Everything you need to know about Burgh Island Hotel, Bigbury-on-Sea, Devon

If you are looking for a day trip, weekend break, or holiday that is an escape in the truest sense, you can do no better than the Burgh Island Hotel. This unusual hotel is not only the landmark of the enigmatic Burgh Island but also Bigbury-on-Sea, a stunning part of the South Hams in Devon. 

This quick guide provides everything you need to know about the elusive and exclusive Burgh Island Hotel. And if you’re intending to pack your outdoor clothing and most rugged walking shoes to schlep down to South Devon, after reading this article you’ll definitely have to rethink your wardrobe!

All about the Burgh Island Hotel 

The Burgh Island Hotel

The Burgh Island Hotel is a luxury hotel on Burgh Island, just off Bigbury-on-Sea. It is Europe’s finest example of an authentic Art déco hotel and a Grade II listed building, with architectural features and fittings that have changed little since it was built in the 1920s. This iconic white building offers amazing vistas of the south Devon coastline and admirers have likened to a sleek and sophisticated ocean liner by its admirers.

  • Location: Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea, South Devon TQ7 4BG.
  • Opening season: The Burgh Island Hotel is open to guests between February and December each year.
  • Number of rooms/suites: 25 en-suite rooms and suites
  • Amenities:
    • Spa & Sauna
    • Croquet
    • Snooker
    • Tennis
    • The Mermaid Pool
    • The Grand Ballroom
    • The Nettlefold Restaurant
    • The Pilchard Inn
    • Helipad
    • Beach access
    • Wi-Fi
    • Landrover transfer to the island or the Sea Tractor

Non-resident guests can not access or use amenities for the foreseeable future (2022).

  • Are children welcome? There are no cots or extra beds available. Children under 5 are not allowed. Children aged 5 to 12+ can stay and dine in the Nettlefold restaurant or the Pilchard Inn. Children aged 13+ can dine in the Ballroom but must dress formally.
  • Are pets welcome? Yes, but check with the hotel before booking.
  • Room service: Yes, with a £5 charge per order. The hotel provides complimentary early morning tea and coffee. 
  • Average cost per night: £495
  • Check-in time: 3:30 pm 
  • Check-out time: 11 am

The history of the Burgh Island Hotel

In 1875, the blackface minstrel entertainer George H. Chirgwin bought Burgh Island and built a wooden dwelling that was used for entertaining. In 1927, he sold the island to the filmmaker and engineering heir Archibald Nettlefold.

The best hotel west of the Ritz

Archibold envisioned a large and glamorous hotel on the island and built one in the Art déco style. By the 1930s, the Burgh Island Hotel was the destination for royalty and well-heeled guests from the literary, art, film and political worlds to entertain themselves. During the 1930s, the opulence and lavish design of the hotel increased further with the captain’s cabin of the warship HMS Ganges used to create a suite. 

The War years took their toll on the Burgh Island Hotel. Along with the island’s fortifications, the upper floors of the hotel were bomb damaged and used for convalescing soldiers. Later owners converted the hotel into self-catering accommodation. This 2005 Channel 4 documentary explains more:

Burgh Island, Checking Into History Documentary

Famous guests at Burgh Island Hotel

In its heyday and renaissance, Burgh Island hotel has accommodated world-famous personalities. Famous names and faces at The Burgh Island Hotel include:

  • Agatha Christie – the hotel and its guests are said to have provided inspiration for some of her most wicked crime novels.
  • Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson
  • Lord Mountbatten of Burma (the last Viceroy of India)
  • Winston Churchill
  • Amy Johnson, aviator
  • R J Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire
  • Nancy Cunard
  • Gertrude Lawrence
  • The Beatles
  • The playwright Noel Coward (and sometime writer in residence)
  • Malcolm Campbell, the world land speed record holder
  • The artiste Josephine Baker

The Burgh Island Hotel in film 

With such an unusual location and a close relationship with the arts, it’s no surprise that the Burgh Island Hotel has been the setting of many television and film productions. You may recognise the island and hotel in the following television shows and movies:

