(photo credit: newquaybid.co.uk)
A bloodcurdling scream pierces the night, waking me from a deep slumber. I had left the windows open for air, and now the fog billows around the Headland Hotel and into my room like ghostly fingers grabbing at me. I leap up, my heart pounding as I fling open the door into the hallway. Other guests peer about, fearfully pointing towards a sinister open door. "What has happened?!" a mustachioed man asks in a thick foreign accent. An elegant woman dressed in a silk robe, jewels sparkling, faintly whispers, "I think there's been a murder."
We all turn towards room 325, unable to move, but the small man boldly pushes the door aside and turns on the lights. There, lying in a pool of blood, is the shapely Indian princess who just that night had been dancing with the British Colonel. Stabbed in the heart with a golden dagger.
"No one leaves this hotel! It is I, Hercule Poirot and I will discover which of you killed this woman."
We all gasp and start to profess our innocence when...
I hear my name being announced over the intercom at LAX. Back to reality. Air New Zealand is declaring last call and I've been daydreaming while reading "Dead Man's Folly" by Agatha Christie.
Agatha Christie celebrates her 125th birthday this year and so I decided to take an Agatha-inspired tour of Devon and Cornwall, along with some literary nods to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Daphne Du Maurier. I had never been to Southwest England, the place that inspired so many iconic, mysterious novels.
I meet my friend Claire at Paddington Station to board the train for Devon. Although people go to Plymouth to enjoy water sports like sailing and fishing, we are focused on one thing. Gin. It is said that after reading Christie you can only trust Belgians and people who drink Damson gin, so off we go to assure our survival.
Plymouth Gin, distilled in Black Friars Distillery, is the oldest working gin distillery and also has the distinction of being in the first recipe for a Dry Martini. I am not sure why my library is missing the esteemed "Stuart's Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them" circa 1904, but that will be remedied soon.
Our guide is so perky and enthusiastic I feel as if I am on the Willy Wonka chocolate factory tour. She explains how it was originally called "Dutch Courage" and that the Royal British Navy made Plymouth Gin the gin of choice by introducing it to the far corners of the world. All this, imparted with a bubbly smile. Gin, it seems, makes people very happy.
After our tasting we venture light-headedly to Boringdon Hall, a few miles outside of Plymouth. Boringdon Hall is a 16th Century manor house with a great hall straight out of a Gothic novel. It is murder mystery ready, with all the accoutrements: an enormous fireplace, oil paintings of past aristocrats overlooking the guests, candelabras, and suspect number one--a gentlemen in plaid with a hunting dog at his feet.
We dine at the Treby Arms, a gastropub that dates back to around 1855. Although the bar is filled with books, old photos, and regulars, this place is far from your average countryside hangout. It has won a ridiculous amount of culinary accolades, with a Michelin star and rosettes included, and we are excited to taste the hype. We start with a Plymouth gin and tonic, of course. Dishes like "Pip's pick your own asparagus" delight, served with a pheasant egg, shiitake mushroom, and truffle mayonnaise. I order "This little piggy went to the Treby" in honor of Christie's "Five Little Pigs". But when we see "Treby's Gone Carrots" we know we have our Sir Arthur Conan Doyle connection.
Treby Arms chef Anton Piotrowski's famous carrot cake is a real baby carrot with sprouting greens, nestled inside chocolate "dirt," all inside a mini clay flowerpot. Though delicious, the best part is the presentation: a bowl of green leaves adorned with dry ice, the vapor actually spilling onto the table. This dessert fog represents the mists of Dartmoor. I suddenly hear hounds baying in the distance.
A new day takes us hiking in Dartmoor National Park. The British call it walking, and although it is disappointingly sunny - I wanted freezing, frightening fog of course - we enjoy the views and the fresh air. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote "The Hound of the Baskervilles" while staying near the moor. I did not hear any wild dogs howling, however I saw many happy frolicking canines and their owners appreciating the green, rolling landscape.
Agatha Christie loved gardens and so we choose Riverford Organics' Field Kitchen for lunch. After all, hungry trampers need nourishment somewhere and this is a delicious choice. We walk through flowers, trees and herbs along a pathway to get to this family-style piece of heaven. The menu changes daily, and at only £23.50 per person the variety is amazing. This truly farm-to-table experience serves salad, vegetables, meat, and pudding, all in generous portions. I feel very smug about passing on the pudding Claire offers me, only to devour a piece of lemon and mascarpone cheesecake. Oops.
