Crystal clear water and the purest nature you’ve seen: Why the Isles of Scilly are the UK’s best kept secret

·7-min read
St Martin’s in the Scillies boasts the whitest sands, quietest beaches and perfect ratio of woodland-to-beach  (Shutterstock / Stephen Rees)
St Martin’s in the Scillies boasts the whitest sands, quietest beaches and perfect ratio of woodland-to-beach (Shutterstock / Stephen Rees)

The chaos of last week’s half-term airport debacle may have left some travellers fearful of flying again for a long time. If you were among them, or are simply wanting to stay closer to home this summer, then I’ve got just the hidden gem for you.

Cornwall saw an even bigger influx in tourism than usual during the pandemic, as people opted for staycations over a week in the Med due to travel restrictions and descended on its gorgeous beaches and holiday hotspots. Popular places like St Ives and Newquay were left rampant with ‘emmets’ — the Cornish word for ants, and label for tourists — much to the locals’ dismay.

But in peak holiday season, us Cornish locals like to avoid the bedlam of beach parking and sunburnt visitors by escaping to a little-known secret just a stone’s throw from Land’s End. The Isles of Scilly, for those who haven’t heard of it, is a cluster of islands that make up the most southerly point of the UK.

Crystal waters on St Martin’s (Isobel Van Dyke)
Crystal waters on St Martin’s (Isobel Van Dyke)

Granted, getting there can be a bit of a slog. If you’re coming from London, it’s a five-hour train journey from Paddington to Penzance, then a three-hour ferry ride from Penzance on the Scillonian III, followed by yet another boat to whichever island you choose to stay on. Travelling for the best part of 24 hours might not seem worth it to remain in the UK, especially when you could get halfway across the world in a similar amount of time, but trust me, it is.

If you think Cornwall is beautiful, Scilly is another level of paradise and I’ve been lucky enough to have been visiting annually since I was crawling. Glassy waters and white sands often have people confusing ‘Scilly’ with ‘Sicily’, unable to believe that yes, it’s in fact England.

Due to less pollution, the sun quite literally shines brighter in Scilly — be warned, you will burn in mere minutes, so cake on the SPF as if you’re in Greece. Another thing to note — blissful to some and terrifying to others — your chances of wifi are slim. As a teen, I have spent hours cooped up in the one room on the Island that has wifi, frantically revising for exams whilst day-trippers drop in and out.

If you’re looking to escape to somewhere with abundant wild greenery, serene beaches, a population of less than one hundred and non-existent technology, the Isles of Scilly is just the ticket. It’s Cornwall, but without all the people; it’s nature purer than anything you’ve ever seen in the UK before (the closest comparison I’ve found was rural Croatia).

So, if you’ve sworn off flying for the time being and Scilly sounds tempting, here’s a guide to where to stay, what to eat and how to make the most of your time on the islands.

 (Writer Isobel Van Dyke as a child visiting the stunning islands)
(Writer Isobel Van Dyke as a child visiting the stunning islands)

Which Scilly island is best suit for you?

The Isles of Scilly are made up of five islands: St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s, St Agnes and Bryher, each of which has a personality all of its own. If you’re nervous about being too closed off from the rest of the world, St Mary’s is the island for you. It’s by far the biggest, has the most restaurants, and generally has the most going on — gift shops galore. Shockingly, it even has a Co-op.

Tresco has a reputation for being the slightly more well-to-do of the islands. Favourite to the likes of Kate Winslet and Jude Law (who once described it as the place he is ‘happiest’), Tresco certainly has the highest price points. It’s home to the famous Abbey Gardens, and even has a helipad for VIPs who don’t fancy the boat ride.

If Tresco is the rich aunt of the islands, then St Agnes is the weathered Grandad, but if you’re a climber you’ll love the towering rock formations

St Agnes is rough and ready. It sticks out the furthest into the Atlantic Ocean and is a dramatic place to be during a storm. If Tresco is the rich aunt of the islands, then St Agnes is the weathered Grandad. The beaches here can be more pebbly than sandy, but if you’re a climber you’ll love the towering rock formations.

Bryher is Tresco’s younger sister: quaint, beautiful and… simple. It’s the smallest of the five islands and prides quality over quantity. It’s much less flashy than Tresco, and less wild than St Agnes, but with an appropriate pinch of the two — the Baby Spice of the group.

