Picture white sandy shores with crystal-clear seas sparkling beneath the midday sun and you may assume I’m referencing a tropical Caribbean island, or a paradise beach in Southeast Asia. But all of this, and more, can be found off the coast of Cornwall on the Isles of Scilly, an oft-forgotten archipelago that’s shrouded in myth and mystery.
The Isles of Scilly offer a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of mainland life – a welcome tonic for this adopted Londoner – but there’s by no means a shortage of things to do and see. Travelling to the island is an experience in itself. My journey begins with a night train from London Paddington to Penzance where I’m scheduled to take the 9.15am Scillonian III ferry to the main Scilly island of St Mary’s. Be prepared for a two-hour-and-45-minute crossing that rocks and rolls against the current, but if you can stomach the waves there are stunning coastlines and ocean views to drink in around you. If luck’s on your side, as it was on my return, you might spot a pod of dolphins dancing among the surf as you go.
For those looking for a faster, or perhaps more stylish, means of transport to the island there are multiple options by air. First, there’s the Skybus – either an eight-seater or 19-seater aircraft. From Land’s End the journey takes just 15 minutes, or for those travelling from Newquay or Exeter airport the flight lasts 30 and 60 minutes respectively – significantly quicker than the ferry and with even more spectacular views of the islands. Just be prepared for the offset of unfavourable flying conditions that could occur. Or if you want a taste of the life of the rich and famous, then book the island helicopter with room to accommodate an entourage of up to 10 passengers per journey.
Once you’re on the island, you’ll find Hugh Town is the heart of St Mary’s, with its quaint cobbled streets offering a selection of shops, banks, galleries, cafés, traditional English pubs and chic restaurants to peruse. There’s also the Old Town, located closer to the airport, which boasts the Old Town Church and a further, but smaller, selection of cafés, shops and pubs.
A stone’s throw from the town is Porthcressa beach, which provides the backdrop for our first evening meal – fish and chips on the beach. It’s a balmy August evening so we sit on the walls encasing Porthcressa and feast on crispy battered cod and salty squid. The sun begins to set before us; the tranquillity sets in as we listen to the waves gently caress the foot of the shore, while breathing in deep, clean lungfuls of ocean air. London is so very far behind us.
We pack our first complete day on the island chockful of exploring. Though St Mary’s boasts a land area of just 2.5 square miles, it is steeped in history. We set off on foot, visiting various points of the Garrison Walls, which date back 350 years and have survived defending England’s coast from the Elizabethan period through to the Second World War, when it was used as a signal station.
The walk works up an appetite and so we head back to Porthcressa for lunch at Dibble & Grub on the beach front. But it turns out we’re not the only ones looking for alfresco, informal dining with sea views to boot and the lunch time rush means the restaurant is packed. So we leave the tapas behind and head inland to St Mary’s Hall Hotel where we seek shade beneath the canopy of trees adorning the grounds. The menu is rich and hearty – creamy carbonara, fiery chicken tikka burgers, succulent beef patties – but we’re ravenous after our hike and it’s welcome fuel for the remainder of the day.
In the afternoon, Scilly’s clear blue seas beckon and so we head to Town Beach, which is also nestled just off the main Hugh Town high street. With blue skies above us, we paddle out to sea in kayaks meandering our way around the moored boats that decorate the ocean’s surface. If kayaking’s not your thing, there’s also paddle-boarding, windsurfing, sailing – or if you’re feeling more adventurous (or perhaps a tad romantic) you can ride horses through the surf.
Sunday brings an annual fete on one of the smaller, neighbouring inhabited islands, Bryher. The island is visible from St Mary’s and is just a short 20-minute sea journey away, and trips to the neighbouring islands take place daily. When the boat docks, the sound of music in the distance rumbles towards us, as the familiar barbecue aroma of white hot coals and sizzling meats flood our senses. As we navigate the sandy lanes to the fete, we happen across mini shelves as we go, filled with homemade jams and other goods, yours to take away for a donation. This is rural island living at its finest. When we approach the fete, a tapestry of picnic blankets are already spread across the ground in front of the live music stage; traditional games for kids and adults alike surround the grounds, and the mix of home-baked sweet treats, burgers and sausages, and selection of local ales leave you salivating as you ponder your decisions.
The evening is spent back on St Mary’s, where we head to one of the trendiest eateries on the island: The Beach. With its shabby-chic décor and laid-back vibes, The Beach is well-loved among locals and holiday-makers alike for its barbecued seafood and rare meat. Fish-lovers can indulge in locally-caught lobster, dripping in chilli, lemongrass and coriander, or garlic and chive butter, grilled to perfection on charcoal barbecues. Or satiate your palate with one the shish flat breads, packed with ryeland lamb, lemon, garlic and oregano, or the veggie option of halloumi and vegetables with tzatziki dressing. The cocktail menu is also well-worth a look, brimming with classic concoctions and Cornish twists.
As our time on St Mary’s comes to an end, I feel we’ve barely scratched the surface of things to do and see in Scilly. There are nature walks, snorkelling (if you can brave the brisk English sea), gig racing, bottomless boat rides, wildlife tours (Scilly is famed for its puffins between April to July) – not to mention three more islands to frequent: St Agnes, Tresco and St Martin’s. A long weekend on St Mary’s is just enough time to give you a taste for island life, and leave you hungry for more. So when are you going to visit?
How to get there: Scillonian III passenger ferry from Penzance to St Mary’s, March to November, adult prices start at £49.50 one-way.
Skybus from Newquay, Exeter or Land’s End to St Mary’s. Fares start at £80 one-way.
Helicopter flights from Land’s End to St Mary’s start at £215 per person return.
Where to stay: Porthenor B&B, situated in the Old Town overlooking Old Town Bay. Bed and breakfast is £45-52 per person, per night.
For more information, visit the official website at www.visitislesofscilly.com.