First-time visitors to the Isles of Scilly are hard to find. Once you discover this spell-bindingly beautiful archipelago twenty eight miles off the Cornish coast you quickly become part of its fiercely loyal legion of fans. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to resist the urge for a return visit.
It came as no surprise, then, to learn that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge decided to holiday on the island of Tresco in the heart of the Scillies twice in close succession this year. Returning in October just two months after their first visit, it’s clear the royal couple have cottoned on to something good: turquoise waters, white sand that glitters in your fingers, sub-tropical flora and a rugged otherworldly feel that only seems fitting for the last scrap of British soil in the Atlantic before you reach America.
With their warm microclimate and seas that on a sunny day look like they’ve been stolen from the Aegean, the islands are about as close as you’ll get to feeling as though you’re abroad without actually leaving the UK. And that’s a marvellous thing in this new Covid-driven era.
Due to their remoteness, they are one of the only areas of the UK to have recently been placed in Tier 1. Whilst the Cornish beaches were packed with staycationers this summer, the Isles of Scilly somehow manages to serve up quiet, crowd-free corners to everyone who comes. Perhaps this is because of the sheer volume of beaches; there are 22 in just sixteen kilometres squared. Indeed, the islands have been named the number one area of Outstanding National Beauty in the UK. And it seems they attract an increasingly exclusive crowd: regular visitors include everyone from Michael Morpurgo to Jude Law.
Here’s our guide to getting the best out of the islands:
Of the five inhabited islands, it’s easy to see why the Cambridges selected Tresco for their staycation. Not only does the new Penzance Helicopter service provide a direct flight taking just fifteen minutes from Penzance, it offers a surprising amount of seclusion for such a small island, without compromising on luxury. It’s not uncommon to have an entire beach to yourself, even in the school holidays.
The Dorrien-Smiths who were leased the island by the Duchy of Cornwall and whose descendants still live in the island’s Abbey, have made the most of the microclimate by growing a giant tropical garden in the sprawling Abbey grounds. Indeed, this garden feel pervades the entire island. At times it seems as though you have arrived in utopia: there’s not a leaf, hedgerow or grain of sand that is left to stray out of place.
Over the years the Dorrien-Smiths have discovered that plants from all over the world can flourish on Tresco. The fact that during October, you can feast your eyes on the fuscia pink of an Amaryllis Belladona or the blossom of a New Zealand Nikau Palm really does make you feel as though you’ve landed in a perpetual summer.
And yet the island does have a wild side – its northern coastline boasts a ruined castle built by Oliver Cromwell and waves the size of houses crashing over the headland near Garth Porth. The magic of the place is that one minute you can be watching monstrous bodies of water buttressing the side of nearby Round Island lighthouse and the next you can find yourself in the quiet lee of Block House beach where the sea is as clear as glass. Each of the islands possesses this near mystical contrast between the rugged and the tranquil; it’s part of what keeps drawing me back.
There’s a pleasing mix of traditional cottages and Scandanavian-style beach houses available for a stay on Tresco, where sea views and direct beach access abound. It’s quite something to pull back the curtains of your chosen cottage in the morning and step straight out the door onto sand. Indeed, visitors love it so much that many opt to buy an ‘island share’ so they can return during the same week year after year.
Much of the island can be explored by bike (easily hired from the shop next to the island store) and you can break up your tour by eating at one of the three restaurants. Our favourite was the Ruin Beach Café; children can play on the white sand beach while you dine on woodfired pizza and seafood.
St Mary’s is a good option for those dipping their toes into a Scillonian holiday – not too remote that you have to wave goodbye to cappuccinos and gift shops but still putting you in touch with island life. Regular boat services to the other islands make it a good base for those looking to explore all of the Scilly Isles.
The island is also home to what could possibly be Britain’s most unusual hotel, Star Castle. Just as the name suggests, it is housed in a castle shaped like a star and, situated high up in The Garrison, it easily boasts the best views on St Mary’s. Emerging from the front gate in the morning, it was hard not to gasp at the sight of four islands contained in a single panoramic view.
What child wouldn’t leap at the chance to stay in a real-life castle, let alone one that is perched atop a remote Atlantic island? My two children loved peering through the battlements and pretending to fire the canons; it’s not often that four-star luxury is combined with an atmosphere that causes little imaginations to run wild. A drink in the hotel’s dungeon bar or a three-course dinner in its vine-clad conservatory are not to be missed.
Our favourite two beaches on St Mary’s were Porth Hellick, which is sufficiently off the beaten track to ensure that you’re likely to have it to yourself, and Porthloo, whose fine white sand makes it easy to spend the entire day there. Luckily Juliet’s Garden perched on a nearby headland makes this perfectly possible with its sprawling garden and barn style eating space. Close by is the Phoenix craft studios where you can browse the island’s artistic wares and if you’re lucky meet Oriel Hicks – the artist responsible for many of the island’s stunning contemporary stained glass windows.
The walk between Longstone Café – a great pitstop for coffee, cake and sandwiches – and Porth Hellick takes you through a hidden community garden called Carreg Dhu complete with a sea glass path (which my daughter genuinely thought had been laid by mermaids).
Back in Hugh Town, a tour of the Scilly Spirit distillery is a must. Its award-winning Island Gin is dangerously moreish, to the point where you’ll be trying to work out how many of its lighthouse-shaped bottles you can squeeze into your suitcase before the trip home. Interestingly, the spirit’s peppery notes are inspired by a 1665 Scilly shipwreck that contained a cargo of pepper from Java.
Follow your tour with dinner at St Mary’s Hall Hotel in central Hugh Town for the ideal end to the day.
St Martin’s boasts arguably the best beaches on the archipelago and yet it’s also the island that retains the most remote feel. Mooring on the perfect turquoise curve of Par Beach, it’s difficult to believe you’re still in England. There’s not much by way of amenities on St Martin’s besides the Seven Stones Inn – perhaps the most scenic pub you’ll ever visit. But that’s surely part of the island’s charm.
A strange quirk of the islands’ microclimate is that it’s possible to grow flowers and make wine here. Once you’ve had your fill of the island’s beautiful beaches, a visit to both Scilly Flowers – the island flower farm – and the St Martin’s vineyard is a must. At the latter you can enjoy a self-guided tour around the vines (there are stunning views out to sea to be enjoyed from the top). Plans are afoot for cheese and wine tasting evenings run by the enthusiastic new owners, who recently moved to St Martin’s from Nottingham (I confess to being mildly envious of this bold life choice!) so watch this space.
The newly opened community observatory also offers regular star gazing evenings using their new telescope housed in its very own viewing dome. Val, the organiser, tells me that islands are ideally suited to astronomy because the stability of the air in maritime locations gives them great visibility. If you love your night skies then the stars alone make the Scillies worth a trip.
I for one am already plotting another stay. Until then, I will rely on regular bunches of narcissi ordered from Scilly Flowers to take me back there in a single scent, and, failing that, my erstwhile bottle of Island Gin.
Plan your trip
- Helicopter flights to the Isles of Scilly are available through Penzance Helicopters and start at £129.50 per person
- Rooms at Star Castle Hotel start from £128 per person (includes breakfast)
- A wide range of accommodation options are available on Tresco, from a 5 star hideaway in a Flying Boat Cottage to traditional cottages. See https://www.tresco.co.uk/staying for more details.
- Visit Isles of Scilly has all the information you need to plan your trip – from choosing the right island to activities and accommodation options.