Home Editors' Pick Burgh Island hotel, Devon: sea tractors and stunning views

Burgh Island hotel, Devon: sea tractors and stunning views

This Art Deco hotel was a favourite of novelist Agatha Christie who wrote several novels here

by Sarah Bridge
burgh island hotel

A stay at Burgh Island

Burgh Island hotel in south Devon has to be one of the most famous hotels in Britain and it had been on my wish-list long before I first caught a glimpse of it from a clifftop walk in the area several years ago.

I rounded a windswept corner and there, clinging to the side of its own private island, was this square, white-washed hotel, separated from the mainland by the waves. It looked incredibly romantic and isolated, and I couldn’t wait to go there.

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Burgh Island hotel with Agatha Christie's Beach House

Burgh Island hotel is located on a private island next to the largest sandy bay in south Devon. At the foreground is The Beach House, built in the 1930s as a writer’s retreat for best-selling novelist Agatha Christie

Burgh Island hotel is located on the private Burgh Island

Burgh Island hotel is located on the private Burgh Island, which is connected to the south Devon coast at low tide by a large sandy bay

The history of Burgh Island hotel

Burgh Island was the hotel which provoked the most envy when I mentioned I was staying there. It is famous for its stunning location, eventful history and of course, its connection with Agatha Christie, the world’s best-selling novelist.

The history of Burgh Island hotel dates back to the 1890s, when music hall star George H Chirgwin built a wooden house on the island, used by guests for weekend parties, but it really took off in the 1920s when filmmaker Archibald Nettlefold bought the island and built Burgh Island hotel in the popular Art Deco style.

The view of the sea tractor and beach from Burgh Island hotel

The view from Burgh Island hotel across the causeway to the mainland. When the waters meet at high tide, the hotel’s iconic sea tractors is the only way across other than by boat

Over the years the hotel attracted the most celebrated names of the day, from Noel Coward and Winston Churchill to Edward and Mrs Simpson and The Beatles and, most famously, the world’s best-selling novelist, Agatha Christie.

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‘That’s the Agatha Christie hotel!’ was a common reaction upon hearing the Burgh Island name. Christie wrote two of her best-known novels while spending time on the island. And Then There Were None and Evil Under the Sea are also set here, which only adds to its intriguing reputation.

Apart from the Agatha Christie reaction, the other response was ‘that’s the sea tractor hotel!’ Being located on an island means that access is often by the hotel’s custom-made sea tractor, the only one of its kind in the world. Many friends had fond memories of visiting the island on family holidays years ago or for a special occasion, and I couldn’t wait to experience it for myself.

Getting to Burgh Island

Burgh Island hotel located on the tiny Burgh Island, which is cut off from the mainland twice a day by the tide which rises to cover the sandy causeway connecting the island to the mainland and the village of Bigbury-on-Sea. Guests at this Art Deco hotel are ferried over the beach at low tide by the hotel’s fleet of Land Rovers or, most excitingly, by the hotel’s iconic sea tractor at high tide.

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As instructed by the hotel, we phoned while passing through Bigbury for instructions on how to park at the hotel’s garages on the mainland, and then walked down the footpath to the beach where our unique transport awaited.

Burgh Island sea tractor

Burgh Island’s iconic sea tractor was a unique way of getting to the hotel

Burgh Island’s sea tractor

Driving through the waves with its headlights full on, Burgh Island’s sea tractor did not disappoint. It is an orange, sturdy, rectangular transport unlike any other, with huge wheels and a loud diesel engine to take us safely across the causeway. Three sea tractors have served the island since 1930 while the current one has been carrying guests and their luggage since 1969.

Visitors watching the sea tractor travel back and forth to the hotel on Burgh Island

Visitors watching the sea tractor travel back and forth to the hotel on Burgh Island

Non-guests looking to visit this tidal island and experience the sea tractor for themselves can pay £2 for the trip, and it was a magical way to arrive at our destination. Once we were safely parked on the other side, we were driven the last few years up the steep path to the hotel, a true door-to-door service.

Burgh Island sea tractor with Burgh Island Hotel in the background

You don’t have to be staying at Burgh Island to enjoy a ride in its famous sea tractor

Arriving at Burgh Island hotel

Driving through the automatic gates to the entrance of Burgh Island is like going back in time to the 1920s, with the distinctive Art Deco design throughout the hotel. While our bags were being taken up to our room, we enjoyed a welcome glass of Champagne (served in beautiful coupe glasses) in the hotel’s central lounge, the Palm Court. Drinks were courtesy of Simon, Burgh Island’s capable concierge, who meets every guest and sorts out all the aspects of their stay, from booking dinner times to giving tours of the hotel.

