If you fly from the British mainland to the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, and look out the window of a tiny plane, you might feel like you’re gazing down at a treasure map. The archipelago is a patchwork of green fields, subtropical gardens and white sand beaches in the midst of the ocean, and these little islands (total population: 2,153) are a wonderfully slow-paced place to relax and explore by the sea. My Isles of Scilly travel guide is full of ideas for where to camp, swim, eat and explore on these treasured islands, with photos by Jacob Little.
My Isles of Scilly Travel Guide
Top tips for visiting the Isles of Scilly
- Accommodation on the islands gets booked up fast. Plan far ahead, visit out of the summer holidays or consider camping.
- Four of the five islands are wonderfully car-free – rent bikes to explore or hike around their coastlines.
- Visiting for a week? Don’t rush around all five of the islands – spend a few days exploring two or three.
- Buy snacks and gifts from the brilliant honesty stalls dotted all over the islands, which sell veg, flowers, fudge, jams and even amazing homegrown chillies.
- Visit one of the island’s picturesque vineyards and distilleries.
- Bring a wetsuit – the water is cold year round! A wetsuit means you can plan some amazing longer swims too, including between islands, if you’re a confident swimmer.
- Try and coincide your visit with one of the festivals and feasts that make the islands so special.
- There’s more info below on how to get to the islands. Flying from Cornwall is more expensive but is a truly magical journey to take once in your life. The ferry from Penzance is more affordable and perfectly comfortable on calm days.
Locals talk about the biggest of the Scillies, St Mary’s, like it’s a metropolis, but it’s still delightfully pocket-sized – there’s one little airport, one red fire engine, one doctor (on a boat), one cash point and one pretty town, St Mary’s, full of tempting shops and cosy pubs (make sure you while away an evening in the Mermaid pub and pick up an ubiquitous I Love Scilly jumper from 49 Degrees).
You might see a car or two on St Mary’s, unlike on the other islands, but bustling it definitely is not. It’s pleasingly easy to explore – rent a bicycle complete with basket and you can zip about the country lanes, occasionally stopping to let ducks waddle past. My favourite place for a dip is little-visited Watermill Cove, where water clear as glass laps on white sand. You have to wade over seaweed or take a steep cliff path down to reach it, but it’s worth it – besides the chilly temperature of the water, you’d never know you weren’t in the Caribbean. You can also take a guided sea swim on St Mary’s with Adventure Scilly. Have lunch at gorgeous Juliet’s Garden, a beautiful terrace restaurant with views out over the harbour – the wild birds here are so friendly that they’ll perch on your hand and eat cake crumbs from your fingers, Snow White style. When night falls fully, see how many stars you can spot in the unpolluted sky while you pitch your tent at the Garrison Campsite.
GO ISLAND HOPPING FROM ST MARY’S
St Mary’s is the jumping-off point for the other four inhabited islands – this is where you’ll arrive by plane or aboard the Scillonian ferry with Isles of Scilly Travel. Hop on a boat and visit the tiny ‘off islands’, as they are known locally, in vessels sailed by the St. Mary’s Boatman Association. Daily boat times are written up on blackboards on the harbourside.
St Martin’s might just be my favourite island. Walk off the boat from St Mary’s and a sandy path takes you up to a little hamlet of cottages looking out over the azure water of the bay. Their gardens are a riot of bright flowers, and often have little honesty boxes outside their gates selling posies of flowers. Stop at the The Island Bakery for pies and pasties to take with you to picnic on as you explore the island’s little lost lanes and secret beaches – follow my Countryfile walk to encircle the island and wind up at what must be Britain’s most picturesque vineyard or the welcoming Seven Stones Inn. Wildlife lover? Scilly Seal Snorkelling are based on the island offer confident swimmers three-hour snorkelling adventures with seals off the uninhabited Eastern Isles, where a friendly colony of seals flit about in the seaweed. Plunge into the cold water and they’ll come say hello, gently bumping you and possibly nibbling on your flippers. Truly magical.
Tresco is the jungle of the Scillies, and its famous Abbey Garden is a mecca for the green fingered. Described as a ‘perennial Kew without the glass’, this botanical haven is where the tropical plants which can live so happily on the islands are displayed in all their splendour. Spend a day wandering in the shade of palm trees and then eat at the driftwood-clad Ruin Beach Cafe on the shore, which serves up some of the best locally-sourced food on the Scillies. Tresco also host a Low Tide Festival each year. When the sea ebbs just low enough during the spring tides and the sea bed between the islands of Bryher and Tresco is completely uncovered. When low tide arrives, the two communities meet in the middle on a long sand bar for a precious couple of hours and celebrate with a vibrant seafood feast complete with music.
Teeny Bryher is the smallest of the inhabited islands, and I think one of the wildest, despite the fact that you can walk around its rugged coastline in just a couple of hours. Stop for a lunch of local mussels at plush Hell Bay Hotel or even better, buy your own just-caught seafood from Island Fish (they sell the best crab I’ve ever eaten in my life), then wander over to watch waves breaking on the rocks at rugged Shipmans Head, buy snacks from one of many honesty stalls (Bryher’s home-grown chilli products are a must) along the way. Chilled-out Bryher campsite overlooks the artillery fort that stands guard out to sea and across to Tresco and is a wonderful place to pitch your tent, or set up camp in one of their cosy bell tents, which come complete with all the equipment you need to cook up a feast of local produce. The campsite is a brilliant affordable base for exploring Bryher and beyond – it’s just a minute’s walk to the Fraggle Rock pub and the perfect little beach for a cooling swim.
St Agnes is home to one of the prettiest campsites in Britain, and that’s saying something. Pitch your tent at Troytown Farm for amazing views of the Atlantic from your tent and hammocks to while away the day in, and stock up on local clotted cream and ice-cream from the farm’s dairy. Periglis Beach, just steps away from your tent, is perfect for exploring the island’s coastline by kayak or paddleboard, or for relaxing by a beach bonfire once night falls. A spot so gorgeous I included it in my new book, Wild Escapes, and one you have to camp it once in your life. Charming and laid-back St Agnes is easy to explore on foot – take a swimming safari along the coast and dip in crystal-clear pools (don’t forget your snorkel) before refuelling in the sunshine at the Coastguard’s Lookout.
HOW TO GET TO THE ISLES OF SCILLY
Reach the Isles of Scilly with Isles of Scilly Travel by plane from Land’s End, Exeter or Newquay airports in 20-60 minutes or aboard the Scillonian ferry from Penzance in 2.45hrs (March to November). You can also book day trips to the islands with Isles of Scilly Travel’s Fly + Sail round trip: fly out to the islands in the morning, then sail back to the mainland in the evening.