Is this England’s Best Kept Secret? The Isles of Scilly
Have you heard of the Isles of Scilly? Can you point them out on a map? On a week long trip to the rocky archipelago that lies off the coast of Cornwall, I wondered if they could be one of the UKs’ best kept secrets. As a first time visitor and a parent of thoroughly modern kids who hate being unplugged, I was beguiled. And what’s more, so were they..
A bicycle pootles down a quiet lane, past the sign for an ancient burial ground where spirits are at one with the moon and the tide. An electric golf cart whirrs down a hill, containing five hungry tourists on their way to lunch in a sea front café where the sky meets the sea. This is England. But not as we know it.
Have you heard of the Isles of Scilly?
The Isles of Scilly. Do you know where they are? And I’m not talking about Sicily. Despite the marketing on the mainland, plenty of people are still unaware of the quiet pleasures of island life just a few miles from the packed surf resorts of Devon and Cornwall. Scilly locals find it hard to understand why more English people don’t embrace the paradise on their doorstep.
“Many Cornish people have never been across to visit,” says Dave the lobster fisherman, mending his nets for the start of the summer season. Our hotel staff joke that some of their acquaintances in Devon haven’t even heard of the islands. Well I’m not going to fill them in about it when I next pass through Exeter.
Although tourism is vital to the island economy (second only to flower growing), part of the joy of visiting Scilly is the lack of crowds. Part of the charm is wandering down a deserted high street as the early morning light throws a sunburst over your shoulder. Compared to packed Newquay on the mainland, the five inhabited outcrops might as well be desert islands. And as for the 130+ uninhabited islands; well they are one long picnic on an endlessly empty beach.
A child runs through a neat field of narcissi. Another makes a heart on the beach out of readily available shells. A boatman wades through the shallows in wellies that match the sun. A motorboat roars into action to catch the tide before it plays hide and seek down the bay. This is England. But not as we know it.
The local bus is a SkyBus
If you are still in any doubt, the Isles of Scilly are 28 miles off the southwest tip of Cornwall. You can get there on a ferry, or fly in under half an hour from Land’s End or Newquay. And contrary to what you might think, the flight isn’t an extra faff. It’s all part of the fun of stepping forward into yesterday. Our Skybus is a small Twin Otter plane and carries just 15 passengers.
Getting there is travel as it used to be
The Skybus ride is spectacular. There’s a real excitement flying from a little aerodrome, taking off in a tiny plane. It’s romantic; how flying used to be. The co-pilot hangs his jacket on the seat in front of me, briefs me personally on emergency exits. I sit a foot or two away from the pilot and watch him steer us into the sky. I am hypnotised by the propeller churning the air over a patchwork sea. I look down on the gently moving shadow of the plane as it weaves away from the mainland over rocky bays and down towards a small airfield at the top of a yellow gorse hill. Welcome to Scilly.
A dog sits on a chair in the high street, outside a neat terraced house, basking in the sun. Another sits in the front seat of the doctor’s van, looking poised to start the engine. Sea birds cackle and soar, and an ‘off island’ group of visitors are getting up close with seals. This is England. But not as we know it.
A city that’s not so big
Michel, our shuttle driver, charmingly calls Hugh Town a city. It is clearly not the Big Apple, but it is as sweet as apple pie. Hugh Town is the main hub on St Mary’s, the biggest and most populated of the islands. There are fewer people living here than in our small village back home. Yet it offers so much more. Vibrant cafes, imaginative gift shops, a town hall and a clutch of pubs selling cloudy cider and freshly caught crab and fish. St Mary’s is where tourists touch down before transfer to the ‘off islands’ by boat. Its harbour is the launch pad for day trips to settlements on Tresco, St Agnes, Bryher and St Martins, and to other uninhabited islands, weather and tide permitting.
Today the cafes are opening again for the summer season. People are coming out of hibernation and meeting and greeting each other. In winter the islands have just over 2000 inhabitants; in summer numbers can swell to over 6000. Yet the tourists always disperse. Not by car. Only locals are permitted cars on St Mary’s. Visitors travel around this island and others by foot, bike, golf cart and shuttle bus. It creates an old fashioned sense of wellbeing. An unfamiliar feeling of safety. I believe that if I send my child out with a bicycle and a fishing net they’d come back some time, possibly some days later, with dinner.
