The River Dart in Totnes. Picture: Angela Pownall

As one of England's favourite holiday destinations, Devon is littered with historic towns nestled in green rolling hills.

Quaint fishing villages, where mariners still earn their keep and visitors enjoy their catch, are dotted along the coastline.

So you'd be forgiven for thinking Devon is an unlikely location for one of the world's funkiest towns. Yet the South Devon town of Totnes has earned this unofficial title.

Lying between the English Channel and the plains of Dartmoor National Park, Totnes has attractions ranging from the historic and picturesque to the new-age and quirky.

Arriving in Devon, West Australians will no doubt notice the beaches do not boast the white sands and turquoise waters of our State.

But the charm and beauty of this part of the world are striking and go far beyond pretty beaches.

Narrow roads weave through ancient stone villages, over hills and along cliffs and coastlines.

Traffic bottlenecks are common on these single-lane roads but road rage is not - few are in a hurry in Devon.

Totnes straddles the River Dart and was founded in the early 10th century to defend the waterway against a possible Viking invasion.

The Norman Totnes Castle perches on high ground and from there Fore Street, the town's main drag, leads down to the river.

Colourful bunting is strung across Fore Street, suggestive of Totnes' quirky, alternative side. As are the organic cafes, vegetarian restaurants and homemade toiletries shops which occupy historic buildings next to character-filled old pubs.

A flea market brings out the locals every Sunday morning, as well as Devonshire growers, bakers and craftspeople selling their wares.

We stay at the Royal Seven Stars Hotel, a 17th-century former coaching inn.

The old building has been beautifully renovated and offers a far higher standard of accommodation than you might expect from a three-star-rated hotel.

The hotel is also in the heart of Totnes and its pub is the perfect place for a pint of English cider after a day of sightseeing.

The hotel has a restaurant and serves pub food but we decided to share our tourist dollars around and try other outlets in town.

Savouring the fresh local seafood is a must in Devon and there is a great emphasis on locally produced food in Totnes.

The Waterside Bistro has alfresco tables along the River Dart and a large menu serving good, hearty food.

On Fore Street, Rumour is an atmospheric French-style wine bar and restaurant where we enjoy moules marinieres prepared with good local mussels.

Totnes is also now home to the Totnes Cats Cafe, a so-called "feline therapy lounge" which advertises itself as Britain's first cat cafe.

If you'd like to drink a tea or coffee while petting a (hopefully) friendly cat, this place could be right up your alley, promising "gorgeous, well-groomed felines to relieve all these stresses and strains of the day".

The cat cafe has been open only a few weeks when we visit but is closed when we stop by.

The owner of the shop next door (which, curiously, sells only old guns and daggers) tells us the cafe has been doing well in the face of some local opposition to the idea.

Totnes is a good base from which to visit other parts of South Devon. It's part of a popular circuit that allows visitors to travel by river cruise to Dartmouth, then catch a steam train to Paignton and an open-top bus back to Totnes.

Short on time, we opt to get the return river cruise to Dartmouth, which costs us £14 ($26) return.

The 90-minute cruise is a peaceful and leisurely way to see the beautiful river and picturesque countryside. Like everywhere in the region, it is littered with interesting history and tales.

We sail past Agatha Christie's former summer home, Greenway, which the writer used as inspiration for her novels. The National Trust-run property holds the Christie family collections, including archaeological artefacts, silver and books.

Approaching from the river, Dartmouth is a pleasant sight. Yachts bob on the water in front of pastel-coloured houses climbing up the hill.

The town is also home to Dartmouth Castle and the Britannia Royal Naval College, which has been attended by a long line of royals over the centuries including, in more recent times, Prince Philip and Prince Charles.

Walking around Dartmouth is like stepping back in time. Centuries-old timbered buildings lean over the narrow cobbled lanes. There are also numerous cafes, ice-cream parlours, pubs, shops and the beautiful Royal Avenue Gardens.

The crowds of tourists jostling through the streets in the UK's peak holiday month of August do slightly detract from Dartmouth's charm but the town is still very much worth a visit.

Another day trip from Totnes takes us by car further south along the coast to Blackpool Sands, Kingsbridge and Salcombe.

Blackpool Sands is a beautiful spot to spend a few hours on a sunny day. The clean shingle beach, which is patrolled by lifesavers, is surrounded by steep green hills and calm waters.

There is a restaurant, cafe, shop and entertainment (a children's puppet show on the day we visit), and you can hire kayaks and stand-up paddle boards.

We make a quick stop at the traditional market town of Kingsbridge before moving on to Salcombe, a beautiful town with a busy sailing port in its naturally sheltered harbour and a thriving crabbing industry.

Again, the pedestrianised streets are busy with tourists enjoying crab sandwiches, ice-cream and the local art galleries.

But even at the busiest height of summer, Devon makes for a relaxing stay. You can't help but slow to the local pace of life.

Indicative of the county's rural nature and lack of development is that, unlike much of the rest of the UK, it has only a short stretch of motorway.

The M5 ends at Exeter, the county's administrative centre.

And when you get back on to that motorway to leave Devon, you know you're also leaving its tranquillity and relaxing pace of life behind.

The West Australian

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