It must have been 1989 when I first visited South Sands. Being two years old at the time I must rely on family sources as for some reason I’m having issues accessing specific memories of my early vacations there; I hope I wasn’t rude, noisy or smashing things up. That would have been embarrassing. In actual fact, being two years old I imagine that’s exactly how I would have behaved. Salcombe estuary, specifically the greater South Sands beach area is without doubt my Alamo of contentment. It’s also where I learned to fish in the ocean, catch brown shrimps, velvet crabs and even have an unfinished encounter with a formidable spider crab on one occasion. This is where my life-long obsession with fresh fish, crustacea and love of foraged bounties dawned.
There had been a seventeen-summer intermission between my mid-teens and when I first returned last summer. I was apprehensive. Of course, after such a long absence, will the inevitable change in aesthetic and atmosphere have a negative impact; installing a virus into my personal cloud of nostalgia and happiness and irreparably corrupting my years of accumulated cherished sentiment, eroding any trace of a silver lining? It was a genuine concern.
My initial reconnaissance mission to South Sands last summer fortunately quashed any impending forecasts of acid rain rotting away my last traces of joy from my memories. The result provided quite the opposite outlook. The overhaul of the hotel itself has left it completely unrecognisable on the interior – and I couldn’t have been more pleased to see that was the case. The once, red leather armchair-adorned, dark green-walled interior that would be more suited to a St James’s club than a seaside retreat has parted through the clouds of B&H smoke, letting in the light and giving way to a smart, boutique luxury retreat whilst still maintaining the all-important balance between being suitable for grown-ups and families with rogue toddlers sporting mullets and sporting one of those t-shirts that changed colour in different temperatures that nobody has seen since 1992.
That first of the heatwaves we had this year which conveniently fell on May Day bank holiday seemed the perfect occasion to return for a proper, adults-only lunch where behaviour would inevitably descend back to toddler levels after a few glasses in the blistering heat. The restaurant terrace overlooking the beach and the estuary is probably the most visually pleasing dining spot in England. Being for walk-ins only, we were lucky to bag a table for the afternoon. Provence rose was of course the order of the day. The warm, friendly and attentive front of house will direct you to two menus, which provide a choice between a daily lunch a la carte or light bite menu. I’d recommend combining the two as the crisp, crab arancini and plump monkfish cheek scampi are unmissable seafood snacks for such a setting – and delicious they were too. To follow had to be the catch of the day, which in this instance was a beautiful pan-fried lemon sole on the bone, served with buttery seaweed-smashed new potatoes.
That’s how you do a menu in such a venue; get the best local fish, do it well. Repeat. After all, such a perfect maritime setting demands such respect and quality. A fish on the bone such as that sole, or some fresh barbecued sardines, generously seasoned and splashed with a slug of lemon juice and a nice cold glass of wine is, in my view, the absolute perfect lunch/ Death Row final meal. I could continue but I don’t want to go full Rick Stein and start ranting at length. In summary: that’s just how it’s done.
Seeing the South Sands evolution over the years is a great success story and a great personal relief also. I could repeat that meal again and again – and I will as soon as I possibly can. I know my eyes aren’t blinded by rosé-tinted diving goggles; the quality is unmissable and right there in front of you. The produce, the wine, the service, the view (the weather, crucially also) all come together to create an overall cohesive dining experience I’m struggling to find suitable competition for. The rematch with the spider crab still beckons however; a retro crab bisque served in the shell would be a stunning retro menu option ready for my next visit in the very near future.
South Sands Hotel
Bolt Head, Salcombe TQ8 8LL