A dog digs for treasure in the sand opposite the old dairy café. Mick, the café owner loads his van for the day’s deliveries. A family lick ice creams on one of the many benches that line the harbour. They watch boats bob up and down on the water as someone launches a kite. The ferry arrives in a wash of white. This is England, but not as we know it.
First steps on Scilly
St Mary’s is our base for our week of adventures. We make our way up a tiny back street, with its own bell tower, to Tregarthen’s Hotel where tourism began on the islands in the 1850’s. Frank Tregarthen, Captain of the steam packet Ariadne, regularly invited passengers to stay in his home after trips to Penzance, and effectively turned the building into St Mary’s first hotel. Today it has 33 bedrooms and stands on sentry over the bay, keeping an eye on the maritime heritage. There are many reasons to stay in Tregarthen’s and one of these is the exceptional food. (The chef is the son of the town’s former butcher and grew up learning how to make the bread that the shop sold.) But the real draw is the service it offer to families.
An extra mile
Receptionist Kelly has a full time job with our itinerary alone. And it starts even before our arrival when flights are cancelled due to a storm and Tregarthen’s staff sort rooms near the airport for five of us at an hour’s notice.
“We always try and go that extra mile for our guests,” says Tregarthen’s General Manager Carina Luscombe. “People might find the idea of doing the Isles of Scilly a bit daunting, with all the travel involved in getting around. But we can sort out all your travel for you.”
And they do. We leave Kelly buried under a mountain of logistics and head for the hilltop Garrison. This camera friendly fortification with views to forever holds a huge chunk of the history of the island within its walls. If we want to discover the life and rhythms of the UK’s best kept secret, it seems as good a place to start as any.
Skybus is the fastest way to get to the Isles of Scilly. It’s a great part of the island experience, flying in small planes at about 1000 feet with incredible views. Skybus fly from Lands End, Newquay and, in season, Exeter. Flights take from 15 minutes (ex Lands End) and you are advised to check in one hour before your scheduled flight time, as your flight may leave (as ours did) as soon as everyone has arrived!
You are allowed 15 kilos of baggage free of charge per person (except on day trips) and there are severe restrictions on the size of your hand luggage given the size of the planes. Getting through the airports at Lands End and St Mary’s is a pleasant experience as they are small, modern with nice coffee shops.
The Twin Otter planes hold 19 people and can provide a dog box for your pet. The Islander planes hold up to 8 people. Transfer buses will take you, your pet and kids from the airport to different locations on St Mary’s for a small charge or to the port for off island transfers. We paid £25 for the whole family for a return transfer. We also paid a £50 charge for parking in the airport car park at Lands End for a week.
If you prefer not to fly, the Scillonian III passenger ferry runs daily from Penzance. Crossings can be rough but you may spot dolphins. You can also get a fly out, return by sea ticket to experience the best of both worlds. Both the Scillonian and Skybus services are, of course, weather dependent.
There are lots of accommodation options on the Isles of Scilly to suit different budgets and interests, from camping to guest houses, self catering rentals to flexible catered rentals, simple hotels to full service hotels, both in town and scattered around island locations. The tourist board site, Visit Isles of Scilly, can help with finding suitable accommodation.
We stayed on St Mary’s at the Tregarthen’s Hotel, close to the Hugh Town port, convenient for island hopping and ‘city’ services. Tregarthens welcome families and multigenerational groups, offer great advice on local services and attractions and work hard to tailor and arrange activities to suit your needs and interests. Their food was great and the superfast broadband proved very popular with the kids too.
Disclosure Note: We visited the Isles of Scilly in a collaboration with The Islands Partnership. Tregarthen’s Hotel and Skybus helped with accommodation and transport for our stay on the Isles of Scilly while we funded most of our own activities and adventures. All the views, opinions, experience and photography are, as ever, all entirely our own.