The curse of travel writing is that every so often you stumble upon a spot that is so unspoilt that you’d rather stay tight lipped than run the risk of inviting crowds of others to discover it too. The Isles of Scilly is just such a place. Hedgerows full of exotic aeoniums and turquoise waters more akin to the Seychelles than the British Isles cause people to come back summer after summer. From the moment you arrive, there is a shared sense of having been let in on a delicious secret; every visitor I met during my stay was what the locals call a ‘returner’. One even pleaded with me to make the place sound as awful as possible to keep the crowds at bay.
So where exactly are these secret islands? As Michael Morpurgo writes in his children’s story Why the Whales Came:
“You can find them easily on any map. A scattering of tiny islands kicked out into the Atlantic by the boot of England.”
Indeed, 25 miles off the coast of Land’s End, the islands are just far enough from the mainland to have cultivated a character and a charm that is distinctively Scillonian as opposed to British or Cornish. It certainly isn’t hard to see why Morpurgo made the islands magical in his novel. Scoop up a handful of sand from one of the many deserted beaches and you can watch the quartz quite literally glitter in your fingers.
Up, up and away
Forget the usual sweaty slog through the grey terminals of Heathrow. For those flying to the Isles of Scilly, the adventure begins at Britain’s most westerly airport in Land’s End. Here, we clambered into a plane so small that my daughter could peer with glee over the pilot’s shoulder. As we began our descent onto St Mary’s just twenty minutes later, my son gasped at the sight of a granite outcrop, every inch of which was covered in basking seals.
Stationed like satellites around the main Island of St Mary’s lie the smaller populated islands of St Martins, St Agnes, Bryher and Tresco. As the diversity of their names suggest, these so-called ‘off-islands’ possess wildly different characters. St Agnes is rocky with a spectacular white sand bar tying together its two halves; St Martin’s is home to nine pristine beaches; Tresco is a sub tropical haven for botanists and boaters alike and Bryher’s wave-beaten hills attract countless walkers and artists.
Everybody who visits quickly develops a favourite. But in my view the cream of the crop are Tresco and Bryher. Such is the proximity of these two islands that time spent on either isle will arouse your curiosity about the near neighbour twinkling mysteriously at you each evening from across the water. For a handful of days each month, you can even walk across the sand flats between the two at low tide. The rest of the time you can row, canoe or copy the islands’ youngsters and chug your way across in a tug boat. Island hopping is de rigeur for everyone on the archipelago and the regular boat services between all five islands make a dual visit very easy to pull off.
Five go to Tresco
Arriving on Tresco, our children wasted no time in racing down the steps of the Flying Boat cottage onto the shell-festooned beach yards from our door. They returned to our terrace minutes later with a bucketful of brightly coloured treasures straight out of the pages of a story book. Tresco is tailor-made for families. Children can live a swallows and amazons style existence here – setting off on treasure hunts, playing knights in Cromwell castle, building dens and hurtling down hills on bikes, which can be hired with ease next to the well-stocked island store. My five year old roamed ahead of us on empty beaches and paths without the worry of traffic – he was in heaven and so were we. Adventures to rival the Famous Five are actively encouraged by the island’s owners: all children are invited to complete the ‘Tresco Ten’ which includes challenges from flower hunting in the tropical gardens to circumnavigating the island’s coast. Whatever your age, this is an archipelago where adventures unravel around every corner.
A tropical paradise
Tresco exudes a spirit of curiosity that perhaps finds its root in its Victorian custodians whose love of plants led them to bring exotic flora from their far-flung travels back to the island. Augustus Smith and his wife planted and nurtured a sprawling, maze-like sub tropical garden amid the ruins of Tresco’s Benedictine Abbey that lies at the island’s heart, making the most of the warm microclimate that envelopes all five islands. Gawping up at an Echium tree in the gardens or crouching down to take a closer look at a Peruvian passion flower it is easy to forget that you are still technically on the British Isles.
