Andy Cooper explores the glorious Isles of Scilly, offering handy advice for those considering a first-time trip.
I still recall, some 20 years on, my first visit to the Isles of Scilly. As well as a sense of wonder at the beauty of the islands, there was also a certain feeling of trepidation as I made my way there. Which, for a relatively experienced world traveller, sounds a little strange. But bear with me while I explain, as I am sure my slight sense of caution is not unique to me.
Although this beautiful archipelago is just 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, they do seem more remote and mysterious than say, a trip from Exeter to Seaton is. It’s that sense of not quite knowing what the accommodation and inter-island transport arrangements might be ‘across the water’ which, I fear, puts some people off travelling for the first time. Also, I know some folks of my acquaintance have also queried, ‘Yes, but what do we actually DO when over there?’
To which my short, somewhat flip answer would be do as much or as little as you like. If you’re an adventurer there’s plenty for you, but equally if you’re an armchair watcher of the world going by then you’ll be in your element.
But first, those elements of mystery. And the truth is, there is nothing simpler than taking a trip to the Isles of Scilly – and getting around when you’re there. And there are so many options these beautiful but varied islands can offer. You can base yourself on a single island and never leave for the duration of your stay. You can use your island as a base for exploring others. Or you can spend an extended period over there and island-hop to your heart’s content.
Reader, that is what I have just done on a seven-day, five-island jaunt to one of the most magical coastal spots in the UK if not, dare I say it, the world. And in completing my visit, I have hopefully garnered enough insight and experience to help you choose how and where you visit those oh-so-special Isles of Scilly.
And I recommend you take your own trip too and encounter some of the fascinating places and talented people that made my visit so memorable. Here’s my inter-island guide, which hopefully gives you plenty of ideas and help for a visit.
Travel Inspiration: Our favourite Isles of Scilly hotels.
Not for nothing is St Mary’s known as the administrative capital of Scilly. The main transport hub for the islands, in most cases when you travel, it will be where your visit starts and finishes. In our case we found ourselves landing at the harbour, rather than the airport as originally planned (see panel for transport advice) but that didn’t mean anything was less organised or accommodating when we set foot on dry land.
There is a smoothness and efficiency to the handling of passengers and their baggage on Scilly which takes away a large element of the hassle you might expect when having to get yourself around. Staff at all accommodation providers are used to the daily comings and goings of visitors and have become expert at liaising with taxi providers and the boatmen to ensure no-one is ‘left behind’. Often, you can leave your luggage at your morning accommodation on departure and find it waiting for you on arrival at your new home later in the day. The smoothness of the operation is impressive.
In our case, on arrival on St Mary’s, there was no need for any kind of transport as our first stop for two nights – Tregarthen’s Hotel – was but a few paces away, looming over the harbour like a benevolent friend, watching over the comings and goings.
And talking of watching the world go by, our special room afforded us the most magical view out over the bay towards a number of the other islands on the horizon. To go to sleep each night with that view, anticipating seeing it again in the morning, was a proper thrill.
Tregarthen’s has had a makeover since my last visit a few years’ back and, while it was always a handy and welcoming spot from which to base yourself close to the harbour, it is now all that and more…a stylish and smart hotel where nothing is too much trouble for the staff. The food offering is impressive too, from hearty breakfasts through to a fabulous dinner menu with a wine list to match. tregarthens.com
Suitably settled in, I was off on my first visit of the trip, to Phoenix Studios, an impressive home to a number of artists and craftspeople on the edge of Hugh Town. Inside an anonymous looking warehouse at the back of an industrial estate lies a place of wonders, housing as it does so many makers and artists inspired by the beauty of the islands. phoenixstainedglass.co.uk
Dinner on our first night saw us leaving Tregarthen’s for the short walk back to the quay for a meal at On The Quay, a fabulous first floor restaurant which nestles cheek by jowl with the harbour. A busy spot by day with the comings and goings on the quay outside, by night all is quiet on approach but not when you ascend to the restaurant…the place was. And we soon discovered why – a superb menu making the very best of local provender (seafood to the fore) and even a rather funky opportunity to cook your own steak on a hot stone at your table should you desire. onthequay.com
Day two saw us heading off to St Agnes, courtesy of islander John Peacock, owner of St Agnes Boating. The short sail over allowed us to her about the serious and determined efforts to ensure the island remains one of the UK’s few remaining rat-free locations, something which can only benefit the distinctive bird life which makes the islands its home.
