Welcome to the Scilly Isles
It seems like a lifetime ago that was I sat on a pristine beach, digging my heels into the soft white sand while looking out into crystal clear waters, watching waves gently push back and forth against the shoreline.
People travel thousands of miles to find an island paradise, heading off to far flung corners of the globe, yet here I was, only 350 or so miles from York and surrounded by tranquility, lush vegetation and most importantly, abundant sunshine.
The Scilly Isles are a collection of 5 inhabited islands and around 140 smaller uninhabited isles which lie about 40 miles off the southwestern tip of Cornwall, forming the southern most inhabited part of the British Isles. With a temperate Oceanic climate, slow pace of life, abundant wildlife and azure waters, the islands have become a destination for those looking to escape and relax.
I was lucky enough to spend a week on Tresco and the surrounding isles back in May 2019 and came away with a deep love for the place. I thought I would share my guide to the Scilly Isles and some of my suggestions on what to do if you find yourself in Britain’s very own island paradise!
Getting to the Scilly Isles
There are a few different methods of getting to the islands - you can go by plane, boat, or if you are extravagant/loaded you can always charter a private helicopter.
Our original plan rested on taking the Skybus there and back, an easy 30 minutes in the air from Newquay airport (ignoring the 5+ hour drive to Newquay).
Unfortunately fate had other plans as our outbound flight was cancelled due to fog and we were instead transferred to the Scillonian III ferry. I actually quite enjoyed the 2 1/2 hour ferry ride as we managed to spot some dolphins and generally relax while taking in dramatic views of the Cornish coastline.
You can actually book to fly out on the Skybus and then get the ferry back, which is definitely what I would recommend to get the best of both worlds.
When we arrived in St Marys, where the Scillionian III arrives and departs, we waited around 20 minutes for our transfer via the Firethorn boat over to our final destination - Tresco.
A guide to Tresco
Tresco is the second biggest island in the Scilly Isles and is mainly run as a timeshare business by the Dorrien-Smith family who rent the island from the Duchy of Cornwall.
You don’t however have to exclusively be a timeshare owner to stay on the island. We stayed in the extremely comfortable New Inn Hotel, which also serves as the island’s well-loved local pub, conveniently located right by the harbour in New Grimsby.
The hotel has 16 well-appointed en-suite rooms and also boasts an outdoor pool, which was very welcome when the temperature started to soar. I can also highly recommend the food, especially as someone who managed to sample most of the menu during our week long stay.
Despite being only 2.5km long, there is quite a lot to see and do on Tresco. Firstly I would highly recommend Tresco Abbey Gardens, a gorgeous sub-tropical paradise that makes the most of Scilly’s unique climate.
We spent a whole morning wandering around the extremely diverse gardens, which also house the picturesque ruins of a medieval abbey and a curious museum showcasing shipwrecked figureheads collected across the Isles of Scilly (Valhalla Museum).
Tresco also boasts miles of white sandy beaches which can be explored on foot or bicycle (did I mention, there are no private vehicles allowed on the island).
If you fancy a nautical adventure, Tresco Sailing Centre offers hire of sailing dinghies, sit on top kayaks and Paddleboards from next to the Ruin Beach Café at Old Grimsby, Tresco.
I can also highly recommend the Ruin Beach Café as the perfect place to grab a wood-fired pizza and alcoholic beverage to accompany watching the sun set over Old Grimsby bay. Over the course of our holiday I became slightly infatuated with Cornish Rattler, a delicious still cider.
We didn’t actually get to check it out ourselves, but if you tire of outdoor adventures then Tresco Island Spa is reputedly the best place to relax and unwind. The spa also has an indoor pool, which could be a great option in cooler months.
If Historical sites are more your kind of jam, there are many across the Scilly Isles. On Tresco you can explore Cromwell’s Castle and King Charle’s castle, both erected to strategically guard the entrance into the Tresco Channel. Alongside these comparatively modern remains, there are numerous prehistoric sites across the island which can be found using an OS map.
Departing from Tresco we relied on the trusty Firethorn to spirit us across the Tresco Channel to Bryher, one of the smallest inhabited islands and perhaps my personal favourite. It must be noted that you are reliant on boat timings, as the Firethorn only visits certain islands on set days. You also need to be careful not to miss your ride home, as you could end up stranded with a fair way to swim back.
