Find Nemo at the Plymouth Aquarium
You can see seals, seahorses and octopuses at Torquay’s Living Coasts, but the sea life exhibits at this brilliant coastal zoo pale in comparison to those at Plymouth’s National Marine Aquarium. This is the UK’s largest aquarium and introduces you to all sorts of species that inhabit the seas from Plymouth Sound to the tropics. Anemones, hermit crabs, sharks, turtles and jellyfish take children deep into the world of Nemo, and the 3D underwater film is worth splashing out an extra £2.50 to view. Combine the trip with a stroll along some of the Plymouth Waterfront Walkway – an easygoing section of the South West Coast Path where you can gawp at the giant scallop sculpture, marvel at Brunel’s four-foot spanner and ponder quotations from Sherlock Holmes.
• 0844 893 7938, national-aquarium.co.uk. Open daily, adults £11.75, children (5-15) £7.75, family £33, admission includes free entry for a year
Sandcastles and sea tractors at Bigbury on Sea
Even without a sea tractor ride to Burgh Island, the blue-flag beauty of Bigbury on Sea is a fantastic family beach, with gently shelving sands, shallow bathing and rock pools for rounding up marine critters. Access is easy for lugging boards and buggies from the car park, and there’s a beachside cafe renowned for its organic, local food. Burgh Island, looking back across a tidal causeway, simply adds to this beach perfection. Famous for its art deco hotel that inspired two Agatha Christie novels, the island is easily accessible on foot at low tide, but for kids it’s the high-tide ride onboard the 1930s sea tractor that makes the destination thrilling. The hotel isn’t open to non-residents, but the 700-year-old Pilchard Inn is a fine spot for local ales and a plate of oysters if you don’t mind paying for the setting.
• The sea tractor runs year round, £2 each way. The Pilchard Inn (burghisland.com/subpages/pilchard.html)
Estuary cruising from Salcombe
All aboard at one of Devon’s most sublime boating locations. Hop on an organised cruise or hire your own motorboat – it’s simple to learn the ropes and you can’t go far wrong with a chart detailing the best beaches, seal hotspots and places to moor up for food and drink. Hire a fishing rod and catch your tea or, as the hire shop handily doubles up as a fishmonger, you can stock up on fresh crab sandwiches and fish flipped straight off the local day boats. If you don’t want to self-drive, hourly cruises putter up and down the estuary and two-hour evening cruises stop at the Millbrook Inn – a delightful and very popular little foodie boozer in the village of South Pool.
• Salcombe Boat Hire, 11 Clifton Place, 01548 844475, salcombeboathire.co.uk. Easter–October, boat hire £25-£35 per hour, £245-£415 per week, fishing rod hire £5, all ages and dogs welcome
Gourmet beach fun at Blackpool Sands, near Dartmouth
A more natural seaside attraction than the famous Blackpool of the north, this sheltered cove is a family favourite. The shingle may be no good for sandcastles, but on the plus side you won’t get sand in your picnic and there are sand boxes for bucket and spade wielding toddlers. Besides, with snorkels and wetsuits to hire, beach games available from the shop and all sorts of water sports on offer, you’ll be too busy kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding or learning to windsurf to build sandcastles. Although there’s a grassy picnic area don’t be too hasty to pack your own sandwiches, you might prefer to buy picnic boxes, paninis, burgers and ice-creams from Venus Cafe. Hot on its local, organic food and green credentials, its children’s meals even come with an activity book that educates nippers about the beach environment.
• blackpoolsands.co.uk. Venus Riders (01803 712648, lovingthebeach.co.uk) kayak and board hire from £15 per hour, paddle-boarding tuition from £39 (minimum 8 years). The Venus Cafe, (01803 770209, venuscompany.co.uk) open daily, times vary according to season
A trio of attractions onboard the South Devon Railway, Buckfastleigh
“You must take the kids to the South Devon Railway,” a friend once told me. And it was advice well heeded, not just because we spent a day chugging through seven miles of the verdant and magical River Dart Valley. Toddlers can hop aboard on special Thomas the Tank Engine days, while train enthusiasts of all ages can admire locomotives and see how steam engines work at the museum (though I was more partial to the cream teas and riverside walks). Train trappings aside, what makes this a full-steam day out is that you can buy a single ticket and get admission into two further attractions that the train ferries you between. Hop off at Totnes Rare Breeds farm to see hedgehogs, pygmy goats and squirrels; Dartmoor Otters and Buckfast Butterflies to spot otters underwater and walk through sub-tropical butterfly enclosures.