It's now Agatha Christie time and we get uber-touristy by taking the Dartmouth Steam Railway through South Devon. This is the train Agatha Christie would have taken herself to get to her vacation home called Greenway. We pay a few extra pounds to sit in first class with dark wood trim and velvet seats. I spin my head around as we chug away from the water and see the picturesque multi-colored bathing houses, lined in an orderly row, start to fade away. We enter a tunnel, the light quickly disappearing into a tiny dot as steam surrounds us. Lovely and eerie. "Murder on the Orient Express" comes to mind.
Greenway is an Agatha Christie fan's dream. She spent summers and Christmases here, entertaining guests with readings from her latest mystery novel. Christie called it the "loveliest place in the world" but lucky for us, she was inspired to write about murder, false identities and illicit affairs while enjoying the view. The house is preserved much as it was; Christie's grandson helped the National Trust preserve her legacy. The family were collectors, and of course her husband was an archaeologist so there were many cool objects of interest lying about. Gazing at her Dame Grand Cross mixed in with stacks of British china in her kitchen cupboard is impressive, but the real wow moment is the library with all her first editions on display. I ask our guide what her favorite Christie novel is and she answers that she has never read any of her books. What?? Never?? I guess it's not exactly a job requirement, but still... suspicious suspect number two.
The Cornish Coast calls. We swing by St. Ives for some seaside resort town ambiance and feel instantly uneasy, as if we are being followed. I glance around but see no one out of the ordinary until I feel slight deja vu. Oh wait, that's the plot of "Peril at End House," where Poirot believes a murderer has sights on Nick. Danger can lurk even while on vacation it seems, but I am safe for now. St. Ives is charming, although crowded. The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden are highlights, along with a particularly scrumptious piece of fudge from Fudge Kyst.
Claire has humored my Agatha Christie obsession but now it is time for some Gothic tales. Daphne Du Maurier set her dark romances all around Cornwall and my pulse begins to race just thinking about "Jamaica Inn." We drive to Portloe, and like Mary on Bodmin Moor, we race the last of the light to get to the safety of our lodging. A Jolly Roger flag flies above The Lugger hotel in remembrance of its former landlord, Black Dunstan, who was hanged for his smuggling ways. Nowadays, this bespoke inn is pleasure and luxury personified, with comfortably modern chic decor. The sitting room with fireplace is the perfect resting spot after our long journey.
We have booked only one night here, which we realize instantly is a huge mistake. This is a real find - tucked away in a bay surrounded by cliffs and headlands - pure natural seduction. The hotel does everything right. We sit for dinner and our table faces this same view. Sipping on their signature cocktail--gin, elderflower and prosecco--we order dinner. The local cheese plate, Humbug mackerel sweets in sage butter, turbot with celeriac cream - all are divine. The light wanes and we watch the green hills and the tide shifting as if it were a film. An hour passes like one minute.
All good things must come to an end someone really annoying but wise once said. For our last hurrah, we opt for a bit of exercise to combat the large amounts of food we have enjoyed. It's freezing today. Finally, a bit of atmospheric weather arrives but perhaps not the easiest to kayak in, our activity of choice. Hetty of Koru Kayak Adventures picks us up and takes us to Budock Vean, a hotel right on the Helford River where we get into our kayaks. Tom and Hetty lead us up the river, into the wind and we focus on the physical challenge of simply moving a few feet. Instantly warmed by the exertion, we get into a rhythm and Tom shows us key sights along the waterway, most importantly Frenchman's Creek, made infamous by Du Maurier.
Tom and Hetty could not be more nurturing or more enthusiastic guides. Suspects number three and four? Unlikely. After our kayak adventure we all lunch back at the Budock Vean, outdoors on the patio to take in the lush scenery. I order a locally sourced enormous cheeseburger. Extra fries. What the heck, you only live once. And I am pretty sure Agatha would have done the same, followed by Cornish cream for dessert.
Vacation is over. (No crime has been committed but many fantasy plots have been pondered.) Back at Paddington Station, I say goodbye to Claire. Under her arm she has "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" by Agatha Christie and I have "Rebecca" by Daphne Du Maurier stowed in my bag. It seems we've rubbed off on each other a bit.