We spent the New Year with a great friend down in Penzance. Despite its reputation for being a bit rough around the edges - it's literally the end of the (railway) line and is reputed to have something of a heroin problem - I found the place terrific. Lots of life, a real working port with plenty of good pubs.
I don't think I've been anywhere that's had more of what the political scientists call 'civil society'. Just about every street seems to contain its own club or society. Without really seeking them out we stumbled across an arts club, a film club, a private library, a swimming pool association (for the amazing, huge, sea-fed Jubilee Pool), and a gentleman's club.
Walking through the town centre on a couple of evenings I was struck by the number of single men walking from place to place. Perhaps paradoxically I interpret this as a sign the place is friendly and well-integrated. It suggests there are plenty of pubs where you can expect to find a group of people you can fall in with just by turning up. The sign of a town where people don't know each other as well, where pub life is more transient, more shallowly-rooted is when you only see people walking around in groups from place to place.
It also happens to have some fine Georgian and Regency terraces and villas and some lovely small parks and gardens: historically it was always fairly prosperous, providing services for the local centres of mining as well as being an important commercial port. It's now rather frayed around the edges and is more ruggedly handsome than pretty. But doesn't that have its attractions? Anyway you can always look out to sea and across Mount Bay if you want a taste of the picturesque.
I suppose I'm building up to recommending it as a decent base for a Cornwall holiday: it's a short drive away from some of the best beaches around, such as that at Sennen Cove. And a darned sight cheaper than St Ives.