• southdevonrailway.co.uk, 0843 357 1420. Buckfastleigh-Totnes return, adults £11.80, children (3-15) £6.80, family £34. One ticket to all three attractions: South Devon Railway, Dartmoor Otters & Buckfast Butterflies (01364 642916, ottersandbutterflies.co.uk), and Totnes Rare Breeds Farm ( 01803 840387, totnesrarebreeds.co.uk), adults £21.30, children (3-15) £14.30, family £63.80
Dartmoor’s rolling hills, tumbling streams and woodland valleys beckon families seeking outdoor adventures. For an action-packed day, the 90-acre River Dart Country Park (pictured) offers a full-throttle line-up, from an assault course, pirate ship and treehouses to the more daredevil zipwire, caving and kayaking. You can also wander woodland trails from here, but one of our favourite days out starts further along the road from New Bridge car park. Duck under the bridge and follow an easygoing footpath towards Spitchwick, winding through woods and emerging on a grassy common that nudges the perfect place to paddle in the River Dart. You can extend the walk into a four-mile loop via the Tavistock Inn at Poundsgate (tavistockinn.co.uk), using the ice-cream van in the free car park at your start point as an incentive to keep tired tots going.
• 01364 652511, riverdart.co.uk. Open daily (restricted facilities October-March), £7.95pp over 5 years, £3.95 3-4yr-olds, under 3’s free. There is an extra charge for “daredevil” activities
White-knuckle rides at Woodlands Leisure Park, Totnes
The leafy surroundings of Woodlands Leisure Park give little hint to the 10 fun-packed zones of theme-park attractions you are about to enter. The tranquillity of the countryside is left behind as you zoom down toboggan runs and drop slides, or take on the white-knuckle rides of the swing ship and Trauma Tower (which drops you from 16 metres). There’s plenty for toddlers too: experience the Wild West in Bear City, play with sand diggers, splash in the paddling pool and discover meerkats, reptiles and alpacas in the Zoo-Farm. Rain doesn’t stop play, just head for the indoor fun factory with a rocking and rolling tugboat, mirror maze, ferris wheel and soft play.
• 01803 712598, woodlandspark.com. Open daily April–October, plus weekends and school holidays only from November-March (rides limited during winter). £15.55pp (£16.60pp in summer holidays), £6.50pp in winter. Family tickets and online booking discount available. Children under 92cm free
Play Kings and Queens at Powderham Castle, Exeter
One of England’s oldest family homes, Powderham Castle, on the banks of the Exe estuary, packs in a lot more than just castle tours and nature trails. Hop on a tractor and trailer ride through the deer park, watch blacksmiths in the forge and meet pot-bellied pigs, goats and guinea pigs in Pets Corner. Children can be kings of their own castle in the wooden fort with its turrets, suspension bridge and zipwire. During summer, visiting birds of prey are one of the main attractions, with owls, falcons and hawks wowing onlookers with their free flying stunts. There’s a series of seasonal events from teddy bears’ picnics to live music, so it’s fortunate that entry grants an extra day’s admission too.
• 01626 890243, powderham.co.uk. Open April-November, Sunday-Friday (plus Saturdays 2 June and 25 August), adults £10.50, children (4-16) £8.50; deer safari £2.50
Drive a JCB at Diggerland, Cullompton
The concept of Diggerland is simple: a field, some mud and a range of digger-themed attractions. As an adult female it’s not my favourite day out, but it’s an absolute hit with the kids (and dads). After all, how many children wouldn’t jump at the chance of getting behind the wheel of full-size construction machinery and doing some excavating? The fun doesn’t stop at the controls of the tractors, dumper trucks and diggers – there are fairground rides including the flying bucket of the Spindizzy and the dig-a-round. Young drivers can hop into police cars and ride battery-powered Land Rovers and, while most of the rides are for children over three, there’s a handful of rides suitable for tiny tots too.
• 0871 227 7007, diggerland.com. Open weekends and school holidays February–October, £17pp over 90cm, under 90cm free
Strolling and cycling at Haldon Forest Park
Looking for somewhere to tire out kids and dogs? Haldon’s 3,500 acres of woodland is the place to go. Walking trails wend deep into the forest, where children are encouraged to build dens, climb trees and seek out wildlife from butterflies to birds of prey. Of several routes the family favourite is the 1½-mile Discovery Trail; it’s easy terrain for buggies and includes fun features such as musical instruments carved from wood. If you want to up the ante simply hop on a bike (hire is available), for this is a haven for all levels of cyclists. Beginners can wobble along level tracks while experienced riders take on the technical descents of the Ridge Rides. If your group splits according to abilities, arrange to meet at The Ridge Café, which serves local, organic food adjacent to the children’s play area.
• 01392 834251, forestry.gov.uk/haldonforestpark, parking £2–£4. Forest Cycle Hire, near the ranger’s office (01392 833768, forestcyclehire.co.uk) bikes £12-£15 per day, tag-a-longs and trailers £8