  • 1965: Catch Us If You Can 
  • 1960s: An episode of Dixon of Dock Green
  • 1987: An adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel Nemesis
  • 1994: A fantastic episode from the final season of the BBC’s Lovejoy featuring Tinker Dill’s sister as the hotelier, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” 
  • 2001: An adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel Evil Under The Sun 
  • 2001 and 2008: GMTV’s Inch-loss Island slimming feature 

Staying at the Burgh Island Hotel

The modern Burgh Island Hotel more than nods to its yesteryear heyday by naming each of its 25 rooms and suits after members of its roster of famous guests. The owners have beautifully appointed every room with contemporary furnishings that retain the Art déco flair. Notable rooms include: 

  • The Tony & B bedroom
  • The Nettlefold bedroom 
  • The Eddystone bedroom

One of the most lavish suites is the Beach House, which was built in the 1930s as a writer’s retreat. It is set apart with all the comforts and amenities you could desire and outstanding panoramic sea views. 

From the Burgh Island Hotel website

All rooms come with hospitality trays featuring items like creamy Devon fudge, mineral water and fluffy bathrobes.

Dining at the Burgh Island Hotel 

Hotel residents and visitors to Burgh Island can enjoy a wide range of delicious cuisine courtesy of the kitchens at the Burgh Island Hotel. Unfortunately, public access is currently limited to the Pilchard Inn – you cannot dine inside the hotel without staying there. But if you get the chance to dine in style at the Burgh Island Hotel, we’re sure it will be a memorable experience. Here are your options: 

The Grand Ballroom

The Grand Ballroom at The Burgh Hotel offers the finest dining on the south Devon coast! If you love all things 1920s, you’ll be delighted with the elegance and glamour of a black-tie dinner and dance. World-class cuisine and a live jazz band await!  What a perfect way to start a romantic evening, and after you finish your meal, you can dance the night away on the outdoor dancefloor. 

Here is the Grand Ballroom sample menu

The Nettlefold Restaurant

If you want to dine in a more relaxed setting, the Nettlefold restaurant serves the best of British cuisine in a setting with invigorating coastal views. This was a popular spot for lunch at the hotel for non-resident guests. 

Here is the Nettlefold restaurant sample menu

Private dining at the Captain’s Cabin

The amazing Captain’s Cabin of the warship HMS Ganges with its impressive ship’s wheel has been transformed into a fabulous private dining room.

The Palm Court Lounge / Palm Court Cocktail Club

The Palm Court Lounge is a spectacular glass-ceilinged lounge. The lounge is furnished beautifully in the Art déco style with an expansive and well-stocked bar area and amazing sea views. Between the hours of 12 pm and 5 pm, you can enjoy the famous Burgh Island Hotel afternoon tea with a chilled glass of champagne for £45 or treat yourself to something to share from the delicious Bar Menu. At night, the Lounge transforms into a smart Cocktail Club where you can dress to impress and enjoy fabulous beverages until late. 

The Pilchard Inn

This ancient tavern is the perfect setting for a hearty pint or pub lunch after hitting the island’s coastal paths. Crispy hake, cod loin, or a classic steak and chips await! You can also take away your meal if it suits you.

Burgh Island Hotel dress code

Burgh Island Hotel is famous for its formal dress code. Despite its removed and remote location, it has none of the laid-back, easygoing charm of other South Devon hotspots. Of course, you’re not going to trot across the sandbar to the hotel in your stilettos, but it’s essential that you pack them. Burgh Island Hotel is a 100% formal environment – not the Holiday Inn! It is almost impossible to be underdressed here so be sure to pack your tux or ballgown. Here are the Burgh House Hotel dress code basics: 

The Captain’s Room: Smart casual

The Ballroom: Black tie and evening dress

The Palm Court Lounge / Cocktail bar: Smart casual

The Nettlefold Restaurant: Smart casual 

The Pilchard Inn:  Whatever you want!