The island is still owned by the descendants of Augustus Smith and they have inherited not just the abbey garden but his gift for innovation. It is present in the architecture where traditional granite Scillonian cottages sit side by side with Scandinavian beach houses built to capture the best of the Tresco light. It doesn’t surprise me that Jude Law and his family are said to take a house here each summer. There can’t be many places on the planet to rival Tresco for seclusion and freedom, even if you happen to be a Hollywood A lister.
Tresco’s small scale – it is just over two miles long and one mile wide – allows you to savour every meal served beach side, with the sea lapping just metres away from your table. At Ruin Beach Café, we even popped out to play hide and seek on the headland while our woodfired pizzas were cooked. As we stumbled across yet another deserted beach (Pentle Beach was our favourite) or sat down to eat the catch of the day from an entirely new menu, or came across a tree house in a part of the woods we’d never seen before, I was left scratching my head as to how so small an island could keep offering up so many new surprises. Even a spot of rain cannot dampen the fun: there is a beautiful indoor pool and spa to retreat to while you wait for the sun to reappear. Perhaps Tresco really is magical; it certainly seemed so to us.
Set off from the West coast of Tresco and you will soon arrive in the quiet embrace of Church Quay on Bryher. This calm enclave might fool the unsuspecting visitor into thinking Bryher is a tame place. But wander across to the island’s west side and you will quickly clap eyes on the outer rocks off the island’s coast which court the full force of the Atlantic: here you can stand on the shoreline and relish the thought that there is nothing but sea between you and America. Scilly Rock, an imposing tower of granite to the west of Bryher, has caused many a sea stricken ship to meet its end – the figureheads of some of these ships are kept in the Valhalla Museum on Tresco, each with a story of their own to tell of Bryher’s legendary winter storms.
To explore Bryher’s hills and inlets, there can be no more scenic place to stay than the highest rated hotel on Scilly: Hell Bay. This remote and romantic outpost boasts unique art-filled suites which sit on the fringe of two secluded beaches and provide doorstep access to all of the island’s best walks. At the heart of Hell Bay is a sun-soaked reading room reminiscent of the coastal beach house in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. You can easily wile away several afternoons here with a good book and a basil smash gin cocktail in hand while the Atlantic froths and crashes on Gweal Hill outside the window. People come from all over the archipelago to enjoy sunset dinners in the restaurant, and for good reason. It’s not every day you can tuck into a plate of wild sea bass with an original Ivon Hitchens painting hung above you and the Atlantic Ocean glistening on the other side of the glass.
Leave a footprint
A short stroll from the back gate of Hell Bay, nestled in the dunes, is a tiny artist’s studio with a spectacular sea view, left open during the day for visitors to explore. It belongs to fifth generation Scillonian artist Richard Pearce. I defy even the most scientific amongst you to leave the island without wanting to pick up a brush and commit the island’s scenery to paper as he has done. Venture inland and you will find a flower lover’s paradise on the island’s hills, from the rare dwarf pansy to Bermuda buttercups. The panoramic views across the islands from Shipman’s Head are well worth the climb. Both the hotel and the island are a haven for those with a romantic spirit: pack a pen, a paint brush and a pair of walking boots, then let the island do the rest.
Throughout our stay on Bryher, we never knowingly shared a beach with another islander or visitor. And, returning to our favourite bay – Great Porth – at the end of the trip, we were both delighted and puzzled to find the footprints we had left there a day ago still preserved in the sand.
People have a habit of making utopias out of islands and, having experienced something close to perfection on Tresco and Bryher, I’m most certainly in danger of doing the same. I remain torn between telling everyone I meet about these two Atlantic jewels and stowing them away for safe keeping so that they remain the preserve of the intrepid. I certainly know where I’ll be spending next summer. Perhaps I’ll see you there.
Plan your trip
- For an array of accommodation options on Tresco, including the flying boat cottages, visit the island’s website: https://www.tresco.co.uk
- A night’s stay in a suite at the Hell Bay hotel, including breakfast and a three-course dinner, starts at £140 per person.
- Sky Bus offer regular flights to the Isles of Scilly from Exeter, Newquay and Land’s End. Prices start at £89 for an adult. Alternatively take the ferry from Land’s End for £50 per person.