When you arrive in the Scillies from the mainland, it feels like you’ve journeyed back in time. It is so isolated and small – with a population of just 2,200 on five inhabited islands – that the sense of community is very strong, but also very welcoming. And it’s so safe (a recent job advert for a constable on “possibly the most enviable policing post in the UK or even the world” went viral) that no one locks their doors and kids can run wild across the islands like Enid Blyton characters.
The current Radio 4 comedy On the Rocks pokes gentle fun at island life in 1937, but there’s much that still feels retro today – even the wildlife. Birds whose populations are dwindling on mainland Britain – starlings, sparrows, swallows, blackbirds and song thrushes – don’t just flit all around in the Scillies; some eat out of your hand and perch on pub garden tables to peck at crumbs. And red squirrels (they’ve never had the grey invaders here, nor many other mainland mammals) have been successfully introduced to the Abbey Gardens on Tresco.
Another link with the past is the Cornish gigs, the early lifeboats that once rowed out to pilot ships or rescue the survivors from the hundreds of vessels that have been wrecked in these rock-infested waters. Now, gig racing on the open seas is the “national sport” and intrinsic to the Scillonian identity. Catch a race if you can – and then join the boaters for the inevitable raucous night in the pub that follows.
The rhythm of the day is dictated by the timetables of small ferries that join the islands, and these in turn are dictated by the tides. The easiest way to discover the Scillies is to take a morning boat and spend the day island-hopping (return fares from £8.60, circular trips from £13, kids half price). Journey times and distances are short, so wherever you are you can usually see the other islands, which adds to the intimacy of the place.
As for the beaches, there are so many gorgeous ones there isn’t space to mention them all here. You are rarely more than 10 minutes’ walk (and often far less) from one of the finest beaches in the UK – and there’s a good chance you’ll have it all to yourself.
Just one word of warning: while the Scillies offer all the romance of visiting a foreign land, the cost of getting here and of some of the accommodation means it can also be as expensive as holidaying abroad. On the plus side, there is little tat and no brash “attractions” to waste your money on, and camping and taking the ferry rather than the plane will make it affordable. The costs of eating and drinking are roughly the same as on the mainland. Many families return year after year, and have a deep connection with islands.
St Mary’s is every visitors’ first stop: it’s where all planes and the daily boat from the mainland arrive. It is the largest island, and home to 80% of Scillonians, but I still managed to cycle around it in four hours (£12.50 a day, bookabikeonscilly.co.uk), including stops at the iron age and Romano-British settlements at Bant’s Carn and Halangy Down, and the bronze age burial tombs at Innisidgen. Scilly has a greater concentration of historical sites than anywhere else in Britain.
I also stopped off at the Old Church in Old Town to see the grave of former prime minister Harold Wilson, who loved Scilly and visited every summer (Lady Wilson, now 99, still does). The grave is modest (though, interestingly was the only one in the cemetery with posh, fresh flowers), but not nearly as modest as his nearby summer house, which is inconceivably tiny for a prime ministerial residence .
On the way back to Hugh Town, “capital” of the Scillies, I stopped for lunch at Juliet’s Garden . To my mind there are few pleasures to beat eating fresh seafood with a glass of crisp white wine in the sun with a view of the sea, and Scilly was made for this. Juliet’s Garden overlooks a rocky outcrop, boats in the harbour and, beyond, the islands of Tresco and uninhabited Samson. Caught-this-morning crab is a speciality, and a perfect match for the excellent house white (Cépage Colombard Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne), which, unusually, is not the cheapest on the wine list – and it shows.
Going one better, in terms of proximity to the water if not views, is Spero’s, a cafe in a wooden boathouse right on the sand at lovely Porthmellon beach. A sample crab and prawn cocktail hit the spot, though I imagine almost anything would taste good in a setting like this.
On the other side of Hugh Town is The Star Castle (£102pp half-board, star-castle.co.uk), the Scillies’ grandest hotel. In the form of an eight-pointed star on a rocky peninsula, it was originally a fortress built as defence against the Spanish Armada and the pirates who frequently sacked the islands. There are a few rooms in the castle – including cosy singles in the four converted guard rooms on the ramparts – and spacious modern garden rooms in the grounds.
The hotel has two restaurants, one in the castle, the other in a conservatory built around an old vine that trails across the ceiling. The latter is the place for a blowout: its sublime four-course seafood menu (£39.50) was not only the best thing I ate on this trip, it’s the best thing I’ve eaten this year.
Owner Robert Francis spends his mornings fishing and catching lobsters to serve in the restaurants, and hopes diners will soon be drinking his wine, too. Six years ago he planted 7,000 pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris vines at Holy Vale (tastings £17.50pp) in the centre of the island. This is Britain’s most southerly vineyard and its first wine, about 3,000 litres, is being bottled right now.
