This extraordinary island off the south-west tip of England, with its car-free roads and tropical gardens, offers a dream destination for a family holiday and an opportunity to step back in time and enjoy the simple things life has to offer. Words: Alex Fisher
With its pristine, powdery white sand, turquoise sea and tropical gardens teeming with flowers and palms, Tresco is probably the most exotic island in Great Britain. Part of the Isles of Scilly, a name believed to have derived from the Roman ‘Sully’, meaning Sun Isles, the archipelago has always enjoyed one of the warmest climates in the UK.
Inhabited since the Stone Age, the Isles of Scilly have offered shelter to pirates, monks, Romans and smugglers during their rich history, but today they are better known for their popularity with holidaymakers.
Tresco’s unique character is partially derived from the fact that it’s been privately owned by a family of keen horticulturalists for five generations. Augustus Smith leased all of the islands from the Duchy of Cornwall in 1834, making Tresco – the most sheltered island – his home. Here, amongst the ruins of a Benedictine Priory, he planted the tropical garden that now attracts visitors from around the globe.
7PM THE RUIN BEACH CAFÉ
This relaxed restaurant with views out to sea has a Scandinavian feel: all wood, glass and clean lines. There is a wood-fired oven, where, along with pizza, they roast Cornish scallops, locally caught fish, and bread. Walking distance from our accommodation at Sea Garden Cottages, it’s an obvious choice after a long journey.
We found a table looking out to sea and ordered the scallops, which were large, firm and tasted as though they had just been lifted from the ocean, followed by crab linguine, and wood oven-cooked sole with orange and herb sauce. The portions were generous and the fish was cooked perfectly. We washed this down with a tasty Vinho Verde, reasonably priced at £26. Our meal was completed with a scoop of stunningly delicious Rose and Geranium ice cream made by the Hicks family on St Agnes, a neighbouring island.
10AM CYCLING AROUND THE ISLAND
Everyone on Tresco cycles, residents and visitors alike. There are bike parks at nearly all destinations, the roads are relatively flat, the distances short and there are no cars – only the odd tractor or golf buggy trundling along.
It’s a wonderful thing to cycle with your child and not have to worry about a car zooming around the next bend; the sense of freedom this brings to our explorations is exhilarating and makes you wonder, if they can do it here, surely it would be possible elsewhere too? The bike hire centre is next to the island’s shop, and you can book bikes in advance through tresco.co.uk.
12PM WALKING ON WATER
If you are lucky enough to visit Tresco during a spring (very low) tide, it is possible to walk to neighbouring Bryher, which is smaller than Tresco, with a smattering of houses, a peaceful campsite, and the Hell Bay Hotel – the highest rated hotel and restaurant on Scilly, with three AA rosettes.
The planets are aligned – literally, as for a spring tide, the earth, sun and moon all need to be in a straight line – and we met with islander Alasdair Moore to stroll across the wide expanse of sand, where only hours ago there was 20 feet of water. The experience has a sense of the miraculous, as beneath our feet, the evidence of human habitation when sea levels were lower, is temporarily revealed. Before embarking on the same journey, it is wise to check tide times with the Tresco Island office first, and the times of the return boat, which may only run once a day.
2PM LUNCH AT THE HELL BAY HOTEL
The daytime spring tides conveniently happen over lunchtime, and the Hell Bay Hotel restaurant has a reputation for the best bouillabaisse on the islands. We are not disappointed: the rich, yet light seafood soup is perfectly seasoned and served with warm, crusty bread. During the summer months, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, they also open the Crab Shack, serving local scallops, mussels or crab. We stay a while, enjoying the view, and end up running to catch the boat! (To book visit hellbay.co.uk).
10AM TRESCO ABBEY GARDENS
You cannot go to Tresco without visiting their world-renowned tropical gardens, so we hop on our bikes and after 20 minutes of beautiful scenery we arrive. Planted in the early 19th century by Augustus Smith, this extraordinary garden is full of exotic Mediterranean species that would struggle to survive across the UK. The mild, frost-free climate and clever use of protective bands of trees and bushes to create shelter from the salt air and high winds, means that plants from Australia, South America, Africa and the Canary Islands thrive here.
From the barrel-trunked Chilean Wine Palm, to the Queensland Lily with its three-metre red flowers on five-metre stems, the entire garden is breathtaking. There are flowering plants throughout the year, and with the addition of sea sparkling on the horizon and careful placement of sculpture, this is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. The gardens are open every day of the year.
2PM THE NEW INN
The only pub on Tresco is open throughout the week and offers great food, as well as B&B. We headed there for our Sunday lunch, and sat outside to admire the view of New Grimsby Harbour and Bryher beyond. Here, we tried the Cornish crab with chilli and lime crème fraîche to start, which was piled high with enough white crab meat for two people.
This was followed by a traditional beef roast dinner, from the cattle on the island, served with huge Yorkshire puddings. They also have a range of St Agnes ice creams, and after sharing a portion of melt-in-your-mouth chocolate brownie, crisp on the outside and warm and gooey beneath, with Guinness ice cream, we wobbled back to Sea Garden Cottages on our bikes.
4PM SPA TREATMENT
Tresco Spa has a pool, Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna and gym. When I arrive, the spacious treatment area is scented with sandalwood and jasmine, and immediately offers a sense of calm and tranquillity. I was lucky enough to have a treatment from expert therapist Jess Turnbull. More than just a facial, the massage and release of pressure points creates a deep level of relaxation, and afterwards I feel incredibly revived and refreshed.
My weekend is coming to a close, but I feel as though I have been transported back to the holidays of my childhood, where time has stood still, and I don’t want to leave.
NEED TO KNOW
WHERE TO STAY
SEA GARDEN COTTAGES
This enclave of contemporary self-catering cottages sits on the eastern side of the island and has stunning views out to sea. Guests have access to an indoor pool, sauna and tennis courts. Cottages sleep from two up to 10. Prices for a one-bedroom cottage start from £160 a night.
THE FLYING BOAT COTTAGE
Residents have access to the spa, tennis court and pools. The Flying Boat Club restaurant sits within the small development. Prices start from £1475 per week.
THE NEW INN
This pub offers B&B on a nightly basis. Prices start from £55pp, per night.
Granite holiday cottages are scattered across the island. Prices start from £600 a week. To rent all the accommodation on Tresco, go to tresco.co.uk
HOW TO GET HERE
You can travel by boat or plane with Isles of Scilly Travel. The Scillionian III sails from Penzance to St Mary’s in 2½ hours. Returns are from £75 for an adult. The Skybus flies from Land’s End, Exeter or Newquay and lands on St Mary’s. Returns are from £150 per adult, £118 per child. To book visit islesofscilly-travel.co.uk