Dropped off at the sun-dappled quay, we were soon off to explore one of the smaller of the inhabited islands on Scilly, but no less interesting for that. First stop was the amazing
Pot Bouys Gallery where owner and artist, Emma Eberlain sells and exhibits a beautiful array of art – her own and that of other Scilly-inspired artists. potbouysgallery.co.uk
Suitably impressed at the talent we had witnessed, we felt in need of some exploration and so walked our way down to the beach and ‘The Bar’…no, not the drinking kind, but the sandy tombolo of that name which links St Agnes with Gugh, sometimes described as the sixth inhabited island. To sit on that stretch of sand in splendid isolation and listen to the waves crashing and the birds singing on a sunny day was truly to appreciate the serenity and beauty of the islands.
After a splendid period of reflection it was time to take the short walk across to the other side of the island to Troytown Farm for one of their legendary ice creams! With over 30 flavours you’ll be spoilt for choice – and the view from the picnic benches at the edge of the farm across the water will have you lingering long after you’ve finished your tasty treat. troytown.co.uk
After a very relaxing day on what could be described as one of the more unheralded islands on Scilly we were left with the firm impression that is should always be on your tick list for a visit – St Agnes has a distinctiveness and natural beauty which makes it compelling.
You may like… Isles of Scilly Gardens & Wildlife Tour
For day three, it was time to leave St Mary’s permanently and head for St Martin’s. And our billet for two nights was the superb Karma Hotel. Proceedings got off to the perfect start when the concierge team from the hotel met us as we stepped off the ferry at the nearby quayside, took our bags from the boat and walked us up to reception. Talk about arriving in style!
Karma has a laid-back yet luxurious time. Staff are friendly and helpful and the views over towards Tresco from the waterside are spectacular. Nestling as it does next to a picture-perfect white sands beach, Karma feels like a Caribbean resort in a UK location. Our beautifully-appointed room had a light and airy feel and the big picture window meant we could max out on the views, especially at sunset time. karmagroup.com/find-destination/karma-retreats/karma-st-martins/
Suitably relaxed after a glass of fizz we headed for a walk on the beach and, yet again, delighted in the fact that we met one other couple in an hour-long stroll. Truly splendid isolation.
St Martin’s feels like the creative island on Scilly and this was borne out by my first encounter with a local at Fay Page Jewellery, whose studio is a popular and established island business, just steps away from the hotel. Meeting Fay was fascinating to discuss her passion for island life, jewellery-making and her business – the delicacy and exquisiteness of her range is truly wonderful. faypage.co.uk
It was soon time for lunch and on day one our stop-off was at the Island Bakery, tucked-away delight of a venue run by Barney the Baker – famous for his crab rolls. And having sampled these juicy giants I can attest to that. But if crab is not your thing then there are plenty of alternatives – how fabulous to see an artisan bakery popping up in such a relatively isolated spot…that’s the Scilly effect. theislandbakery-stmartins.com
After traversing back and forth across the island in amazing weather all day our step count showed 22,000+ and we needed some sustenance back at the hotel. Thank goodness then for the excellence of our meal at Karma – our elevated spot in the dining room also meant ‘that’ view remained a key part of the experience.
Day two on St Martin’s meant more opportunities to meet the creative folk of the island and they don’t come more inventive than Zoe Julian at Churchtown Farm, co-founder and owner of Scilly Flowers (scillyflowers.co.uk) and Scilly Cow.
