Islands of paradise

A seal pup enjoys some sub-tropical sunshine. Photo: Mike Harcum

A seal pup enjoys some sub-tropical sunshine. Photo: Mike Harcum - Credit: Archant

Sitting 28 miles from the mainland this collection of more than 130 islands boasts a subtropical climate and a unique way of life. Lesley Double boards the ferry to paradise

Consisting of just five inhabited islands – St Mary’s, Tresco, St Agnes, St Martin’s and Bryher – and more than 130 uninhabited islands and rocky outcrops, the archipelago of the Isles of Scilly lies 28 miles from mainland Cornwall. Thanks to the effect of the sea and the North Atlantic Current, the islands rarely suffer from frost or snow which is a great boon to the farmers who produce some of the earliest flowers, most of which are sent up country to brighten the houses of those suffering under more adverse weather conditions. According to the latest census, the islands are permanent home to around 2,200 people although this number is considerably more in summer: it is estimated that tourism accounts for more than 80% of the islands’ income. Visitors are welcomed at all times of the year, though there are obviously more during the summer months.

How to get there:

Whether you arrive on the Isles of Scilly by sea or sky, there is no doubting that you are visiting somewhere very special.

The 2½ hour crossing by Scillonian III ferry from Penzance will take you to St Mary’s either via Crow Sound to the north, or St Mary’s Sound to the south, depending on the tides, and you will pass a myriad of islands with many more in sight as you dock. Flying in by Skybus from Land’s End, Newquay or Exeter Airports, the islands appear uncountable, with perfect white beaches and sitting in a sparkling blue sea – you could easily imagine you were landing in the Caribbean! It feels very exciting!

Now the helicopter service from Penzance is no longer running, Isles of Scilly Travel has aimed to make it easier for passengers to reach the islands, either for holidays or day trips. The ferry will run on Sundays during the height of the season, allowing passengers enough time to enjoy lunch or a walk before the return cruise.

During July and August, there are more than 30 Skybus flights per day, Monday to Saturday. A small fleet of minibuses and taxis will take you from St Mary’s Airport to Hugh Town, to your holiday accommodation or to the Quay for any onward boats to the off islands. Or, if you have come by ferry, you can almost step off the Scillonian III and onto a much smaller boat to travel onwards to Tresco, Bryher, St Martin’s or St Agnes. Indeed it is such a smooth operation that, before you know it, you are sitting in your hotel, on a beach or in a restaurant garden, enjoying the best of what Scilly has to offer.

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Where to stay:

There are various places to stay on most of the five islands though, not surprisingly, the greatest numbers are found on St Mary’s. Two popular hotels on St Mary’s are the Star Castle and the St Mary’s Hall Hotel.

Built in the shape of an eight pointed star and surrounded by a moat and ramparts, the Star Castle dates from the time of Queen Elizabeth I and has recently celebrated its 80th anniversary as a hotel. The Star Castle is perched high on Garrison Hill and has spectacular views to the sea and islands every way you look.

Surrounded by Mediterranean gardens, St Mary’s Hall Hotel is in a sheltered position near to the parish church, with level walks to the nearby shops, beaches and the quay. This year, St Mary’s Hall Hotel is offering a Spring deal from 21 March until the end of April, offering dinner, bed & breakfast for four nights for the price of three providing the booking covers a weekend.

You will find self-catering apartments, cottages and bungalows on all islands, and you are sure to find just the right one for you whether it is on the beach, in a new or old building, adjoining a pub or restaurant, or in the middle of nowhere. Be prepared to book early to ensure you get the property and week you require, as many visitors to the islands are returnees who come to the same holiday home year after year. Self-catering accommodation can be found on the Simply Scilly website, or contact Scilly Self Catering which looks after 50 properties on St Mary’s, making sure each of them is ready to receive visitors, whatever day of week the changeover. Rob Iwasek is Scilly Self Catering’s operations manager. “We can help getting our clients over here, by boat or air, as well as offer a grocery service,” he says, “It’s important to us that our guests have as easy and restful a holiday as possible and we are delighted when they want to come back.”

