Port Isaac, from the Cornish Porth Izzick meaning “the corn port”, is a medieval village that has been transformed many times by the shifting winds of economics. Since the time of Henry VIII it’s been a busy and vibrant place, importing and exporting all types of goods from its large and (for the north coast) unusually sheltered harbour. In the nineteenth century, this prosperity came to an abrupt end when the railway became a more efficient way of consolidating commercial shipments to larger ports. From then on it was up to the fishing industry to provide for the town. Now that less fishing is done locally and more in the far reaches of the ocean, it’s a small fleet. Tourism has become the mainstay of Port Isaac’s economy.
Port Isaac’s harbour was first enclosed during the reign of Henry VIII, but the original pier and breakwater were replaced in the 19th century with the more robust sea walls we see today. Pilchard fishing began here prior to the 16th century and by 1850 there were at least forty-nine vessels and four fish cellars, but now only a few boats are plying the fishing trade. And pilchards are no longer really a thing. The architecture of the village is one of its attractions, with whitewashed and slate covered cottages. There are currently around ninety Grade II listed buildings.
Kernow’s weather is one of the reasons so many people are inclined to holiday here. The summer sunshine is of course well-known. In fact the climate is milder than in the rest of the UK at any time of year, and the harbours of the north coast are protected from the worst of the prevailing winds. Despite being in a valley, Port Isaac gets the early morning sun, and the sun sets over the headlands in the west, requiring just a short walk to see it settling into the sea instead. For more about the climate of this part of the country, check out our weather page!
Easy to reach by road since it lies just a couple of miles from the A39 Atlantic Highway, Port Isaac sits a third of the way down the north coast of Cornwall. It’s no longer served by the railways that brought about its demise as an industrial port, the nearest station now being Bodmin Parkway. The town is on the bus route from Wadebridge to Camelford, however. The nearest airport is Newquay International Airport some thirty minutes away by car.
Visitors are usually advised to use the large car park at the top of the village and to walk down the hill. The streets are narrow and can be stressful to navigate. There is parking on the beach at the bottom when the tide is out if you are committed to attempting the descent by vehicle! But there is a not-to-be-missed view of the coast from the top car park, as well as easy access either to Port Isaac or Port Gaverne.
Port Isaac is a particularly old village, much of it dating from medieval times. As well as the architecture we can see traditional fishing techniques, with crab pots littering the Platt next to the slip, and the countryside of Kernow is dotted with industrial archaeology. On the moorland to the south-east are barrows and standing stones from pagan prehistory, including The Hurlers (legend has it they are men that were turned to stone for playing a ball game on a Sunday) and Trethevy Quoit.
Port Isaac is very close to Polzeath, one of Cornwall’s premier surfing destinations, and less than an hour from Widemouth/Bude up the coast, or Newquay to the west. There are shed-loads of surfing beaches on the north coast of the county, so you can always find one that suits the swell and wind conditions. Check out our surfing pages…
Nightlife and Pubs
The Golden Lion is an eighteenth century pub with a rich seafaring history and the atmosphere is as piratical as one might hope. It has super views and a secret smuggling tunnel down to the beach!
Cornish Arms – at Pendoggett, not in the village itself – is an attractive pub and a nice place to make a stop on the way in or out of Port Isaac.
The Mote was known for a while as the Wheel House but is now restored to its original name. It’s a seafood restaurant and bar with outstanding credentials.
There are also a number of hotels in the village whose bars are open to non-residents, so you shouldn’t get bored if you like to go from place to place!
Nathan Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen offers his trademark Michelin starred chefing excellence, right by the Platt.
The Edge has amazing views, and for fans of trivia, or TV, it’s where the Doc Martin crew have their wrap party at the end of each series.
The Mote specialises in seafood but the meat-eater won’t be disappointed either. It boasts fantastic views over the sea.
The Slipway is the place for crab and lobster. This small sixteenth-century hotel has some of the best seafood in town and as you have read, that’s up against some pretty illustrious competition!
The Harbour Restaurant is a 15th century building at the water’s edge, offering a fresh and local menu, changing daily. It’s Italian- and French-influenced fare alongside more traditional British dishes.
Port Isaac hosts an unusual number of events of a musical and cultural nature, as well as the regular pub gigs and weekend entertainment of that sort. One of the town’s most famous exports is the sea-shanty singing group The Fisherman’s Friends. In between their touring commitments they can often be found singing on the Platt in Port Isaac throughout the summer. Nearby St Endellion is also worth a mention because of its music festival and other cultural events organised by the church.
Special Things to Do and Visit
Port Isaac Pottery is a showroom and shop in a lovely converted Methodist Chapel, with individual hand thrown and decorated stoneware.
In the summer season you can book fishing trips and other scenic boat outings from Port Isaac’s harbour. Nearby cliffs, islands and wrecks ensure a wealth of sea life and things to see.
The Eden Project is Cornwall’s most popular tourist attraction and not a place to see only once. The evolving and organic nature of its exhibits make it an important part of everyone’s holiday itinerary.
For those of a horticultural bent, there are lovely gardens to visit in Cornwall. Longcross Victorian Garden in Port Isaac is the only public gardens on the north coast, with four acres of splendour above imposing cliffs. Further afield the Lost Gardens of Heligan, Lanhydrock and Pencarrow are all on the plant enthusiast’s must-see list.
Wadebridge and Camelford, both much larger towns with useful things like supermarkets and high street shops, are both about ten miles (16km) distant.
The South West Coast Path shimmies its way through Port Isaac on the section from Tintagel to Padstow (or vice versa), which is a pretty tough day’s march, but it’s one of the most spectacular and interesting bits. Why not do it in two parts? For yet more information, why not take a look at our detailed SWCP page, here…
As we’ve mentioned, Port Isaac has its own beach, but there are many others nearby in both directions along the coast. Polzeath is the nearest surfing beach, and Daymer Bay a classic family “buckets and spades” beach as well as good starting point for long solitary walks. Port Gaverne and Port Quin are lovely secluded inlets.
Your pooch is allowed all the year round on the beach at Port Isaac, as well as on the South West Coast Path. Port Gaverne to the east is also dog-friendly though Port Quin has a seasonal ban from Easter to the 1st October. The same is true of Polzeath Beach, but a little further on at Daymer Bay dogs are allowed at all times all the way to Rock. They may also cross by ferry to Padstow. Usually with a human, but in some cases not. For a full run-down of the canine-friendly beaches around the Cornish coastline, see our special page here…
Children love Port Isaac beach at low tide, enjoying the sand, the stream and the rock-pools. There is no lifeguard cover here (although you’re within sight of the RNLI inshore lifeboat station) but the harbour and beach are very safe.
We have a number of self-catering holiday cottages in Port Isaac and nearby.
Peruse too our Cornwall Guide, to discover more about what’s on, where to eat, things to visit and adventures to have in Port Isaac and its surrounds – all from your traditional (or otherwise) cottage.