Firstly the flowers. What a business this is. Taking advantage of the milder climate in these parts and a tradition for plant-growing and horticulture on the islands, Zoe and family have created an amazing business which sends beautiful flowers across the UK and the globe. It was fascinating to hear about the true science of horticulture and how the business is constantly evolving to meet market needs. And yes, narcissi form the bulk of the business but once the season for those beauties is over attention turns to later crops such as pinks – we saw some beauties being boxed ready for customers on our visit.
And as if this operation was not enough, Zoe is also the entrepreneur being Scilly Cow, which sells grass-fed beef from the family farm’s herd…no doubting the provenance and quality of meat from this source. scillycow.co.uk
We’d actually heard Polreath tearoom before we saw it. The contended hum from a busy garden full of diners told us that lunch there was probably something quite special. And indeed it was. In the sunny surroundings of a beautiful garden where hundreds of bees buzzed contentedly, we enjoyed amazing homemade tomato soup and focaccia, followed by a gin cream tea which had us raving. Owners Sarah and Jason are serving up delicious food to an eager clientele. They do foodie nights too…and the have an adjacent guesthouse if you fancy staying. polreath.com
St Martin’s has its own ‘Victor Kiam’ business too, in the shape of St Martin’s Vineyard. Owners Holly and James actually visited the vineyard as tourists in 2018, learned it might be up for sale, and liked the place so much they bought it!
The couple have since built on the legacy of the founders and are producing some cracking wines…as I discovered on a lovely tasting experience. And there’s an excellent self-guided tour of the vineyard too, once again offering up some amazing views out across the bay. stmartinsvineyard.co.uk
Is there a better pub view than the one from The Seven Stones Inn, I ask? It has to be one of my favourite hostelries and it didn’t disappoint when we visited for dinner. Outside the fairy light-festooned terrace affords the most amazing vista across the water, step inside and you’re in a wonderfully characterful pub, where the food is delicious and creative.
It got a five-star rating from me. sevenstonesinn.com
Talking of stars, after the meal I took the short walk to St Martin’s Observatory, where Charlie Payne from the COSMOS team explained to me the story behind the community-led project which is proving to be a real attraction to locals and visitors alike. If you’re there for Dark Skies Week in October it would be a very special place to mark the occasion. cosmosscilly.co.uk
What a two-day stay on St Martin’s we’d had, meeting so many talented and welcoming folks. As we settled in for our second night at Karma, we truly felt we had experienced the best the island had to offer and were now looking forward to our next stop-off.
Onto the water we ventured once more on day five, with a very handy jet boat transfer to Tresco with Tresco Boats. Our billet during our stay was the New Inn, something of a legendary venue on Tresco anyway and always a place I want to stop for a pint in the garden, looking out across the water. tresco.co.uk/eating/new-inn
Being a resident also allows guests to make use of some space adjacent to the public pub space – a recent interior design re-vamp has produced a wonderful set of lounges where relaxation comes fitted as standard.
Bags dropped in our elegantly-designed room, we were soon off on the short walk to the other side of the islands for lunch at The Ruin Beach Cafe. Feast on wood-fired pizza and Mediterranean-inspired dishes while gazing out at the incredible views across Old Grimsby harbour…it really is a super spot. tresco.co.uk/eating/ruin-cafe
Gardens fan or not, I defy you not to enjoy a visit to Tresco Abbey Garden. With over 4,000 species of plant from across the globe thriving there, it really is such a delight all year round. The layout and design of the garden maximises its beautiful location and there is also the Valhalla Figurehead Museum, an evocative and thought-provoking collection of figureheads rescued from numerous shipwrecks over the years. tresco.co.uk/enjoying/abbey-garden
Dinner that night at The New Inn saw us sitting in the wonderful refurbished conservatory dining room while we feasted on dishes from the new menu of pub favourites with a Tresco twist, inspired by the changing seasons of land and sea.
Our first grotty weather of the trip on day six saw us taking the grandly-named ferry the Firethorn of Bryher across to Bryher, where the helpful driver from The Hell Bay Hotel team had parked his Land Rover on the quay to ensure we didn’t get too wet on transfer.
A brief drive through the tight lanes and we were at the hotel, hunkering down against the wet weather with our fellow guests by enjoying an excellent lunch.
