The Isles of Scilly are unique. Situated off the south-western tip of the UK, they are in many ways wonderfully British. Green, charming and at times very wet. But they are also wonderfully un-British; tranquil, tropical, idyllic and unspoiled. I have been visiting these islands all my life, and still to this day I wonder why they are such a hidden gem for tourists? A lot of people from the UK would claim to have never heard of these islands!
Don’t get me wrong, there are tourists there, and the islands economy heavily relies on visitors in the summer months, but this is not Benidorm or the Costa Del Sol. Tourists here will find crystal clear waters, long deserted beaches with fine white sand and unpolluted peace that is alien to the modern generations. The warm gulf stream literally makes this small set of islands tropical.
The Isles of Scilly are without a doubt my favourite place in the world. And for someone who has such a wanderlust for exploring new countries and cultures, having a favourite location set in the country I am from is a big statement.
The first time I ‘visited’ the islands was in May 1983 when my mum was 5 months pregnant with me. Since then my family have visited on and off most summers, and even though my instinct is to always discover new places, I have been hooked on visiting the Isles of Scilly whenever I can, their magic always draws me back.
Located 45km off the coast of Cornwall, The Islands are an oasis of beauty and actually seem 1000’s of km’s away from the realities of everyday life once you are there. The collection of 145 islands (with only 5 inhabited), have just over 2,000 permanent residents with the vast majority living on the largest island of St Mary’s. Added to that the wonderfully local community contributes to the Islands charm. The locals who will be boating you around the islands one minute, will be the same people who will be sharing the bar with you in the pub in the evening. Everyone helps everyone on the islands and with many houses happily left unlocked and bikes unguarded, it is like stepping into a world of peace, beauty and happiness.
However, it’s the freedom that to me is its biggest appeal, even as a small child I would love heading out on my own, on my bike and exploring and embracing the innocence of childhood that has been lost in today’s society. I would head off on my bike for hours at a time as a young boy. Exploring cliff paths, secret passageways and taking in the endless collection of picture postcard views. My parents need never worry about safety, for me it was literally a giant playground. My imagination has always been very creative and I owe this in part to the independence I got in these early holidays.
Today, my young nieces and nephew enjoy and love the freedom of the islands and it is amazing to see them embrace that same sensation that I once had. This is even more of a treat in this modern day when allowing them that independence in ‘normal life’ is simply too much of a risk.
My holidays have mainly been spent on Tresco, the second largest island with a population of just under 200, and by far my favourite. It is small enough to walk the circumference of cliff paths in a day, and with no cars on the islands, it really does give you an amazing sense of serenity. Wildlife and gardening lovers also flock here for the amazing array of birds, flowers and fauna which can only grow in tropical climates.
The islands are typically untouristy, yet the tourists who go are rewarded with countless activities to do. Endless exploring on bike or foot, island hopping, boating, sailing, wildlife spotting, scuba diving, tennis, golf to name but a few. My family often hire a small motor boat when we visit allowing us the freedom to visit each island whenever we want, as well as giving us the added luxury of sometimes being the only people on one of the uninhabited islands. Each of the largest 5 islands has its own pub with a wide selection of world class Cornish Ales and Beers and eating choices range from fish and chips on the beach all the way up to gourmet fine dining.
You may be thinking at this point that I have over exaggerated my description of the Isles of Scilly, or indeed defined an impossible place, especially for somewhere in England. I urge however anyone to make the effort to visit. I have taken friends with me in the past and heard stories of others who I have recommended to go, and I have never heard a story of regret, only ones of amazement and love.
It must be noted however, that for all their beauty and charm, the weather can at times become very British and the golden beaches and blue seas are overshadowed by rain storms and clouds. Although not ideal, this can be turned into an adventure still and the view of the Atlantic waves crashing against the islands rock faces is a sight to behold, and the pubs and restaurants make perfect hide outs.
A holiday here generally does not come cheap however and some self-catering cottages (especially on Tresco) can cost up to a £7,000 a week (for 10), but this is luxury accommodation that includes spa access, golf, and other tourist attractions in the cost. A holiday here can be done affordably however. A decent B&B can be sourced for around £40 a night on the other islands, and you can even camp on all the other 4 inhabited islands for as little as £9 a night. If your happy to self-explore once you are there then you can really keep the costs down further. It is however often the travel that can be the biggest hit on one’s wallet.
As much as the islands themselves hold a quirky nature, so does the transport to get there. In short, unless you live in the South West of England, it takes a lot of effort- but again, that is another reason I love the islands, the fact you have to put time in to reach them makes the reward even greater once you arrive.
I normally travel down from London by rail, and although driving and flying down to Cornwall is an option, I always opt for the sleeper train. This institution is dying out and there are now only a few routes in the UK which offer sleeper services. For me though, the excitement of boarding a train at almost midnight and waking up after a night’s sleep in your cabin early in Cornwall is part of the experience and where the holiday really begins. In addition, as you are asleep for most of the journey you are not losing any travel hours getting there.
The final leg of the trip poses two options. 1) The more expensive, scenic and quicker route of a small 8-16 seater plane, which takes around 20 minutes and gives a stunning panoramic introduction to the islands as you fly in, or 2) the cheaper, but slower ferry which takes around 2 and a half hours. The boat trip is fine on a good day and you can enjoy pleasant views and weather out on the sun deck, but be warned, anything close to a choppy sea and the majority of the passengers will be seeing their breakfast again in a domino chain effect! My advice, if you’ve never been is to take the plane. Yes, it’s about £100 more expensive, but the speed means you start your holiday quicker, and you get the added experience of a joy flight, which on a clear day is a photographers dream (especially on the return leg).