I'm facing the centrepiece of one of Cornwall's grandest piles: A row of 17th-century Italian colonnades, ridiculously elongated as if viewed through a fairground mirror. Elizabethan stables stand to my right, while "Side Gardens" -- a 700-year-old example of modular design -- vie with bluebells in the encroaching woodland. And it's all being described, not by some stuffy English guide, but by self-professed Calgary cowgirl Joanne Schofield. How worlds collide.
The remarkable revival of the 240-hectare Godolphin estate has been spearheaded by Schofield's husband, John. Teeming with roses and yew trees, the gardens are among dozens of plots -- from the more famous sites of Lanhydrock, Trebah, the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project, to the lesser-known layouts of Trist House -- that have recently elevated the southernmost English county to an official European Cultural Route of Parks, Gardens and Landscape.
You wouldn't normally put Cornwall in the same league as Tuscany and Andalusia. But with the warmest climate in a country enriched by a legacy of gardening aficionados, it's easy to see why it ranks alongside the best in Europe when it comes to horticulture.
Gardens are everywhere -- locals say you're never more than 10 minutes away from one -- and there's a huge variety. Both qualities are being promoted by the local tourist board's new multimillion-dollar Gardens of Cornwall campaign, including a stop at this weekend's Canada Blooms show in Toronto.
Among the campaign's highlights are the Himalayan magnolias and rhododendrons that dominate the late-Victorian estate of Lanhydrock near Bodmin. Farther down the coast at Falmouth, another older garden, Trebah, showcases 4.5-metre-high Brazilian rhubarb and other unusual plants that cascade 70 metres down a ravine to a private beach. Near St. Austell, newer gardens steal the spotlight, including the tropical and Mediterranean biomes of the futuristic Eden Project, and the giant fronds jungle of the Lost Gardens of Heligan.
Beyond these established plots, Cornwall luxuriates in its ability to grow plants from tropical and subtropical climes, leaving a liberal peppering of palm trees amid its verdant landscape. It's even home to Britain's only tea plantation at the Tregothnan estate near Truro.
While Godolphin is a work in progress (the Schofields say they are entering the "final repair stage," having started in 2000), its unusual formal garden already reveals the ancient fashion for having nine compartmentalized gardens -- telltale nods to the trends of the 14th and 16th centuries. Rebuilt terraces, the remains of wall walks and ancient sycamores are all described as "marvels of survival," according to John Schofield's guidebook.
"There's nothing really that compares in the country with these early gardens," Ms. Schofield says, adding that even Bronze Age features have been found on the site, which is now open to the public for the first time in its ancient history.
While Godolphin has opted to offer walking tours, other estates in the county have pursued other means to survive and thrive. Down the road from the Schofields' mansion is the romantic Trelowarren estate. Owner Sir Ferrers Vyvyan rents out converted cottages, complete with original wood beams and wooden shutters, on the bucolic 400-hectare grounds, and aims for zero carbon emissions, with all heat and hot water powered by wood cut from his own forests. Staying the night here feels like a rare chance to experience life on a grand estate, but with the luxury of central heating and the added bonus of the New Yard restaurant.
Indeed, with all this lush greenery, it's not surprising that fresh produce and organic beef and lamb -- as well as fresh fish -- are putting the county on the culinary map.
Driving away from Godolphin on narrow lanes overhung by hedgerows, I head to the Old Coastguard Inn in Mousehole for a delicious lunch plate of sea bass with orange-glazed fennel, sautéed potatoes and rocket pesto.
Following the coast for an hour north, the generous beach of Watergate Bay unfurls before me. This is where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's Fifteen Cornwall restaurant will open in May.
In nearby Padstow, British TV chef Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant serves such dishes as monkfish Goan curry with cucumber and lime salad. Things are going so well for Stein that he has opened a patisserie, a deli, a bistro, a hotel, a café and a seafood cooking school in the classic Cornish harbour town.
But it's not officially "Padstein" yet, as some fans have dubbed it. One of the town's strongest draws remains Prideaux Place, an Elizabethan mansion where visitors can stroll the tree-lined Green Walk and newly reopened Woodland Walks, and admire the Formal Garden, rife with camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons.
Pack your bags
Air Southwest (airsouthwest.com) has regular hour-long flights from London Gatwick to Newquay airport, where cars can be rented and buses service the surrounding countryside. Ryanair (ryanair.com) also operates a service from London Stansted to Newquay.
First Great Western (firstgreatwestern.com) runs regular trains from London's Paddington station to various points in Cornwall.
WHERE TO STAY
The Old Coastguard Hotel: Mousehole; 44 (1736) 731 222; oldcoastguardhotel.co.uk. Rates at this 20-room lodge start at $160 a night.
St. Ervan Manor: near Padstow; 44 (1841) 540 255; stervanmanor.co.uk. Rates start at $250 a night.
Trelowarren: 44 (1326) 222 105; trelowarren.com. Rates from around $750 a week for a cottage that sleeps six.
Watergate Bay Hotel: Watergate Bay; 44 (1637) 860 543; watergatebay.co.uk. Rates start at $80 a night.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Fifteen Cornwall: Watergate Bay; fifteencornwall.co.uk. Jamie Oliver's Cornwall bistro opens in May.
Rick Stein's Seafood School: Padstow; 44 (1841) 532 700; .
Cornwall Tourist Board: 44 (1872) 322 900; cornwalltouristboard.co.uk.
Gardens of Cornwall: gardensofcornwall.com.
Godolphin House: 44 (1736) 763 194; godolphinhouse.com.