Just 28 miles of the English coastline in the Celtic Sea, five inhabited islands are home to some wonderfully quaint English settlements. Many more uninhabited islands are left for nature and the local wildlife to shape as they please. Together, these form the picturesque archipelago of the Isles of Scilly, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which will leave any visitor astonished that they’ve not come across this gem of a destination before.
Planning a trip to the Isles of Scilly is almost as fun as exploring these islands. You’ve got the choice of arriving by boat, airplane and helicopter. The Scillonian III sets sail from Penzance early mornings and returns late afternoon. The journey takes about 2.40 hours and open returns start from £95. (Day trips are available for about £25).
If taking on the rough seas is not to your liking, you’ve the option of flying with Skybus who operate fleet of six light aircraft from a selection of smaller UK Airports, including Lands’ End. Flying in an 8 seater (Norman Britten Islander) or 17 seater (De Havilland Twin Otter Dash 6) maybe like having your own personal plane but it does come at a price and is the most expensive way of reaching Scilly. Singles range from a starting price of £60 from Lands End to £150 from Southampton (it’s important to emphasise that these are starting prices and the reality is that you’ll pay more for this experience, also worth noting that day returns are available and work out cheaper – but you’ll be gutted you’ve not spent longer).
The third option to reach the islands is by British Inferential helicopter flights. For anyone who’s wanted to ever experience a helicopter flight, this is an affordable way to experience both the thrill of taking off vertically and travelling to the Isle of Scilly. Flights leave regularly from Penzance and take only about 20 minutes in a Sikorsky S-61. The relatively low speed and low attitude of the flight means that passengers get a great view of the archipelago with ample time to snap some great pictures. Day returns run at great value, £99.
The majority of tourists will need to start their travels either on the motorway or the train line towards Penzance; UK’s most westerly major town, some 300 miles from London. First Great Western Trains who service much of southern England offer a great deal from London where you can purchase a combined train ticket to Penzance with onward travel to the Islands. Generally these tickets provide the best value for visitors and all prices are available by calling 08457 000 125.
For the most part, whichever mode of transport you decide, your first port of call is likely to be the largest of the islands, ‘St. Mary's’. This serves as the archipelagos capital and will serve as your arrival hub from the main land. The only exception to this will be if you decide to take the helicopter flight to ‘Tresco’ instead. Like everything on the islands both the airport and sea port are small and quaint, fitting in nicely with the surrounding area.
Being the largest of the islands, home to approximately 1600 residents, St Mary’s is where you’ll find most commodities. Whilst the islands stocks and product range may be limited, most visitors will find what they’re looking for in the islands large Co-op ‘Supermarket’. Hugh Town, the main settlement here is home to many bed and breakfasts, fine cafes, local craft and souvenir shops, as well as the islands four pubs, all located neatly along the cobbled narrow paths. It’s worth noting that as most goods need to be shipped in from the mainland, costs of living may be higher than expected. Don’t go expecting cheap prices, as many of the products, food, and services will be on par as what is offered in other larger English cities.
Hugh Town is positioned on an Isthmus; a narrow stretch of land leading to a peninsular. The location blesses the residence with two white sandy beaches either side, only separated by 100 metres or so. The northern beach though very picturesque is criss crossed with anchor lines to small boats and barges further out to sea. Here is also where you can sit on the sand and take in the sight of the harbour where the ‘Scillonian III’ docks for its daily visits. In contrast, the southern beach provides an excellent and peaceful picnic area. Yachts gently bob with the waves in the distance and if luck is with you, you may catch a glimpse of a seal perching on an islet. Further west of Hugh Town, the surface elevates and comes to a head at the peninsular. This area is home to what’s known as ‘The Garrison’; a Star Castle built in 1593. The outer walls of this fortification stretch out to the shore and a wonderful walking path runs alongside. The islands campsite is located here and costs between £8- £11 a pitch per person. For those wanting an ever quieter surrounding, you can follow the Old Town Road to Old Town, less than a mile away along a winding country road, with its own sandy beach. Accommodation here tends to be a little less costly. A walk through the well-kept graveyard here will reveal the final resting place of former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.
St Mary has some excellent walking trails. They can take you through lush green vegetation, past white sandy beaches, and on to rocky shorelines all within a matter of minutes and all to the setting of the lovely blue and turquoise ocean. The small size of this islands means you can walk around St Mary’s, including its many inlets and bays in a matter of few hours. If walking is not for you, there is also a small irregular bus that services the island. For £1.50 the driver will happily drop you off where you need to go and with no official bus stops, waving the bus down as is comes down the road is not a problem. The doors, which are still operated by a makeshift rope that the driver operates, make an amusing touch. If you do decide to catch the bus, bare in mind the central island will be covered in only 20 minutes, leaving you with a lot of spare time on your hands. If in doubt, you can always pop into the friendly and helpful tourist information centre in Hugh Town.
When on St Mary’s it would truly be a sin not to visit one of the other four inhabited ‘off islands’ as the locals refer to them. A network of small motor boats known as ‘Launches’ connect the islands and ferry people to and from. A large number of boat excursions that leave in the morning most days from the harbour quay are on selection, displaying the day’s trips on boards with photographs and price information. When you’ve decided where you want to go, then simply approach the hut where you can buy your ticket from. It doesn’t matter which boat trip you end up on, it’s bound to be an enjoyable experience watching sea birds diving a few meters away from you in to the sea for their catch, and seals popping their heads out of the water to see what the fuss is all about. Be warned, if you opt for an excursion which takes to the outer limits of the archipelago, the sea regains its choppiness and the small boats rock back and forth; possibly not suitable for those who easily suffer from sea sickness. One of such excursions takes you to the eastern isles, a collection of rocky islets where a huge variety of bird species can be spotted, as well as a popular playground for the local seal population. The boats will anchor for short periods of time so tourists can wait patiently for these remarkable sea creatures to appear. It’s possible to reach each of the ‘off islands’ and spend a few hours exploring. The boats are able to drop you off and pick you up later on in the day. Alternatively, if you wish to stay longer, each island manages to support a pub and degree of tourist accommodation. Generally speaking there is also a limited general convenience store combined with a post office giving a real sense of community.
Visitors will not only be amazed by the beauty of these islands, but also by their history. Evidence suggests, man has had influence over these lands as early as Stone Ages, through Roman times and Norse Period, culminating in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. Ruins of various fortifications are still visible across these specks of green in the ocean. Many buildings standing today all have rich historical and nautical stories behind them involving pirates and smuggling. The best way to enjoy a story of sea escapades from an earlier time is to have a pint in the ‘Mermaid Inn’, whose own history reached the headlines not many years ago.
Scilly really is a one of a kind; so small and friendly that you’ll no doubt bump into the same people day in day out, yet plenty of cafes and pubs, to keep you entertained for a while. Miles of wonderful coastline, both for building sand castles or going rock pooling are always only minutes away. The southern latitude means that these islands are the warmest with the longest amount of sun shine within the UK. Combined with the community spirit of this place, the Isles of Scilly make for a truly marvellous holiday destination. Whilst many may flock to the Caribbean why not experience the white sandy beaches, turquoise seas and abundance of warm weather at our very own English Caribbean, just on our door step.