The mysterious Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea

The Burgh Island Hotel could not have a more dramatic setting. This 0.105 square kilometres tidal island, overlooks Bigbury-on-Sea beach, separated by a sandbar that is submerged at high tide. The island’s main feature is the Art déco facade of the Burgh Island Hotel, but there are other buildings including the Pilchard Inn and some private homes. The island has a public footpath around its coast that is part of the SW coastal path.

Burgh Island, Devon

Burgh Island has a rich history, in keeping with its remoteness and beauty. It was originally called St Michael’s Island and the 700-year-old Pilchard Inn may be part of the remains of a monastery. The remains of a chapel are still present. It is believed to have been called Borough Island in the 18th century, later shortened to Bur Isle and or Burr Island by the early 20th century.

Like many of the coves and sheltered beaches of South Devon, tales of piracy and smuggling in and around Burgh Island have persisted. It was certainly the haunt of local pilchard fishermen. In World War II, the British Armed forces requisitioned Burgh Island and fortified it as part of the coastal defences in World War II. 

Who owns the Burgh Island Hotel? 

The Burgh Island Hotel is a hotel that comes with an island attached! Over the years it has changed hands several times.

Its most recent owners were leading Exeter hoteliers, Deborah Clark and Tony Orchard. They owned the island for over 17 years after marrying there in 2011. Debora and Tony put a lot of effort into providing the hotel with the TLC it needed to return to its former Art déco glory. 

They sold the hotel in 2018 to focus exclusively on their other hotel, the Southernhay House Hotel in Exeter. London-based private equity hospitality investors purchased the island hotel for an undisclosed sum. 

The CEO, entrepreneur Giles Fuch, has a 70% stake in the hotel and is passionate about reviving the luxury and exclusivity of the Burgh Island Hotel. He’s fascinated by the hotel, its cottage pub and the 24-acre island and is building a team to ensure that the hotel’s success is ensured. 

The Burgh Island Sea Tractor

The Burgh Island Sea Tractor is a remarkable contraption that is almost as iconic as the hotel. This one-of-a-kind hydraulic vehicle is the main transportation of visitors to and from this tidal island when the tide sweeps in, otherwise, you’ll be wading waist-deep in seawater back to the mainland. 

The hydraulic chassis of the Sea Tractor carries passengers on an elevated wagon above the seawater across the 250-meter stretch to the island’s shore. Sea tractors have been around since the 1930s and are very much in keeping with the theme of the hotel.

It‘s unclear what people did to cross the water at high tide before the Burgh Island Hotel introduced the Sea Tractor in 1969. The engineer Robert Jackson CBE designed it for the handsome sum of a case of champagne. The first Sea Tractor cost £9,000 to build and although it’s in its third generation (renovated by the new owners of the hotel), it has delivered impeccable service for the last 50 years

How much does it cost to ride on the Sea Tractor at Bigbury-on-Sea?

Hotel guests and members of the public that visit the island can use the Sea Tractor. It costs £2.00 each way. There is no formal timetable, but crossings are regular. It won’t operate if weather conditions are poor. 

The Mermaid Pool, Burgh Island 

The Burgh Island Hotel boasts a naturally formed open-air seawater pool that can be enjoyed throughout the spring and summer. The pool offer sanitary swimming as it is renewed and replenished by seawater when the tides come in. Swim over to the wooden island in the centre of pool to relax and taking in the outstanding coastal view:

The Mermaid Pool at Burgh Island Hotel

Getting to Burgh Island

If you’re familiar with South Devon, you’ll know that the car is king. That Bigbury-on-Sea railway station in Lovejoy does not actually exist! 

The only way you can get to this amazing part of South Devon is on the little-known B3392 (little more than a country lane), off the A379 Plymouth to Kingsbridge road. There is no public transport that will get you to Burgh Island, though one of my favourite bus routes, the 93, will take you as far as Aveton Gifford from Dartmouth.

Rounding up

Just writing about Burgh Island is an escape, let alone actually being there! It really encapsulates the adventure and exclusivity that some parts of South Devon have to offer. A visit to the Burgh Island Hotel, is a special treat worthy of a honeymoon, wedding anniversary or other special event. Just remember to pack your Compeed plasters – as you’ll need them after all that dancing in stilletos or winklepickers!

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