Burgh Island hotel entrance

The entrance to Burgh Island hotel. Guests are driven up the short, steep road from the shore to the door

Palm Court lounge

If you ever doubted the 1920’s Art Deco credentials of Burgh Island hotel, then the Palm Court lounge would be the perfect answer. Palm Court is a light and airy split-level space, with a 1920s-style bar, comfortable chairs (some, less comfortable, are original 1920s items), and above it all, a brightly-coloured stained glass ‘Peacock’ dome commissioned in 1929 by owner Archie Nettlefold himself.

With some light jazz playing, the sun sparkling off the waves and with a cocktail in hand, you can almost believe yourself to be transported back into the Jazz age.

Palm Court Lounge at Burgh Island hotel

The Palm Court Lounge at Burgh Island hotel has a colourful stained glass ceiling, piano, well-stocked bar and views across the water

Palm Court Lounge chairs

Palm Court Lounge even has some original furnishings, such as these chairs which date from the 1920s and the hotel’s heyday

Exploring Burgh Island hotel

With a few hours to go before dinner, there was just enough time to explore the hotel itself. As well as Palm Court there are two restaurants, a treatment room with sauna, a snooker room with a full-sized table, and lots of cosy corners in which to sit and soak up the atmosphere. Outside Palm Court is a large outdoor split-level terrace with tables, chairs and loungers, ideal for al fresco dining or soaking up the sunshine in the summer months, and of course, great views across to the mainland.

outside space at Burgh Island hotel

The outside space at Burgh Island hotel would be a great spot for sunbathing during the summer months

Carved into the rugged cliffs is the hotel’s natural seawater swimming pool, the Mermaid Pool, which would have been a delightfully bracing way to wake up each morning. Due to recent heavy rainfall it was sadly closed, but when it’s open it is a popular swimming spot – and very different from your usual indoor chlorinated hotel pools. Instead we were content with walking around the hotel’s grounds and taking pictures of the building from every angle when the sun came out.

Mermaid pool Burgh Island

The Mermaid pool is the hotel’s natural seawater swimming pool

There’s a minute croquet lawn and a couple of tennis courts, and some hardy souls were out surfing, so there’s a fair amount to do if you want to get out in the fresh air. We decided to save walking around the island itself until the following day and instead, discover our bedroom for the next few nights.

Bedrooms at Burgh Island hotel

There are 25 rooms and suites at Burgh Island hotel, each named after a famous guest from years gone by, literary creations or local landmarks. We spotted Noel Coward, Hercule Poiret, Jane Marple and Donald Campbell on the way to our suite, the Mermaid. This was on the second (top) floor, which was a great excuse to ride in the old-fashioned lift which has a metal grate to be pulled across as well as the door.

bedroom in the Mermaid suite

Our bedroom in the Mermaid suite was a relaxing and stylish room, with a vast bed and plenty of Art Deco touches

The Mermaid suite is a corner suite, with stunning views from the lounge across the Mermaid pool and over the sea to the mainland as well as the grassy hill behind the hotel which leads to the rest of the island. Should the bad weather roll in, it would feel incredibly romantic.

Mermaid suite has an separate lounge

The Mermaid suite has an separate lounge, decorated as it would have been in the 1920s, but with modern additions such as a coffee machine and fast wifi

The Art Deco theme was prevalent throughout the suite, from the door handles to the duvet cover, and, as befits a 1920s hotel room, there was a strict absence of televisions, although the Burgh Island website does say you can request one in your room if you can’t live without it. There is fast, free wifi throughout the hotel and the room also had a coffee machine and fresh milk, but no minibar which would have been a useful addition to the amenities.

The bathroom was rather small, with just enough room for a bath, loo and sink. Surprisingly for a luxury five-star hotel, the toiletries were firmly fastened to the wall, so you had to decant them into a mug if you wanted to pour bath foam under running water, or stoop down if you were having a shower.

Those niggles aside, the bed was large and comfortable, there was a handy closet in the lounge which was great to store suitcases and shoes, and there were in-room essentials such as an ironing board and iron, hairdryer and lots of bottles of water.

Black tie dining at the Grand Ballroom

An undoubted attraction of a stay at Burgh Island hotel is the chance to step back in time and dress for dinner at the hotel’s Grand Ballroom. Our instructions had read ‘Black tie and evening dress are quite usual’, which we took to mean optional, whereas it is in fact obligatory if you’re dining in the Grand Ballroom, so we had to make a quick detour into Plymouth to acquire the full Black Tie kit (thanks to Marks and Spencers!)

