English exotica: a guide to the Isles of Scilly

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Within minutes of arriving in the Isles of Scilly, I encounter my first traffic jam: the airport shuttle bus halts as a hedgehog waddles across the road like a spiky symbol of the slow travel movement.

As the name implies, slow travel involves exploring a destination at a gentle pace, and there is no other way to experience this Lilliputian archipelago, which lies 28 miles to the southwest of Land’s End, Cornwall.

From sailing its turquoise lagoons to combing its bone-white beaches, there is every reason to linger in this exotic fragment of England, where time slows and space expands. Whatever you do, don’t rush it.

A yacht off Tresco, in the Isles of Scilly © Julian Love / Lonely PlanetA yacht off Tresco: the Isles of Scilly are ripe for adventure © Julian Love / Lonely Planet

Seen from a small plane (one of two ways to get here), the Isles of Scilly resemble jagged pieces of jade inlaid in the lapis lazuli of the Atlantic Ocean. If anything, the sense of a world apart intensifies at ground level, where strange flowers riot through the hedges and overrun the dry stone walls.

Warmed by the Gulf Stream, the isles’ micro-climate promotes a profusion of life. Pink thrift, red campion and yellow bird’s-foot-trefoil dot the landscape with colour. Songbirds serenade the dawn, seabirds commute by day and waders patrol at dusk, while the sea harbours seals, dolphins and even the odd basking shark, not to mention a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fish and shellfish.

Scillonian flower farmers still export scented narcissi to the mainland, but tourism is the dominant industry now. Visitors come – some year after year – to walk, sail or simply soak up the atmosphere of this unique place whose nickname, the Fortunate Isles, gives a clue of what to expect.

A boat moored in St Mary's Harbour, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely PlanetDozens of working and pleasure boats crowd St Mary’s Harbour, which is fringed by one of the islands’ many good beaches © James Kay / Lonely Planet

St Mary’s – an all-rounder for adventurers

St Mary’s is the largest of the five inhabited islands and its quay buzzes with activity: the passenger ferry from Penzance docks here, and it’s also the hub from which a fleet of small boats ply the waters between the four other inhabited islands – Tresco, Bryher, St Martin’s and St Agnes, collectively known as the ‘off-islands’.

More craft bob in the nearby harbour of Hugh Town, the isles’ dinky capital, which contains by far the widest selection of galleries, shops and places to eat. It’s also the base for many of the activities on offer, which makes St Mary’s perhaps the best bet for adventurous but time-poor visitors.

As you’d expect, many adventures feature the sea – a bewitching blend of crystalline water, storm-sculpted coastlines and storybook shipwrecks makes the archipelago, which comprises 145 islands and islets in total, perfect for everything from sea kayaking to coasteering and diving.

A sandy track leading to Porthmellon Beach, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely PlanetPorthmellon Beach is just one of countless beauty spots for visitors to admire on St Mary’s © James Kay / Lonely Planet

Don’t abandon terra firma completely, though. You can call a taxi or hire a golf buggy if necessary, but St Mary’s is best explored on two wheels (try St Mary’s Bike Hire) or two feet. Despite covering just 2.5 square miles, it contains a mind-boggling 30 miles of cycle paths and walking trails, including a 10-mile coastal route.

These circuits pass a miscellany of artists’ studios and artisan producers, historic sites ranging from Bronze Age tombs to WWII defences, and countryside that bears scant trace of development, despite the main island’s abundant charm. Ask a local for their favourite Scillonian haunt, however, and they’ll tell you that the best – or perhaps the essence – of the isles is to be found elsewhere… and you’ll need to catch a boat to reach it.

People on the terrace outside Longstone Lodge and Cafe, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely PlanetThe recently renovated Longstone Lodge & Cafe is a great place for a snack, with accommodation planned for 2018 © James Kay / Lonely Planet

Do: Visit the bijou Isles of Scilly Museum, which tells the archipelago’s story through a diverse collection of shipwreck salvage, archaeological finds and personal testimony.

Eat: Try Longstone Lodge & Cafe, a family-friendly eatery in the heart of the island, which serves a stellar crab sandwich. Next year, Longstone plans to open the isles’ first hostel, giving budget travellers another option.

Stay: St Mary’s offers everything from camping at the Garrison and B&Bs to the grand Star Castle Hotel, a converted Elizabethan fort atop the headland overlooking Hugh Town. All the inhabited islands have a wide range of self-catering accommodation – check Visit Isles of Scilly.