At the moment his entertaining tasting sessions (with not a hint of oenological snobbery) focus on his favourites from around the world but, fingers crossed, visitors will soon be sampling local whites, too.
No less ambitious a venture, in its own way, is Peninnis Farm Luxury Camping (“tents” sleep six, from £535 a week). To call this a glamping site undersells it: picture a field dotted with seven comfortable, tastefully designed three-bedroom holiday homes – only with walls and ceilings of canvas. It’s a very green project, offering state-of-the art biomass heating, an “honesty freezer” of pork and sausages from the farm’s pigs, and a picnic field looking down to the sea.
I stayed in the Atlantic (doubles £80 B&B), a traditional seaside hotel whose rooms, restaurant and terrace overlook Hugh Town’s pretty harbour. There is also a campsite on the Garrison (from £9pp), next to the Star Castle; and Sibleys has a range of self-catering properties across all the islands.
I enjoyed St Mary’s but the moment I got off the boat at St Agnes (population 73), the “big island” felt like mainland Cornwall in comparison. On St Agnes’s quiet quay, 15 minutes by boat from St Mary’s, sits a lovely old pub, the Turk’s Head, and there may be a golf buggy to carry bags and visitors on the narrow “road” (more of wide path really) to the far end of the island. We walked it and in 10 minutes were at Troytown Farm Campsite (£9 adults, £5 kids, tents from £2).
This is the real Land’s End, as those camping here are, temporarily, the UK’s most south-westerly inhabitants. It’s a beautifully isolated spot right on the water’s edge, with its own small sandy beach and views of a few small craggy islands. There are five bell tents each sleeping four, equipped with airbeds, stoves and camping furniture (from £320 a week) and two comfortable two-bedroom cabins, one sleeping four, the other five (from £630 a week).
Even if you’re not a camper, it’s worth the journey to Troytown for the farm’s ice-cream, made with milk from its own small herd. All the flavours are delicious (I loved the four berries sorbet) but the rose geranium – made with flowers from the next-door farm and tasting like a creamy Turkish delight – is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. I can’t believe it’s not being entered for competitions, never mind only being sold on Scilly.
Coastguards Cafe, in the centre of the island has a flower garden, more fantastic ocean views and serves the island’s seafood staples: fresh crab sandwiches and smoked mackerel paté. Two or more evenings a week the cafe becomes the highly regarded High Tide (three-course dinner around £30), run by Kiwi chef Mark Eberlein.
Tresco is home to the Abbey Gardens (£12, kids free, open daily 10am-4pm), the Scillies’ biggest single attraction and one of the most magnificent gardens in the UK, or indeed anywhere. The proximity of the Gulf Stream means mild, frost-free winters that allow sub-tropical plants to thrive – the gardens were famously described by novelist Walter Besant as “Kew with the roof off”. It is ablaze with exotic flowering succulents in yellow, pink, red, purple and blues, plus towering palm trees, from 80 countries, as far afield as Brazil, New Zealand and South Africa.
Don’t miss the Valhalla collection of 30 ships’ figureheads, all rescued from the sailing ships that perished on the rocky archipelago over the centuries. The carved wooden figures are worthy of a small museum of their own.
The gardens were created by Augustus John Smith, who bought the lease to Tresco from the Duchy of Cornwall in 1834. Tresco is still privately owned – today by Robert Dorrien-Smith, a descendent of Augustus – and as a result feels very different from the other four inhabited islands. It is a little too manicured for my tastes, a sleek, well-oiled operation that attracts higher-end tourists. Many of these love the place so much they return year after year, often to the same cottage (many of them are timeshares).
It doesn’t feel staid though, and some of the newer cottages, such as the Flying Boat Cottages (sleeping 10, from £1,475 a week in low season, but a whopping £5,250 in high summer) and Sea Gardens (sleeping six to 10, from £1,615 a week rising to £6,550, plus one-bedroom cottages from £300 a night) are bang on trend, with a breezy New England feel, all off-whites, pale blues and greens, smart whicker furniture and original, well-chosen artwork.
The cheapest option is the New Inn (£55pp B&B), where I stayed, which has simple, all-white twins and doubles above a pub that does good food and has a decent selection of Cornish beers. Despite the island’s exclusive nature, the New Inn still feels like a proper, lively pub, particularly later in the evening when the island’s army of young seasonal workers congregate and wake the place up. They all seem very happy on Tresco, too. “It’s a bit Dirty Dancing up in the staff quarters,” one of them told me with a wink.
If the middle of Tresco feels like a well-heeled holiday camp, with people zipping around in golf buggies, the northern, heather-covered end of the island is wild, bleak and wonderfully empty. A walk up to the ruins of two forts, King Charles’s Castle and Cromwell’s Castle, built in the mid-17th century in case of a French invasion, gives a real sense of the islands’ history.
