The harder it is to get somewhere, generally the more special the place.
The Scilly Islands, 28 miles off Land’s End at the southwestern tip of England, is such a place.
The five islands that make up the Isles of Scilly, St Mary’s, St Agnes, St Martins, Tresco and Bryher, are all very different in size, population, and terrain, but serene white beaches are a common theme.
The islands benefit from their position in the Gulf Stream, providing a milder climate, year-round than the mainland.
The more moderate temperatures create an environment perfect for unusual and tropical flora and fauna, but more on that later.
In mid-September, only a brave handful (we were among them) immerse themselves in the bracing Atlantic.
Step on any of the Scilly Isles’ beaches this time of year and you’ll discover the place is all yours.
“The beaches are delightfully empty,” I say to the man taking tickets on the ferry service making regular journeys between the islands.
“It’s like this even in summer,” he replies.
Travelling to the Scilly Islands takes time, effort, and money, and there is limited accommodation, making it a paradise for those who make the journey.
St. Mary’s is the largest of the islands, and is a gateway to the mainland, with Skybus flights arriving from Exeter, Newquay and Penzance.
We begin from London, by rail, with First Great Western’s updated first class service to Exeter.
Skybus operates a seamless service.
The small aircraft offer great views of the islands and are part of the adventure.
We’re greeted in St. Mary’s by what feels like a small army.
Big, burly men fling bags into the backs of vans, organising passengers by destination.
Karma man Spence
We catch the boat to St. Martins for our stay at Karma, owned by John Spence, who managed Culture Club and Bananarama.
Yes, really. Spence recently bought the hotel and is in the process of updating guest rooms.
From its perch on a slope just above the port, the views are outstanding.
It’s worth getting up early for what I call Monet Morning, a warm pink-ish purple sunrise reflected in the water, visible from our bedroom.
There are a few things that make Karma really special.
The hospitality is memorable. Francesca, the general manager, and Scott, who runs reception and seemingly anything else that needs tending to, are warm, welcoming, and instantly convey a ‘nothing is too much,’ attitude.
The bar with its comfy leather couches and open atmosphere is perfect for a pre-dinner backgammon game.
After dinner, Spence’s influence is seen in a library just off the bar, with a record player along and dozens of old vinyls.
Seventies and eighties fans will be delighted, as are we. The library has been professionally curated to include titles relating to the area in some way, be it Cornish crime novels, or books about the sea.
We spend more than an hour playing and singing along to old favourites and skimming books.
But dinner itself is the showstopper. Fresh lobster caught that day, from just in front of the hotel, is mighty and meaty and oh so tender.
A request for local field mushrooms rather than potatoes results in a dish so well flavoured, it’s almost as good as the baked lobster.
Dessert, like the music, is a wonderful throwback – Knickerbocker glory. With locally sourced layers of cream and ice cream, it’s an indulgence worth every calorie.
We spend four days (but wish we had five) exploring three of the Scilly Islands keeping busy with lots of active, outdoors adventures and refuelling on great local food.
St. Martin’s makes a great base, as does St. Mary’s for those who fancy a bit more commerce and restaurant choices. Here’s a suggested itinerary with our highlights:
Walk across St. Martin’s from Lower Town to Higher Town, where you’ll find the post office, a tearoom and the island bakery. It will give you a great feel for the intimacy of the island and it’s 80 residents and plenty of opportunities to snack on the ever-present wild blackberries, depending on the season. Paths off the main road lead to some of the best beaches on the Scilly Isles. Finish the day with a swim and dinner at Karma.
Take the Tresco Boat Service to this privately owned island.
Hire bicycles from the Bike Shop next to the Tresco Stores, which is a must for local fudge and other goodies.
The entire island is 2.5 miles long and a mile wide, so it’s an easy ride to Tresco Abbey Garden, which attracts garden-lovers from all over the world to visit the sub-tropical garden.
The climate is so unique; the 20,000 plants that grow here would never survive on the mainland.
The 17-acre gardens are like Jurassic Park, with unusual flowers, trees, birds and other creatures – all incredibly vibrant and over-sized.
Continue by bike, following the coast, until you get to the Ruin Beach Café.
A range of dishes are on offer, but there’s only one thing to order here: the gigantic crab sandwiches on homemade bread. It’s an, “I’m so full, but it’s so good,” affair. Gluten-free eaters are catered for with wheat-free bread and cakes.
Enjoy a quiet morning exploring St. Martin’s beaches and spend the afternoon snorkelling with seals. You’ll be kitted out in thick wetsuits to keep warm, and taken by boat to a protected seal reserve where the mammals pop their heads above water and stand waiting on the shore for swimmers to play with. They really do snuggle up, sometimes quite by surprise.
Head to St. Mary’s and meet up with Nick Lishman, owner of Adventure Scilly and founder of the annual Scilly Swim Challenge.
The Swim Challenge sells out within two days of opening for registration every November. It’s an all-day, all-island swim, covering more than 15km.
It’s more fun, than competitive with lots of tea and cakes in between. Lishman organises custom itineraries for adventurers. And, if a taste of the open water swim is what you’re after, Lishman can provide a bespoke experience based on distance, trailing in his motorboat.
We took on the 4.5km leg from St. Mary’s to St. Agnes. The brisk, exhilarating swim worked up our appetite for a hearty meal on St. Mary’s at Juliet’s Garden, after a stroll through HolyVale Vineyards, one of two on the Isles producing local wine.
Set on a hill, with views across the harbour, the staff at Juliet’s make the evening memorable. Fresh local seafood and a warm marmalade Bakewell tart are their specialties.
The Island Partnership and Visit Isles of Scilly hosted Amy’s trip.
Isles of Scilly Travel Skybus flights to St. Mary’s
The Isles of Scilly Travel passenger ship, Scillonian III, sails from Penzance Harbour to St. Mary’s.
To book tickets visit: www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk
Great Western Railway
Trains from London to Exeter, Newquay and Penzance on: www.gwr.com
Karma St. Martin’s
Ruin Beach Cafe, Tresco www.tresco.co.uk/eating-on-tresco/ruin-cafe
Juliet’s Garden Restaurant, St. Mary’s www.julietsgardenrestaurant.co.uk
Holy Vale Vineyard www.holyvalewines.co.uk
Adventure Scilly www.adventurescilly.co.uk
Scilly Seal Snorkelling www.scillysealsnorkelling.com
Scilly Swim Challenge www.scillyswimchallenge.co.uk