Isles of Scilly: where to stay, eat and see
As if their glorious beaches weren’t alluring enough, the Isles of Scilly also have a thriving community of artists and designers, promising an inspirational trip.
Feature Hazel Plush
Perhaps it’s the light – pure and abundant, thanks to the islands’ almost Mediterranean microclimate. Or maybe it’s the colours, a rich palette of sea blues and sylvan greens framed by a golden sweep of sands. Could it be, perhaps, the sensation of being on the edge of the world: part of England, yes, but also cut off from the mainland by miles of inky Atlantic?
Whatever the reason, the Isles of Scilly are a hive of creativity and artistry, a place where even the tiniest town has a gallery or studio. Here, remarkably talented – and inordinately prolific – painters, illustrators, ceramicists and printmakers gather, distilling the islands’ untamed beauty into their work.
And what rich inspiration to draw from. The Scilly archipelago is renowned for its natural charms, with beaches that look like they’ve been stolen from the Caribbean, and waterways bustling with dolphins and seals. The five main islands are St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s, Bryher and St Agnes – though, further afield, you’ll find islets barely fettered by footprints. It’s easy to get around, though: this is a seafaring community, served by regular ferries and charter boats, as well as quick air links to Cornwall and Exeter.
After many months of narrow horizons, the hazy happiness of beach days and wild walks has never been more appealing. So breathe in that sea air, revel in the islands’ creative scene, and get sand between your toes once again. Yes, we’re still lusting after far-flung holidays, but it seems perfection doesn’t require a passport after all.
What to do on the Isles of Scilly
Go gallery hopping
To appreciate the scope and talent of the archipelago’s artists, seek out the galleries and studios around St Mary’s, the creative hub of the islands. Tamarisk Gallery is run by glass artist Oriel Hicks, and features works – for view and sale – by notable names such as Sue Lewington (watercolours) and Imogen Bone (acrylic and oils).
Porthloo Studios, meanwhile, is a workshop and exhibition space for three local creatives: a jewellery maker, a felter, and painter Peter MacDonald Smith, whose coastal oils are so evocative, you can almost feel the ocean spray. Other must-sees include printmaker Vickie Heaney in her studio at Phoenix Craft Studios (also open to the public); and Richard Pearce, who paints powerful seascapes from a beach cabin on Bryher island – an enviable workspace indeed – on show at nearby Bryher Gallery.
Walk on the wild side
Tresco Abbey Garden feels like a sub-tropical jungle, albeit one that’s been tended and pruned to perfection. Towering palm trees, statuesque succulents, and clouds of sweet-scented blossom have earned this spot the nickname ‘Kew without the glass’.
So balmy is the Isles’ microclimate that species originating everywhere from Burma to Brazil bloom here, including lofty echium from the Canary Isles, and the pink, plate-sized flowers of king protea, South Africa’s national plant. The garden was established in the 1800s in the ruins of a Benedictine abbey, whose honeyed stone peeps through the leaves. While you’re here, don’t miss Valhalla Museum’s collection of old figureheads, rescued from shipwrecks nearby.
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Meet the makers
In this cluster of idyllic isles, St Martin’s could well be – whisper it – the most glorious. Its coast is a confection of shimmering bays and wildflower-tipped dunes, its white-sand beaches strewn with cowrie shells. But far from being lulled by the soporific splendour of their home, St Martin’s islanders – all 130 of them – are a remarkably industrious and creative bunch.
Here you’ll find workshops and studios, like North Farm Gallery with its paintings, prints and pottery by local makers. At Middletown Barn Cooperative, hand-poured candles and delicate ceramics are sold via honesty boxes – alongside gin, wines and chocolates from independent producers throughout the islands.
Find your own island
There are over 140 islands in the Scilly archipelago, but just five are inhabited – with the rest home to seabirds, seal colonies and lone lighthouses. They’re ripe for exploring: some are rugged, encircled by near-impenetrable rocks; others are tranquil, like Teän, with its sheltered coves and soft-sand beaches. Some, like Samson, feature long-abandoned villages – their cottages now near-consumed by grasses, their crumbling walls dotted with birds’ nests.
The Boatmen’s Association on St Mary’s arranges both group trips and privately skippered itineraries to various isles, often leaving passengers to explore for a few hours before a pre-arranged rendez-vous. Keep an eye out for dolphins cresting the waves, especially during the summer months.
Embrace the adventure
The islands’ natural beauty isn’t just for admiring. Here, fortune favours the (mildly) adventurous, and there are countless ways to banish the cobwebs of lockdown. It starts with a walk: an easy round-island stroll around Bryher, perhaps, or maybe a breezy seaside meander through Tresco’s Pentle Bay.
Before you know it, you’ll be paddleboarding happily along St Martin’s soul-stirring coastline, trying outdoor yoga classes on St Mary’s beaches, and beach hopping by bike on Tresco. You could even swap your face mask for a snorkel mask, to swim with the playful seals around St Martin’s. Isolation never felt so invigorating.
Where to eat on the Isles of Scilly
As if the uninterrupted sea views weren’t striking enough, the Ruin Beach Café is also packed with local art. The food is excellent: think seafood sharing platters, wood-fired pizzas and cocktails galore. The beach below is perfect for children to play safely while you watch them from the terrace.
Every day, a fisherman from Lower Town Quay delivers his catch to the jetty outside Cloudesley Shovell Restaurant, at the Karma St Martin’s hotel. Its wine list features over 100 varieties – including some from the island’s own vineyard.
Where to stay on the Isles of Scilly
An oasis of luxury on the wild Bryher coastline, Hell Bay hotel has just 25 suites – each one unique, and decorated with island-made artwork and cool marine colours. Book ‘Juno’ for panoramic sea views. Suites from £145 per night, including dinner and breakfast.
Curated by interior designer Amelia McNeil, Seabreeze – a five-bedroom house mere steps from the beach – is a stylish spot for long-awaited large group gatherings. Look out for heirloom pieces and bespoke wallpaper prints, while the garden boasts a yoga deck and huge outdoor kitchen. The whole property sleeps 10 and costs from £495 per night.
How to get to the Isles of Scilly
The quickest way to reach the islands from mainland Britain is by air. The helicopter service from Penzance to Tresco or St Mary’s takes 15 minutes, from £122.50 one way.
Plane services connect St Mary’s with Land’s End Airport (20 minutes), Newquay Airport (30 minutes) and Exeter Airport (one hour), from £93.25 one way.
The Scillonian Ferry sails between Penzance and St Mary’s – a journey of two hours and 45 minutes. Adult tickets from £58.95 one way, March to November. Before you visit, please check local Covid-19 guidelines.
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