We were so glad we had done so, as it made for some great pictures and a lovely feeling of dressing for dinner in a 1920s-style hotel suite (while drinking martinis, naturally).

dressing for dinner at Burgh Island hotel

A highlight of a stay at Burgh Island hotel is the chance to really dress up for dinner and pose for pictures in its beautiful interior

We first had a couple of excellent cocktails in the hotel’s Palm Court lounge and chatted to other guests, similarly-attired in dinner jackets and cocktail dresses, and were served an trio of excellent canapes, including a piquant gazpacho, before heading to the Grand Ballroom for a fine-dining experience.

The Grand Ballroom at Burgh Island

The Grand Ballroom at Burgh Island

Grand Ballroom menu

The menu in the Grand Ballroom was a classic British mix of favourites such as smoked salmon, minestrone, beef, chicken and duck options which promised good food without too many surprises. My partner Stephen chose the Creedy Carver duck with foie gras and chocolate granola to start, while I went for the Severn & Wye smoked haddock with Exmoor caviar and we both chose the main course of beef fillet with potato and truffle mousseline, kale, ceps and red wine jus. The service was as efficient and friendly as the food was excellent.

Starter menu at Burgh Island hotel Grand Ballroom

Starter menu at Burgh Island hotel Grand Ballroom

The main course menu at Burgh Island's Grand Ballroom

The main course menu at Burgh Island’s Grand Ballroom

The hotel’s website had promised ‘an evening of timeless Grand Ballroom luxury and create truly special memories on Burgh Island that will last a lifetime’ and while the overall hotel experience was certainly that, the dining one was a little lacking in atmosphere. Possibly because it was a Wednesday evening at the end of September, the dining room was only half full, and the tables were arranged so that couples faced the empty dance floor and a sea of empty tables.

There was a singer with a pianist and double bass accompaniment, but the songs were on the slow, sedate side rather than evoking the sparkle and pizazz of era the ‘roaring Twenties’, and all in all, it felt like an evening meal on a half-empty cruise ship rather than a jumping Jazz Age experience.

We took to the dance floor for one song and danced in splendid isolation under the eyes of our fellow guests, and were rather happy to get back to the relative liveliness of the Palm Court bar for a nightcap. (We popped into the Grand Ballroom on the second night to check out the atmosphere and it was even quieter and emptier.).

cheese board in the Palm Court lounge

We shared a selection of cheese back in the Palm Court lounge

Livelier music and a table-hopping host or hostess talking to the guests would certainly have brightened things up, and it could be that weekends are much more of an experience. The hotel runs specially-themed nights such as Stepping Back to the 20s or Murder Mystery weekends which would probably be a livelier night – it was still a lovely evening, but just far quieter than we were expecting.

Breakfast at Burgh Island

Breakfast is served at Burgh Island’s less formal restaurant, the Nettlefold, and there are lovely views across to the mainland. There is a selection of juices, yoghurts, cereals, cold meats and pastries to choose from, and a good choice of freshly-cooked options.

Eggs Florentine with bacon on the side at Burgh Island

Eggs Florentine with bacon on the side at Burgh Island was a perfect start to the day

I had the Eggs Florentine on both mornings as it was so good, while Stephen first tried the smoked haddock kedgeree and then couldn’t resist a Full Devonshire Breakfast – both were excellent, piping hot and arrived promptly, as did our first, second and third cups of coffee!

It was lovely to enjoy breakfast on the second morning at the Captain’s Cabin which is at one end of the Nettleford. It looks like it has come straight from a historic sailing ship – because that’s exactly what it is. The Captain’s Cabin is literally the captain’s cabin of HMS Ganges, a warship built in 1821, later dismantled and made part of Burgh Island hotel.

The Captain's Cabin is at the end of the Nettlefold restaurant and was once part of the HMS Ganges ship

The Captain’s Cabin is at the end of the Nettlefold restaurant and was once part of the HMS Ganges ship

In fact, one of the charms of the hotel is that it is full of mementos about its history, from old advertisements and posters to little snippets of information around the walls about the Burgh Island of yesteryear, and every evening guests are treated to a copy of The Burgh Bugle – a newspaper which contains information about the hotel’s past alongside tomorrow’s weather forecast and local information.

A walk around Burgh Island

We were lucky to be spending two nights on Burgh Island, and so had the whole ‘middle day’ to really enjoy island life. Once the tides had retreated, revealing a vast expanse of sandy beach, walking on the sands and discovering rock pools was a lovely way to spend the morning.

