools is revealed, hiding an underwater universe of darting, crawling creatures lurking below. Scramble over slippery rocks, lift stones and peer through seaweed to spy crabs, limpets, starfish and anemones. Curious children can carefully fish out their discoveries in a bucket for closer inspection, but should return all they find to the water afterwards.
Long before geocaching, there was letterboxing, which began on the wild expanse of Dartmoor in 1854. Small boxes containing an ink stamp and book are hidden all over the moor for intrepid ramblers and energetic families to discover, either by following clues or getting lucky. Finders can stamp a scrapbook to remember the day, then leave their own mark in the book for others, before continuing on past vast mossy heathlands, babbling streams, wild ponies and mystical stone circles.
Get a taste of life as lord or lady of the manor at the exquisite Powderham Castle, a regal 600-year-old family home on the banks of the River Exe. Though castle tours provide a fascinating glimpse of the castle’s historical grandeur, families will find most of the fun outdoors with a petting zoo, wooden fort, zip wire, surprise theatre performances and deer park safaris laid on to keep all ages happy.
Bring history to life on an idyllic journey on this traditional steam train, which chugs soothingly past grazing cows, vivid green meadows and glassy rivers reflecting the sky. Alight at Totnes Riverside station to visit the charming Rare Breeds Farm where all the family will coo over dignified owls, fluffy baby ducks, bleating pygmy goats and snuffling pigs. Finish with a hearty cream tea beside the railway tracks – remember the cream goes before the jam in Devon.
Polish off your best pirate impression for a visit to the Golden Hind, a full-size replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Tudor galleon moored in Brixham’s bustling harbour. The original ship was the first English vessel to circumnavigate the globe in 1577 and the five decks of this replica recreate the sights, sounds and smells of that voyage with on-board quizzes and interactive activities to keep children interested. Wander picturesque Brixham afterwards for pastel-coloured cottages, coastal walks and superb seafood restaurants.
If being close to the sea has got the kids intrigued about what lies beneath, Britain’s largest aquarium in Plymouth’s Sutton Harbour has all the answers. They can find Nemo’s lookalike relatives, get up close and personal with jellyfish, stingrays and turtles and even watch five species of shark glide past in the UK’s deepest tank.
Although tales of distant big cat sightings on nearby Exmoor have been shared since medieval times, the area’s renowned zoo is the only place in the UK anyone is guaranteed to spot a pair of black leopards. Visitors can participate in interactive sessions, hear wildlife talks and watch feeding sessions or stroll secluded paths through dense vegetation to see animals including cheetahs, alpacas, howler monkeys and red-necked wallabies.
Sheltered by fragrant pine trees, the postcard-perfect Blackpool Sands Beach is a heavenly crescent of pebbly gold lapped by water so clear it has been awarded a Blue Flag. There’s a shop and café for keeping the family topped up with lollies and drinks, handy showers and parking. Kayaks, paddleboards and wetsuits can be easily hired for the more adventurous.
For a day out with a difference, Kents Cavern transports you straight back to the Stone Age with a sprawling system of caves once inhabited by prehistoric people and Ice Age animals. Expect to hear stories of ancient bone discoveries, dodge round spooky rock formations and even experience total darkness when torches are turned off in the heart of the caves, Britain’s oldest Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Thrill-seekers are in for a treat at Crealy, the biggest theme park in Devon, just a 10-minute drive from Exeter. Rides include the hair-raising Twister with over 310m (1,017ft) of winding track, the log flume and the whirling Maximus Rollercoaster, though smaller (or easily scared) visitors can stick to the splash zone, soft play, go-karts and mini-zoo instead.