Even by Scillonian standards, the beaches on St Martin’s (population 142) are spectacular, and often listed as among the best in the UK. Scilly Seal Snorkelling (£44pp for a three-hour trip including wetsuit hire), based in a shed at the end of Par beach, took me out to the Eastern Isles to bob around with the seals for an hour. The seals aren’t fed or encouraged to interact with humans; they are just naturally curious and playful. One nibbled at my flippers, and another did a double somersault while fixing me with a “Let’s see you try this, landlubber” gaze.
Everyone I met on St Martin’s was happy about the recent arrival of Dom and Emily, the new owners of Sevenstones Inn, the island’s social hub. They have completely gutted and revamped the interior, though no work needed to be done on the garden, which may well have the best views – across the blue sea to the other islands – of any pub garden in the country. Post-snorkelling, I sank a couple of well-kept pints of Sharp’s Atlantic pale ale and ate delicious potted crab (the doorstop meet sandwich of ham, salami, mozarella, pesto and salad looked pretty inviting, too).
The jury is still out on another, very different, arrival to the island: the swanky Karma Resort (doubles from £175 B&B), whose other outposts are in exotic places such as Jaipur and Bali. The location, smack bang on the beach, is unbeatable, but I thought it lacked atmosphere, perhaps because it is still awaiting a container of fittings and furnishings from Bali to complete its transformation from a hotel built to look like a row of Cornish cottages to the luxury resort it aspires to be.
Two excellent features in the hotel bar caught my eye, though: the first was an Italian Enomatic wine vending machine containing 10 bottles of high-end wine for sale by the glass or even mouthful. Next to this is a turntable and stack of old vinyl. Who doesn’t like acting the DJ after a few glasses of wine?
At the other end of the scale, is St Martin’s campsite (from £10pp) which is well sheltered, sitting in a dip below the sand dunes and shielded by the sort of tall hedges that can be seen all over the islands to protect its flower farms – once a big, but now declining, industry here.
Nearby is the workshop of Fay Page and her partner Rob, who make beautiful silver jewellery. The handmade items – shells, fish, flowers, tiny boats, Scilly cowbells – are all inspired by the local surroundings and have a lovely, tactile texture.
Alas, I didn’t make it to Adam’s fish and chip shop (it only opens twice a week in low and mid-season) but I’ve heard such good things about it I can’t not include it here. Two years ago Guardian reader intheglen wrote: “Adam is a fisherman and catches the pollack by line (in a boat he built himself) during the day, then fries them (in a restaurant he built himself) in the evening. The fish comes with chips from organic potatoes grown by Adam’s brothers … Ventures like this will help keep Scilly going.”
Bryher (population 92) is perhaps the most beautiful of the isles. Its west side is truly wild (next stop Newfoundland), and the crashing rollers and jagged rocks of Hell Bay were a notorious spot for shipwrecks. It is home to one of Scilly’s classiest hotel-restaurants, the Hell Bay Hotel (from £120pp half-board or £85 B&B), which is run by the owner of Tresco and is designed along the same bright and airy line as properties on the neighbouring island. My spacious sea-facing room had floor-to-ceiling windows which opened on to a small private garden with views over two rocky bays and a lagoon.
The Crab Shack opened in the hotel grounds last year and is a must for seafood lovers, at least ones who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. You choose a crab (ranging from enormous at £20 to “I’m gonna need a bigger table” at £40) and a flavoured butter to slather it in, and are given an apron and a pair of crab crackers. I spent a good hour coaxing every morsel out of mine.
The crabs are supplied by the Penders family, who have been fishing here for over 200 years. This year they have set up Island Fish, a shop/supplier selling seafood straight from the boat, and also dressed crab, lobster baps, salads and lasagne, fish pie and crab quiche.
Next door is the friendly Vine Cafe, serving sandwiches, homemade cakes and cream teas in a former bulb shed. Two or three times a week owner Cath cooks a set three-course dinner (booking essential). I missed this, but she cooked steak and kidney pie, her signature dish, to “sample”, as I’d already eaten lunch. It was so good I polished off the lot.
It felt like half the island was gathered at the Fraggle Rock Bar and Café for Friday night fish and chips. I ordered mine but had to wait an hour – enough time to work up an appetite by walking the coastal path round the wild, north end of the island. Bryher Campsite (£10.25pp) is up this end, too.
Bennett Boatyard hires out kayaks, motor and sailing boats to explore Bryher’s hidden beaches and neighbouring islands. As well as being fun, this is a sensible option in summer when the islands are busy and there can be queues for the ferries.
A good place to head when it rains is the island’s community centre, which typifies the trust and openness I found everywhere in the Scillies. There’s no one there to run it but anyone can go in and, for a £1 donation, browse the old photographs and library, and play on the pool and ping-pong tables, or in the small children’s playground outside.