Back on the island, a footpath runs up along the back of the hotel and takes you across to the other side, via some epic cliffs and the highest point of the island, where a medieval chapel used to stand. There is a stone building standing there now, which was constructed as a huer’s shelter in the 18th century, where a lookout would keep watch for shoals of pilchards. If any was spotted, they would call out to the fishermen below (raising a hue and cry, from the old French meaning to shout), and they would direct their boats towards the fish to catch them in vast nets.

exploring Burgh Island

Exploring the rest of the tiny island is a great way to soak up the island atmosphere and clear your head from last night’s cocktails

It was lovely to roam around the island which had barely changed for hundreds if not thousands of years, greet fellow hikers and soak up the views. Even better was the fact that one of the oldest pubs in Devon was waiting at the end of our walk – we felt we’d earned a drink or two.

The Pilchard Inn

The Pilchard Inn is next door to Burgh Island hotel and was one of the highlights of our stay. Dating back to 1336, it is one of the oldest pubs in Devon and is small in space but big on atmosphere. The inn originally served local fishermen and was soon frequented by the smugglers and wreckers who lured ships onto the rocks, and on its historic stone walls displays antique ‘net guns’ used for pilchard fishing.

Pilchard Inn Burgh Island

The Pilchard Inn is located on Burgh Island next to the hotel and dates from the 14th century

the Pilchard Inn Burgh Island

Inside, the Pilchard Inn hasn’t changed much over the last 700 years and is a lovely, cosy place whatever the weather

The friendly bar staff will tell you all about the 14th century smuggler Tom Crocker, who was shot (or possibly hanged) by an exciseman at the pub and whose ghost still haunts the island, searching for his stolen treasure. The pub celebrates this local legend every year on 14th August with its annual Tom Crocker date. Bar manager Dan was happy to show me the supposed face of Tom Crocker in the stone work by the fireplace, with the silhouette of its nemesis, the taxman, on the other side.

Pilchard Inn

The Pilchard Inn is a lovely spot for soaking up the island atmosphere (along with some excellent beer) and chatting to people from all around the world

The Pilchard Inn is a popular refreshment stop for dog walkers and hikers who have headed across the causeway, and there’s a lovely little sheltered entrance where we spent lunchtime the following day drinking the excellent local beer and watching the tidal waters gradually come together to meet in the middle of the beach.

Dinner at the Pilchard Inn

The pub does a small but hearty selection of sandwiches during the day, and in the evening opens as a restaurant, where we dined on our second night. The rain was lashing down as we made our way the short distance to the pub – we were very grateful for the hotel’s umbrella collection – but there was no clue inside the inn of the bad weather raging outside, thanks to the pub’s solid stone walls which have enabled it to last for seven centuries just a few feet from the coast.

Our starter of pilchards on toast was delicious

Our starter of pilchards on toast was delicious

It seemed wrong to dine at the Pilchard Inn and not have pilchards on toast to start, and it was the right decision as they were delicious (and possibly the first time I’ve ever eaten pilchards). While they are no longer caught in vast numbers from the waters around the island, they were fresh and tasty and very fitting for such a location.

Our mains of fish and chips and seafood pasta were equally food – huge portions and very tasty – and it was a lovely, friendly, cosy place to dine.

Fish and chips at the Pilchard Inn

Fish and chips at the Pilchard Inn

Agatha’s Beach House at Burgh Island

Before leaving Burgh Island on our final morning there was one more treat for us: a visit to the Beach House, also known as Agatha’s Beach House. It was here that the famous author wrote many of her best-known works, including the classic And Then there were None.

The romantic open-plan bedroom at Agatha's Beach House at Burgh Island

The romantic open-plan bedroom at Agatha’s Beach House at Burgh Island

Accessed by a private wooden staircase down the cliff edge, the Beach House has changed since Christie’s time – it was then a typically spartan writers’ retreat – and is now one of the hotel’s top suites. It is certainly one of the most romantic rooms in any hotel I have visited, with a terrace overlooking the sea, private outdoor hot tub, stand-alone bath next to the bed and coastal themes throughout.

Agatha Christie Beach House Burgh Island

Now, who would write several best-selling novels in a place like this?

In case you wanted some writerly inspiration yourself, there’s a collection of Agatha Christie novels to read and an old-fashioned manual typewriter, similar to the kind the Queen of Crime would have used, placed where she herself wrote, looking out onto the pounding waves. It is a unique bedroom in a unique hotel in a unique location, and rounded off a truly memorable stay.

Burgh Island hotel with Agatha Christie cottage

Agatha’s Beach House has a private terrace to soak up the views and literary inspiration

The view from the terrace at Agatha's Beach House, Burgh Island

The view from the terrace at Agatha’s Beach House, Burgh Island

Hotel information and to stay at Burgh Island hotel Devon

Burgh Island hotel
South Devon TQ7 4BG
+44 (0)1548 810 514

The hotel is open to guests from February-December. Room prices begin at £455 on a B&B basis.

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