Oh, the excitement of embarking upon a long journey after six months of thinking a trip to the local park is the height of adventure! And oh, the even greater excitement of knowing you won’t have to endure a lengthy quarantine upon your return!
Yes, for my first real outing back in the travel saddle since February, I took the sensible option and plumped for UK soil to avoid paying the hefty self-isolation toll – and yet I was desperate to capture the feeling of going abroad to truly scratch those itchy feet.
But where to go to make-believe you’ve skipped the country? Well, how about the most south westerly point in the UK, to a group of islands that have their own quasi-tropical microclimate that results in white-sand beaches, palm trees and the kind of eye-poppingly aquamarine ocean that would look more at home in the Caribbean?
Yes, I could write about the sheer beauty of the Isles of Scilly till the cows come home – and they do have quite a few of those too, their chestnut coats gleaming majestically in the sun – but first I want to tell you about something that’s just as remarkable (almost): the getting there bit.
This is, after all, a column about flight-free travel, and, in the flight-free world, the journey is as integral a part of any holiday as the destination. And my, what a journey it is to get to Scilly if you eschew the plane. Mine is a tale of two trips: because, as it turns out, the voyage to this sun-bleached archipelago 30 miles off the coast of Cornwall can show you a real good time, or tear you a new one.
Undoubtedly the most efficient way to get from London to Penzance without wings is to take the whimsically named “Night Riviera” sleeper train from Paddington. It breezes all the way to Cornwall overnight, arriving in perfect time to catch the Scillonian, the daily boat service to the islands.
The service boasts proper berths, decked out with soft mattresses, duvets and pillows, plus a sink to take care of your toilette and a slimline “wardrobe” for hanging important items of clothing you don’t want creasing (of which I have none).
But, for some inexplicable reason I can no longer remember – call it penny pinching, call it masochism – I opted for a seat instead on the outward journey. For the sake of twenty quid I spent seven interminable hours trying to nod off while contorted across two hard, non-reclining chairs, in a carriage where they decided it would be best to leave the lights on all night.
And yet dragging myself onto the platform in Penzance, I felt that familiar tingling sensation – the feeling that you’re on your way somewhere special, and that enduring hardship to get there is all part of the experience (perhaps it was masochism after all). It was a fresh, clear morning, and walking along the harbourfront I could taste the tang of possibility in the air – or perhaps it was just the sea salt whipped off the water.
Next up, the Scillonian III, the passenger ferry to Scilly, courtesy of Isles of Scilly Travel – and, fun fact, one of only three ships in the world still carrying the status of Royal Mail Ship. Another fun fact is that the boat has to have a very flat, shallow hull in order not to run aground on the approach to the largest island, St Mary’s, where it docks. The result is a vessel that, in choppy seas, resembles a child’s bath toy being tossed every which-way according to the whims of the waves.
But even this instils the traveller with something worthwhile upon arrival: pure relief to no longer be on the verge of losing your breakfast; an abiding appreciation of solid ground beneath your feet; and sheer awe that your surroundings can be so spectacular after enduring three hours of purgatory. Like a parched man at an oasis, I stumbled about drinking in the secluded paths, sand the colour of churned butter, and purple swatches of heather strewn across the sea-blasted heathlands. The reward was worth the effort – and I felt I’d somehow earned the right to my few days in paradise.
Having sated my wanderlust with island hopping to the untouched St Martin’s and manicured Tresco, daily swims in the glass-clear sea, horse riding on the beach and hearing the life stories of what seemed like half the local population, I steeled myself for the return passage to the mainland – only to find it unrecognisable. Clear, sun-filled skies smiled benevolently on cobalt waters as calm as a millpond. The boat barely moved, bar a slow, drawling kind of rocking, more soporific than stomach-churning. I sat up top on deck and looked for dolphins (pods sometimes jump alongside the boat), thinking what a difference a few days can make.
This time round, I’d actually made several good decisions and booked a berth on the return train, plus a table at The Barn restaurant at boutique hotel Artist Residence to preface the journey with a leisurely dinner of zingy prawn, chilli and yoghurt tacos accompanied by a rather large glass of red wine – purely for sleep-inducing reasons.
After my previous experience, nestling into a private cabin in which I could brush my teeth, change into pyjamas at leisure and watch a Netflix drama while cocooned in a real-life bed before – joy of joys – turning the lights off, felt like the sort of luxury usually only experienced by A-list celebrities and top-tier members of the Royal Family.
I slept – actually slept – for most of the night and awoke only when my alarm told me it was time to hustle (the train pulls into Paddington at 5am but they allow passengers to stay onboard until 6.45am). Considerably less bleary-eyed than after my seat stint, I hopped on the tube while munching a complimentary cheese pinwheel from my train snack pack and was back at my desk in time to start work at 8.30am. Sixteen hours after leaving Scilly, I was home.
Flying would have been quicker, sure. But more exciting? More adventurous? More rewarding? I think not.