There are a few basic campsites on the islands, but last year a field of luxury safari tents was set up at Peninnis Farm. Surrounded by protective hedges, the seven tents each sleep six. They all have three bedrooms – a double room, a twin room and one with bunk beds – a wood burning stove, kitchen and shower room/wc. This self-catering under canvas is very civilised camping indeed! Run by the May family, Peninnis Farm has the first biomass plant on the Isles of Scilly, which supplies both instant hot water and drinking water to the tents. “It took seven years to get this site up and running,” says Jon May. “We want it to be more than just a place to come and stay, but to provide a holiday our guests will remember.”

How to get around:

It is obviously not possible to take your car to the islands, but that is no problem as there are taxis, bicycles for hire and buses, and it is easy to walk almost anywhere in hardly any time at all. Wheelchairs and scooters are available for hire from Penzance Shopmobility who will allow you to take them to the islands for a day trip or holiday: transportation of wheelchairs and scooters is free on Scillonian III.

A seven-day community bus runs around St Mary’s stopping at places such as Juliet’s Garden Restaurant and Bar, Telegraph Hill and Old Town.

If you want to be independent, try the Scilly Cart Co at Porthmellon where electric buggies can be hired for as little as £35 a day. Five years ago, brothers Michael and William (Willy) Pritchard bought a couple of golf buggies. It took two years to make them road legal, but now business is booming and they have 16, two-, four- and six-seater buggies, and this year will have an eight-seater buggy which can be used for large families or weddings. “Nowhere else has road legal golf buggies,” boasts Michael. “What started off as a fun hobby has turned into a fun business!”

The St Mary’s Boatmen’s Association (SMBA) is a group of 10 independently owned boats that provides a service to and around the islands, including evening, fishing and pelagic trips. Each boat carries between 70 and 100 passengers.

Various islands have their own boats which can be hired as a taxi service, for example or Bryher Boat Services’ Cyclone or Hurricane will come and pick you up and take you to wherever you like to order. You feel very special as you soar across the water from one island to another in your own personal boat!

Isles of Scilly: events 2014

There’s no better way to explore the Isles of Scilly than on foot. Like nowhere else in England, the entire archipelago is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, right down to the last grain of sand. Located just off the coast of Cornwall, the islands are outstandingly beautiful and unspoilt. Walk Scilly 2014 taking place 12 - 18 April offers walkers the opportunity to discover the rich heritage of the five inhabited islands, guided by local experts.

An invitation to taste the UK’s mildest Spring, with hedgerows and gardens in full bloom, April on Scilly also promises the return of birds and wildlife to these sub-tropical shores.

The seven day festival offers a series of themed walks across the islands’ 60 miles of pathways. Led by guides, with an intimate knowledge of the islands and British countryside, you’ll be able to hop between the islands, without the worry of having to plan your boat trips and walking routes. Now, that’s a holiday!

In addition to its sandy white beaches, Scilly has the UK’s greatest concentration of prehistoric burial sites and one of Europe’s highest numbers of shipwrecks. The islands are also a mecca for rare migrant bird species.

New for 2014 will be a range of activities immersing walkers in true Scillonian life. Ranging from cockle and winkle picking, and learning how to cook these coastal delicacies, to a walk around a working farm, picking some island grown narcissi, and a guided coastal run, there’s a little something for everyone.

Additional themes for the walks include archaeology, gardens, boats, and even star gazing at the islands’ phenomenally dark skies.

Walk Scilly coincides with the Isles of Scilly Folk Festival (17-20 April), and what better way to end a day of rambling than relaxing to some happy melodies, fine food and a pint of ale?

And, if you’d like to rest those aching feet for the day, you’ll be able to pop along to one of the islands’ food events, snorkel with seals, or explore the archipelago’s uninhabited islands by kayak.

The 5th Art Scilly arts festival, 10-17 May 2014 offers a fantastic and varied programme of workshops with the chance to discover and develop skills in a wide range of painting and drawing media, plus working with glass, printmaking, felt, silk, silver and photography. Full details are on www.simply or facebook/art scilly, otherwise contact organiser Oriel Hicks on 01720 422900. It’s a week-long festival and would make a good holiday – accommodation details on the website and discounted sea/air travel with Skybus on 0845 7105555.