Then, with perfect timing, just as the weather was improving, we were taken to our wonderful first floor room, stylishly appointed and with, yes…again…the most amazing views. Looking out of the window with the waves crashing against the rocks and the solid stack of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse in the far distance, it’s easy to appreciate that you are truly at the far western tip of the UK. Utterly dramatic. hellbay.co.uk
A business called Scilly Chilli is just crying out to be visited, and so it was I found myself walking up to nearby Hillside Farm to meet Graham and Ruth Eggins, who explained to me how their venture grew out of trying to find alternative income streams from their farm. If chillies could grow in abundance in the fertile conditions, then why not do something special with them and they have certainly done that, with a wide range of chill-based products produced by the couple. Graham smiled that the fun name for the business has even spawned a growing line in merchandise. scillychilli.co.uk
We were conscious our stay on Bryher was our last night on Scilly and so we hoped for something special for dinner at the end of a memorable stay and it doesn’t get more unforgettable than The Crab Shack. A separate dining offering run by the Hell Bay, you tuck into a dinner like no other there. With mouth-watering scallops, crab, fries and salad on offer it is always a night to remember…right from the get-go when you don aprons ahead of tackling those crabs!
The following morning standing on the quay at Bryher awaiting our ferry back to St Mary’s and then onwards to home, we had five minutes to just stand and stare out across the waters over the islands and reflect on or trip. Stunning, special, satisfying and soul-enriching…Scilly certainly says all that and more to me.
It would be unhelpful when advising on travel to the Isles of Scilly by plane to not briefly mention the occasional blips on the schedule which can happen as a result of weather intervening.
In our case, best laid plans to fly from Exeter to St Mary’s were thwarted by forecast rain on the islands the day we were due to travel. But fair play to the team at Isles of Scilly Travel, who advised us early the previous day of the disruption and offered us the alternative of a coach trip down to Penzance to hook up with the Scillonian III for its sailing to the islands. Somewhat early start apart, it meant our travel plans were not overly disrupted.
It was a shame that our return flight was disrupted again, meaning we had to fly from St Mary’s to Land’s End and then catch another coach back to our car in Exeter, but it was a salutary lesson – if we needed it – that the islands are remote and reliant on not the most advanced forms of transport.
And so I guess my main point is when booking to fly to the islands, be prepared for the potential for disruption. And if you treat it as just another part of the adventure when visiting Scilly then it only adds to the charm of the place.
If you want a super quality snifter when on Scilly then make sure to go local, if my experience at three special suppliers I visited is anything to go by.
My first experience was gin-tasting at the Scilly Spirit distillery on St Mary’s with owners Art and Hilary Miller. In this small but intimate space, magic happens!
From humble beginnings the couple have built up an award-winning business with a super range of gins – and now rum – whose distinctive and stylish branding is backed up by tasty spirits which linger on the palette. Join the growing band who book in for a tasting experience visit as part of their island stay – you’ll have fun and see some real specialists at work. scillyspirit.com
Over on St Agnes at Westward Farm Aiden Hicks is the latest generation to farm this land and grow flowers and herbs in fields bordered by high hedges for weather protection…but now they are used for gin-making and luxury soaps and skincare.
Back close to the farmhouse there’s an aroma-filled room where the beauty products are produced and then a small distillery producing gins with big flavours. And tours and a visitor centre are the next big project, so look out for that opportunity when on the island. westwardfarm.co.uk
If you think you know rum then a visit to SC Dogs distillery on St Martin’s and a chat with founder Andrew Walder will probably convince you that you knew nothing after all. Using molasses as his base vodka ingredient, Andrew is producing a beautiful, warm, evocative range of rums, which all have names inextricably linked with names from Scilly’s past.
To stand with him and taste his range of rums and have him explain the thinking behind each one – starting with the vodka from which everything flows – was to witness a true craftsman enjoying what he does. scdogs.co.uk
Looking for something to do on the Isles of Scilly? Take the waves on an adventure sailing trip this Summer.