We explore the secluded and peaceful Isles of Scilly
PUBLISHED: 13:42 13 August 2010 | UPDATED: 15:44 20 February 2013
In this February issue we explore the secluded ad peaceful Isles of Scilly - a perfect place to spend a relaxing weekend in.
Ian Wilkinson explores the beautiful Isles of Scilly and suggests that 48 hours may go all too quickly
For many years the Isles of Scilly have been known as 'The Fortunate Isles'. If you don't know why, then you haven't been! A bold statement, but one reinforced by the islands' tourist surveys, which regularly show a higher percentage of return visits than anywhere else in the UK.
The islands, 28 miles off the Cornish coast, are remote and for hundreds of years they basked in glorious obscurity - an outpost of Empire seldom visited save by fishermen, the military and, in more recent times, ornithologists and the very rich. In fact, this isolation probably contributed to a way of life which, even today, is rather more relaxed than on the mainland and where old-fashioned values still prevail. For many visitors, a trip to the islands represents a step back in time to an English quality of life long since lost.
Today, while the islands are still remote, they are far from isolated and they make a perfect destination for a weekend break. Regular helicopter flights from Penzance and fixed-wing flights from Land's End, Newquay, Exeter, Bristol and Southampton operate all year, whilst the islands' own ferry service, MV Scillonian, sails from Penzance, Mondays to Saturdays between Easter and the end of October. In fact, if journey time is unimportant to you, the leisurely two-and-a-half-hour cruise from Penzance to the islands' capital, Hugh Town, is a perfect introduction to island life.
Where to stay
If this is your first visit then it makes a lot of sense to stay on the main island of St Mary's. This is not just because accommodation is more varied and plentiful than on the other four inhabited 'off' islands but because St Mary's is the hub of the islands' boat services, offering far more options for inter-island travel - particularly on a 48-hour break.
Hugh Town on St Mary's is the largest settlement on the islands and every grade of accommodation is on offer - from the luxurious to the humble B&B. Accommodation on the off islands is more limited but all of them, except St Agnes, have one large hotel in the luxury class. Many of the hotels offer short-break deals so it is worth checking the tourist information office (details below).
All of the major hotels throughout the islands have fine restaurants often with extensive sea views and there's a good choice of restaurants, pubs and simple cafs on both St Mary's and the off islands.
Again, Hugh Town offers the widest choice. There are some really nice restaurants serving great seafood, while, for more simple fare, all of the pubs in Hugh Town do excellent crab sandwiches and pasties. On the off islands, the hotels offer some very fine dining, also using local produce where possible.
Three things to take home
For many visitors just memories are enough - and a longing to return. But for something a little more tangible here are my suggestions.
A hand-made bag: a small company in Hugh Town with the unlikely name of Rat Island makes hand-made canvas bags of all shapes and sizes. Known as Rat Bags (what else!) they are well designed, beautifully made and will last a lifetime.
Bulbs - flowers, not lamps! The islands are famous for flowers and, in fact, many years ago the growing of narcissi was an economic mainstay. There is an amazing variety of cut flowers and bulbs that you can buy to take home. If you're not green-fingered you could cheat and buy perfume made from local narcissi at Portloo Studio on St Mary's.
A piece of jewellery: Rebecca Smith on St Agnes makes pendants, bangles and earrings using silver wire and semi-precious stones or shells taken from the beach, whilst Fay Page on St Martin's creates contemporary solid silver jewellery with an island theme.
Hugh Town really has everything you are going to need on a 48-hour break. There are the usual 'essential' shops such as butchers, bakers, chemists and newsagents, as well as a post office and a couple of banks - one of which, critically, has a cash machine! There are also lots of little specialist shops and galleries where you can buy everything from work by local artists to chandlery, and from outdoor clothing to fishing gear.
On either side of the main street you will find a beach. Porthcressa is perfect for swimming (although I always find the waters of Scilly cold - a wetsuit is a must!), while Town Beach on the harbour side is a great place to sit and watch people in boats. If you don't like sand, both of the beaches have pubs with patios almost down to the water's edge.
Things to do
There is so much to do on the Islands that on a short break you'll only manage a taste of what's on offer. For outdoor types, there are guided walks, birdwatching and marine wildlife opportunities unequalled in the UK, as well as boat and fishing trips. For the more energetic, in the spring and summer you can swim or snorkel, dive on wrecks, sail or play golf. Here are a couple of suggestions for a weekend break:
A boat trip. If you have elected to stay on one of the off islands you have no choice on this one! For those on St Mary's there are lots to choose from with daily trips to all of the off islands and further afield to the Eastern Isles and Western Rocks (including the Bishop Rock lighthouse and an opportunity to watch the seals). You could also charter a high speed RIB for a thrilling trip around all the islands, or join one of the special boat trips that offer a visit to three of the off islands in one day.
Visit the Abbey Gardens on Tresco. The world-famous gardens are open all year and many of the sub-tropical species simply won't grow on the mainland. The weird and wonderful plants, ambitious planting schedule and landscaping and design of the gardens make for a fascinating and relaxing experience.
A bus tour. There are no cars on the off islands, which is a blessing. However, local cars, taxis and buses are allowed on St Mary's. There are a couple of excellent bus tours, which will give you a taste of the island in around an hour. I chose Katie, a 1948 Austin K2 single-decker. Despite her age, she was actually very comfortable and the witty and knowledgeable commentary taught me much about St Mary's that would have been difficult to find elsewhere.
Tourist Information Centre, Hugh Town, St Mary's (01720 424031, www.simplyscilly.co.uk
More holiday information available from www.scillyonline.co.uk
Isles of Scilly Travel (Skybus and MV Scillonian), Quay Street, Penzance (0845 7105555, www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk
British International (Helicopters,)
The Heliport, Penzance (07136 363871, http://www.islesofscillyhelicopter.com/