A close-up of a plant in Tresco Abbey Garden, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely PlanetTresco Abbey Garden – sometimes described as ‘Kew with the lid’ – contains plant species from every part of the globe © James Kay / Lonely Planet

Tresco – a flower-filled utopia

Although much smaller than St Mary’s, Tresco is the best-known of the isles. Its fame stems from the presence of Tresco Abbey Garden, a 17-acre horticultural fantasia containing more than 20,000 exotic plants from around the world. Established in the 19th century, the garden was the brainchild of the isles’ then Lord Protector, Augustus Smith, a visionary who established a benign fiefdom here and whose descendants lease and live on Tresco to this day.

The result of the family’s long stewardship is an island of exquisite beauty – not just in the garden itself, but throughout a diverse landscape that includes coastal hamlets (New Grimsby and Old Grimsby), a birder’s paradise of a lake, farmland and maritime heath, as well as several sublime beaches, particularly Pentle Bay and Appletree Bay.

A view of New Grimsby Harbour at sunset from the ruins of King Charles's Castle on Tresco © James Kay / Lonely PlanetA view of New Grimsby Harbour at sunset from the ruins of King Charles’s Castle on Tresco © James Kay / Lonely Planet

Do: Explore Cromwell’s Castle, the stout round tower guarding the channel between Tresco and Bryher, then climb the hill to the older King Charles’s Castle, an atmospheric ruin with a commanding view of New Grimsby Harbour.

Eat: The characterful New Inn, Med-style Ruin Beach Cafe and chic Flying Boat Bar & Bistro all lean heavily on local ingredients, including just-caught seafood and the island’s prized beef.

Stay: The Tresco Estate runs everything here: the eateries, store, spa, gallery and all the accommodation, a stylish mix of traditional and contemporary cottages. This closed ecosystem isn’t ideal if you’re on a shoestring, but those with cash to splash will find some seductive places to stay.

Rock pools and seaweed on Bryher, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely PlanetRock-pool lovers will find plenty to delight them amid the Day-Glo seaweed of Bryher © James Kay / Lonely Planet

Bryher – a taste of the wild west

Tresco is a tiny utopia in several senses of the word – it’s I-can’t-ever-leave lovely at every turn, but also planned and packaged to the nth degree. Although none of the other off-islands could be called untamed, they feel wilder, particularly Tresco’s nearest neighbour, Bryher.

The novelist Michael Morpurgo set several of his stories in this lumpy landscape – Bryher has seven hills, none higher than 50m – and it’s easy to see why it ignited his imagination: with one flank exposed to the fierce Atlantic and the other indented with rock-pool-framed bays, this island is ripe for Swallows and Amazons-style exploration.

Bagging its miniature hills and roaming its seaweed-strewn beaches is fun, but for an alternative perspective of Bryher hire a boat, kayak or paddleboard from Bennett Boatyard and take to the water. There’s no better way to admire this island’s raffish charm.

A view from Gweal Hill, Bryher, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely PlanetThe view looking east from Gweal Hill, Bryher, which illustrates the dramatic location of Hell Bay Hotel (left of centre) © James Kay / Lonely Planet

Do: Stand atop Gweal Hill with your back to booming Atlantic breakers, looking east for a panorama of the Great Pool – formed by people digging for peat – sandwiched between two bays, Great Popplestone and Great Porth.

Eat: Housed in a converted barn, Crab Shack has earned a cult following for its no-frills seafood: scrumptious crab, mussels and scallops consumed at communal tables during a single sitting a day. Alternatively, buy your own big-clawed beast from Bryher’s minuscule Island Fish shop, which operates out of the owner’s conservatory, and simulate this hands-on dining experience.

Stay: Bryher Campsite occupies a few fields in the north of the island, temptingly close to the edge-of-the-world Fraggle Rock Bar. At the other end of the scale, the dramatically located Hell Bay Hotel – of which Crab Shack is an offshoot – is arguably the isles’ most stylish place to stay.

Par Beach, St Martin's, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely PlanetPar Beach bears comparison with world-class strips of sand, but you might have to fight to find space for your towel… with a crab, that is © James Kay / Lonely Planet

St Martin’s – a dream for beach connoisseurs

The killer feature of St Martin’s is obvious whether you arrive at Lower or Higher Town (the two pockets of civilisation that define its simple geography): beaches.