St Martin’s is the perfect mixture of all of the above. Call me biased, but really, it’s faultless. Not too big, not too small, the whitest sands and quietest beaches, plus the best pub in all the world. It has the perfect ratio of woodland-to-beach and every inch of it smells of honeysuckle. It has just enough amenities, and is where I would send anyone who wanted isolation, yet magically, it never feels lonely.

The glassy waters and white sands often have people confusing ‘Scilly’ with ‘Sicily (Isobel Van Dyke)
The glassy waters and white sands often have people confusing ‘Scilly’ with ‘Sicily (Isobel Van Dyke)

Where to stay on the Isles of Scilly

The Hell Bay Hotel, Bryher

Arguably the best hotel of the Scillies is located on the smallest island. The Hell Bay hotel sits on a lake in the middle of Bryher, where the rooms are as tranquil as their balcony views.

Campsite on Bryher

More sheltered and less exposed to the elements than other Scilly campsites, this is where I’d choose to go on a low budget with a group of friends.

The Chalets on St Martins

There is a hotel (Karma), but to do St Martin’s right you’ve got to go for self-catering. Each chalet is owned by one of the local islanders and each accommodation is as charming as the next. Lower Town with Mandy Williams would be my pick, though stay at Higher Town to be closer to the shop.

Sea Garden Cottages, Tresco

Tresco’s Sea Garden Cottages are the newly renovated beachside self-catering apartments that are bright, open and airy. Located next to an award-winning restaurant and looking straight out to sea, they’re gorgeous - but come with a Tresco price tag.

 (Tresco Island)
(Tresco Island)

Tregarthen’s Hotel, St Mary’s

 (Tregarthen’s, St Mary’s)
(Tregarthen’s, St Mary’s)

The jubilee celebrations may be over but you can still do the Scillies like the Queen and stay at her favourite spot, Tregarthen’s on St Mary’s, where she was hosted alongside Prince Philip in 2011.

Pelistry Campsite, St Mary’s

 (Cornwall Outdoors)
(Cornwall Outdoors)

The campsite at St Mary’s is high up, at the top of a hill with views of St Martin’s - and on a clear day, of mainland Cornwall. It can be blowy, but the campsite’s secret beach makes it worth it.

Where to eat on the Isles of Scilly

 (Isobel Van Dyke)
(Isobel Van Dyke)

Little Arthur, St Martin’s

For the best crab sandwich you’ll ever eat. The cream tea is also a must and the views are incomparable.

The Ruin Beach Café, Tresco

For pizza, pasta, cocktails and award-winning seafood, head to the constantly busy Ruin Beach Café.

 (Visit Isles of Scilly)
(Visit Isles of Scilly)

Dibble & Grub, St Mary’s

If you’ve got time to kill whilst waiting for a boat on St Mary’s, Dibble & Grub will have you covered for smoothies, snacks and tapas. It turns into a bar at night for those staying on the island.

Adam’s Fish & Chips, St Martin’s

Only open on certain nights of the week, you have to pre-book for Adam’s Fish & Chips as it is very popular with both locals and visitors. Order the lobster scampi.

The Turks Head, St Agnes

Glorious in the sun and cosy in the rain, you will not regret ordering the sticky toffee pudding with local Troytown Farm vanilla ice cream.

Juliet’s Garden, St Mary’s

 (Instagram/@Julietsgarden)
(Instagram/@Julietsgarden)

Treat yourself to lunch overlooking St Mary’s harbour at Juliet’s Garden, open for lunch and dinner serving larger plates as well as decadent sandwiches and cocktails.

The Island Bakery, St Martin’s

If you’re self-catering on St Martin’s, your morning toast can only come from one place: the island bakery. Huge loaves of freshly baked bread are made daily by the local Scillonians, as well as mid-afternoon treats such as their white chocolate and cherry cookies.

 (Visit Isles of Scilly)
(Visit Isles of Scilly)

Truth be told, if it’s on Scilly it’s probably a winner. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who had a bad word to say about the islands - unless of course, that person is a teenager in desperate need of an internet connection. The Isles of Scilly is a place so untouched that publishing this article at all is an internal debate.

If you do make the trip, treat the islands and islanders with kindness, as they certainly will you.

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