Few destinations offer a more quintessential taste of England’s coastal glories than the Isles of Scilly. This engaging cluster of tiny outposts dotted just 28 miles off the tip of Land’s End is a delectable haven of escapism, combining effortless natural beauty with a blissfully serene way of life.
In some ways, these sleepy isles are more reminiscent of another era, taking visitors back to a time when life was simpler and moved at a slower speed. It’s easy to fall under the islands’ soporific spell and immerse yourself in the rich traditions and legends surrounding these remote Atlantic settlements, owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.
These are lands of shipwrecks and treasures; of deserted villages and ancient remains, with granite Tudor castles and military garrisons sitting as a reminder of more turbulent times.
The Scilly Isles’ heritage revolves around the sea, and fishing accounts for a key slice of island life with locally-caught lobsters, crabs and crayfish appearing regularly on local menus. Around 2,200 residents call these hideaways home and the population is spread across five populated islands, each of which proudly boasts its own characteristics.
St Mary’s is the largest and the gateway to the archipelago, with its 1,800-strong population and is generally the first port of call for visitors arriving across the water or by air.
At just two miles long and a mile across, it doesn’t take long to explore. The main hub is Hugh Town which sits astride a narrow sandbar at the top of the harbour, while across the island (a short walk away) is Old Town, noted for its church – the final resting place of former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who had a holiday home on the islands and visited frequently.
The second-largest island is Tresco, the only one to be privately owned which, which thanks to the Gulf Stream, enjoys a sub-tropical climate. There is no denying the unmistakably upmarket and sophisticated feel of this isle, but it is best known for the famous Abbey Gardens, established in the 1830s, boasting more than 20,000 exotic plants from across the world, many of which cannot be grown anywhere else in the UK.
St Martin’s is the place for drop-dead gorgeous beaches that have been rated as among the best in the UK, and crystal clear turquoise waters, while the rugged outpost of Bryher is known as “untamed Scilly” with granite hills and rocky pools, pounded on one side by Atlantic Rollers that thunder into Hell Bay. But this is an island of two halves, with a calmer side of picturesque beaches and tranquil Rushy Bay at its southern end.
Sitting on the most south-westerly edge of the archipelago is St Agnes, described as England’s final frontier; untamed, unspoilt and totally peaceful – with idyllic picnic spots and excellent beach-combing for shells and shipwreck souvenirs.
With nature trails that criss-cross the varied terrain, the islands can be explored on foot or by bike. Sailing around them gives a perfect vantage point from which to appreciate the stunning seascapes and sweeping stretches of sand that were made for whiling away sunny days.
Sea safari boat trips showcase the seabird colonies around these isles, where you can spy comical puffins, gulls and guillemots along with playful grey Atlantic seals that cavort and dive through waters where shipwrecks lie in their watery graves. Oh what stories, they could tell.