With one side facing the harsh Atlantic, Bryher is wild and rugged with a sharp coasting. Walking over to the other side from Tresco you can find the infamous Hell Bay, where many ships met an unsavoury fate in the 18th and 19th centuries.
We spent most of our time on the island walking across it, exploring the varied prehistoric landscape full of cairns and stones. Bryher also has the Hell Bay Hotel, which looked like a lovely place to stay and served an excellent lunch for our party of windswept wanderers.
Alongside walking the island had some inviting spots to take a dip (on the Tresco Channel side).
On day three we ventured slightly further afield to St Martins, which is the northernmost inhabited island.
At the northeast corner of the island is a large red-and-white Daymark, which is pretty much the daytime version of a lighthouse - aiding nautical navigation in shallow water.
When researching St Martins, I noticed that the island has (presumably?) the southernmost vineyard in the British Isles. Even better, St Martins Vineyard offer tours and tastings of their hardy vines, all planted on the site of a former flower farm.
It was a real pleasure to hear directly from the family who started and still own the vineyard. The project is undoubtedly a labour of love and this shows in the pride they have for their various wines (of course, we couldn’t leave without purchasing a memento).
Like most of the islands, St Martins had a small selection of cafes and restaurants, however this didn’t cause significant hardship as all of them are very well regarded. We ended up in Little Arthur Cafe and Bistro where we gorged on beef burgers from cattle reared on the island.
As we walked along the beaches we noticed a number of friendly grey Atlantic seals who ventured inquisitively over to us. St Martins Dive Centre offers snorkelling trips where you can get up close and personal with the seals if you wish!
At just over a mile wide, St Agnes is small but perfectly formed. The island is joined to the smaller island of Gugh by a sandbar which is exposed at low tide (again, don’t get trapped!).
Much like Bryher, we spent most of our time wandering across the island taking in the rugged landscape and prehistoric remains. Of particular interest is the the Troytown Maze, a stone labyrinth which is said to have been laid out by the son of the lighthouse keeper in 1729, but is suspected to be much older and possibly of Viking origin.
We also “stumbled” across a few pints of Cornish Rattler, which are found in the island’s only pub, The Turk’s Head, which also serves excellent food. I did notice that it got extremely busy at lunchtime, with tables being at a premium, so it might be a good idea to dine earlier or later.
On our second to last day we headed back across to St Marys, where we had previously disembarked from the Scillonian III.
St Mary’s is the larger island both in size and population. This makes it the most popular destination for holidaymakers, as there is more to do/see/eat. It’s also much easier to visit all the islands using St Mary’s as a base as you are less reliant on single boat services.
The main hub is Hugh Town, a pretty collection of stone buildings which sits on the harbour. This is the place to head if you’re looking for food and drink alongside a range of shops. Compared with the other islands it’s a veritable metropolis full of hustle and bustle!
After spending a good hour in the genuinely fascinating Isles of Scilly Museum, I decided to check out The Garrison and Star Castle, part of a fortification system on the island dating back from the 16th century. Built after the Spanish Armarda in 1588, the fortifications were designed to defend the Scilly Isles, which were strategically important due to their position as a stepping stone for potential invaders.
The rest of the party continued our prehistoric theme, heading off to find cairns and spot whales from the south of the island.
The Uninhabited Islands
My only regret from our fantastic trip is that we did not have time to visit the numerous uninhabited islands which are scattered across Scilly. In particular Samson, which lies just off Bryher, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its rich flora and fauna thriving since the island was last inhabited in 1855.
While I wouldn’t have prioritised this over what we did do. I am keen to ensure we visit at least a few of these on our next visit, which I am hoping is in the not too distant future!
The Scilly Isles are collectively certainly some of the most beautiful and peaceful places I have ever visited. Life there seems simple, complicated only by the tides and the fickle weather patterns which blow in off the Atlantic. I am of course romanticising things, but the locals I met there seemed content and genuinely relaxed. I certainly was after just a week spent hopping from island to island!
While the journey is not as simple or cheap as jumping on a budget airline, the payoff is well worth it when you emerge into our closest tropical paradise.
If you’re looking to escape the hectic modern world, I can think of nowhere better.