The shelf of sand adjacent to Lower Town’s quay rounds a corner to join Lawrence’s Bay, a fine fringe of beach that runs down the entire length of the island’s south-western flank. Further south, Higher Town’s quay lies at one end of the resplendent Par Beach. Here, marram-grass-topped dunes enclose a perfect crescent of silky, quartz-rich sand that glitters at a hint of sun. On the northern side of the island, meanwhile, lie remote Great and Little Bay, further cementing St Martin’s reputation as the site of some, and perhaps the, best beaches in the British Isles. Better still, they’re empty most of the time. As in utterly deserted.

Fantasy beaches aside, St Martin’s is also home to a boutique vineyardthat is well worth a visit, various galleries and studios, and some good places to snack, including Polreath Cafe and the Island Bakery. There’s spirit-lifting walking on the maritime heathland that carpets the ridgeline of the island, too.

The view from the beer garden of the Seven Stones Inn, St Martin's, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely PlanetThe beer garden of St Martin’s Seven Stones Inn overlooks the isles’ central lagoon © James Kay / Lonely Planet

Do: Sign up for a trip with award-winning Scilly Seal Snorkelling, who embark from Par Beach bound for the Eastern Isles, where you can snorkel in the company of inquisitive Atlantic grey seals.

Eat: The Seven Stones Inn boasts that it has ‘probably’ the world’s best pub view and, although I’m still gathering the evidence, it’s not a hollow claim: the benches outside this cosy, charismatic boozer look down upon the limpid blue lagoon between St Martin’s, Tresco and St Mary’s. The food is great, too.

Stay: The tall pittosporum hedges that once sheltered fields of narcissi now protect St Martin’s Campsite from the elements. The island’s lone hotel, Karma St Martin’s, is a luxury alternative; if you don’t stay here, stop for a drink or snack on the beachfront terrace overlooking Tean Sound.

A tub of Troytown Farm ice cream on a picnic bench with the farm's campsite in the background, St Agnes, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely PlanetSt Agnes’s Troytown Farm combines superb ice cream with shoreside camping – what’s not to love? © James Kay / Lonely Planet

St Agnes – the getaway of getaways

If the pace of life elsewhere proves too much for you, there’s always St Agnes – just a mile across, this is the most south-westerly point of England. The real land’s end. The trip from St Mary’s crosses a choppy deep-water channel, but the reward is a place that feels adrift from the stresses and strains of modern living; the tension here peaks as you agonize over which flavour of ice cream to try at the isles’ only dairy farm, Troytown Farm.

What to do? Admire the stained-glass seascapes of local artist Oriel Hicks in the Grade II-listed church; amass an enviable shell collection on Periglis Beach; spot storm petrels and Manx shearwaters benefitting from the campaign to rid St Agnes and neighbouring Gugh of rats; complete your circumnavigation at the Turk’s Head, the UK’s most southerly pub, which is perfectly positioned by the quay.

The tombolo (sandbar) linking St Agnes to Gugh, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely PlanetChoose your moment carefully if you’re going to cross the tombolo linking St Agnes to Gugh; the tides can be treacherous © James Kay / Lonely Planet

Do: At low tide, cross the tombolo – a picturesque sandbar – to visit Gugh, where you can spy Bronze Age ruins.

Eat: With views of rugged Santa Warna Cove, the Coastguards Cafe is the perfect place to stop for a sandwich.

Stay: Troytown Farm runs a beachside campsite and lets self-catering accommodation. Besides that, there are a couple of B&Bs.

Make it happen

When to go

It’s hard to imagine a more child-friendly place than the Isles of Scilly, so it’s no surprise that high season coincides with UK school holidays in July-August, which also see the best weather. If you’re not bound to that timeframe, however, shoulder season in April-May-June and September-October is sublime; the weather’s often good and you’ll largely have the place to yourself. Although the mercury never plunges here in the way it can on the mainland, winter brings some tasty Atlantic storms, which will appeal to some travellers but not others. Whatever time of year you visit though, there is something to savour in the Fortunate Isles.

Getting there

With a choice of small plane or ferry, getting to the Isles of Scilly is part of the fun. Skybus flies 17-seaters from Newquay and Exeter, and eight-seaters from Land’s End. The Scillonian III ferry sails daily from Penzance to St Mary’s from spring to autumn, taking around 3 hours. Check Isles of Scilly Travel for details.

Weather and tide permitting, Tresco Boat Services run scheduled trips between the islands. Endeavour Rib Services offer a speedy private water taxi.

James Kay travelled to the Isles of Scilly with support from the Islands’ Partnership. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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