48 Hours in... The Isles of Scilly
PUBLISHED: 14:06 18 August 2010 | UPDATED: 14:52 20 February 2013
The off-peak season in February and March make it an ideal time to take a short break in the Isles of Scilly. You are guaranteed to return home relaxed and refreshed
Spend a short break in the Isles of Scilly and you will return relaxed and refreshed, says Ian Wilkinson
Right in our own back yard is a group of islands that are absolutely perfect for a weekend break. Readers of a certain age will remember England 50 years ago. Life was a little quieter, strangers gave you a friendly 'good morning', there were no traffic jams and stress was hardly recognised as a human condition. Well, in just a few short minutes by air (or a leisurely 21/2 hours by sea), you can be transported back in time to the Isles of Scilly, where the pace of life really is just that little bit more relaxed.
Of course, time has not entirely passed the islands by. Visitor accommodation is of a high standard, and you can eat as well here as anywhere in the Westcountry, with transport to and between the islands much improved. But the essence of the islands remains unchanged - white sandy beaches, rugged cliffs, tiny settlements, exotic plants, a mild climate and, always, the sound and smell of the sea.
Hit the downtown
Hugh Town is the islands' capital, which sounds rather grand for a town with just a handful of shops, a few hotels and a smattering of pubs and restaurants. Yet it is by far the largest settlement on the Isles of Scilly and everything you could possibly need on a weekend break is obtainable here. The main part of the town is really just a long main street separating two rather attractive beaches - Porthcressa on the south side and Town Beach on the north side. Porthcressa, set in a beautiful sheltered bay, is a splendid beach for swimming, and has a couple of pubs and restaurants where you can enjoy lunch or a drink and watch the ever-changing sea.
Five minutes' walk away is Town Beach, which is altogether different. The western end is full of mooring ropes, chains and other nautical clutter associated with a busy harbour, while further east it gradually changes into a pleasant unencumbered strand. Again, there are a couple of pubs where you can sit and watch the boating activity.
As for the shops, there's the usual collection of butchers, bakers, hardware stores, chandlers and even a small supermarket. There are also a couple of banks, one of which has a cash machine. But, perhaps, of more interest to the weekend visitor are the specialist shops. There are at least a dozen in Hugh Town itself and quite a few more (usually studios and galleries) on the rest of St Mary's, selling items such as clothing, bags, coins, artefacts and bric-a-brac.
Where can we stay?
The main island of St Mary's, with the islands' capital, Hugh Town, has a number of good hotels and guesthouses, ranging from the modest to the luxurious. The Star Castle Hotel, as its name suggests, occupies a 16th-century castle and has some excellent rooms, a particularly good seafood restaurant and a real sense of history. Another favourite is nearby Tregathen's, with good accommodation and a modern bar and restaurant. Even if you don't stay here, a crab sandwich and a glass of wine on the terrace overlooking the harbour is a delight.
On the four remaining inhabited islands, known as the 'off islands', accommodation is limited, although three of them each have a hotel - all in spectacular locations. Overlooking uninhabited Round Island, the St Martin's on the Isle Hotel is a modern development in the style of granite cottages. On Bryher, the Hell Bay Hotel is sophisticated and close to some wonderful cliff-top scenery, whilst Tresco has the Island Hotel, set in beautiful lawns with exotic plants and stunning views.
All of the islands have B&Bs of course and self-catering is becoming ever more popular. On Tresco, for instance, a brand new complex of beachfront self-catering houses, collectively known as the Flying Boat Club, has just opened, with some great leisure-club facilities for residents.
Three things to take home (as well as wonderful memories)
A plant - Scilly is famous for its flowers, and all sorts of bulbs (particularly narcissi) are available. A particular favourite is the agapanthus. Mine has survived on the mainland for three years now, but beware of frost.
Handmade jewellery - both Rebecca Smith on St Agnes and Fay Page on St Martin's make exquisite silver- crafted jewellery using local semi-precious stones and sea glass.
Perfume - Scilly is famous for narcissi and you can buy perfume and watch it being made at Porthloo Studio just outside Hugh Town.
Stop for a bite to eat
Most of the hotels on St Mary's and the off islands have restaurants, usually with an Anglo-French influence. My favourite is the Island Hotel on Tresco, which is fairly pricey but worth it for the quality of the food and the views. For food on a more modest scale try The Turk's Head on St Agnes. This is a brilliant pub with lots of atmosphere and some excellent local food - particularly fish. The Boathouse, in Hugh Town, is a seafood restaurant with a growing reputation. Juliet's Garden in nearby Porthloo was once a simple tearoom but has grown somewhat in recent years. It still serves exceedingly good tea, coffee and cakes. If you fancy fresh crab sandwiches for lunch, the Bishop and Wolf in Hugh Town is for you. Another couple of off-island pubs worth a mention are the New Inn on Tresco and the Seven Stones on St Martin's, both of which sell real ale and home-cooked food. Still on the off islands, two places to buy food for a picnic are the bakery on St Martin's, which sells wonderful pasties, as well as bread and cakes, and Troytown Farm on St Agnes, which sells ice cream to die for!
What to do around the islands
You won't be stuck for things to do on the islands - particularly if you only have a couple of days. There's walking, golf, boat trips - both conventional and on high-speed RIBs, bus trips, bird-watching, beachcombing, fishing and stargazing (there's no light pollution). In summer you can add swimming, snorkelling and diving, pilot gig racing and all other manner of water sports.
Here are some suggestions for a weekend break. The Abbey Gardens on Tresco are world famous for their thousands of varieties of sub-tropical plants, many of which would not survive even 30 miles away on the Cornish mainland. It has been described as 'Kew without glass', and even if you have little interest in or knowledge of gardening and horticulture, you cannot fail to be impressed by the beautiful landscaping and the sheer scale of some of the plants. Even in winter you will find over 30 varieties in flower! The gardens are open all year.
There are some beautiful walks around St Mary's, but with limited time you may prefer to hop on a guided bus tour of the island. On my last visit there were two companies operating, one with an open-top double-decker and one with a single-decker named Katie - an Austin K2 dating from 1948. The tour took about an hour and the commentary was both entertaining and knowledgeable, and well worth the money.
Take a boat trip and walk round St Agnes. The island is a couple of miles long and a mile wide, with a coastal path that promises sea views of the other islands, amazing bird life, sandy beaches and sheltered coves, a holy well and a sand bar leading to the tiny island of Gugh, which, apart from being beautiful, is an important site of Bronze Age antiquities. A leisurely circular walk will take about two hours. Conveniently, the excellent Turk's Head is at the top of the slip where the boats from St Mary's land.
The islands can be reached by helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft all year round, and from Penzance, by sea, from mid-March. Although boats from St Mary's to the off islands run all year, the service is limited during the winter months, so if you have a particular off island in mind it's best to check before you leave the mainland. The exception is Tresco, which has a direct helicopter link with the mainland.
Isles of Scilly Travel (Skybus and Scillonian), Quay Street, Penzance 0845 710 5555,
British International (Helicopters) 01736 363871, www.islesofscillyhelicopter.com