When I was asked to accompany two colleagues to the Isles of Scilly on a fact-finding and relationship-building trip this September, I jumped at the chance. The Isles of Scilly has long been a favourite destination of mine, and in truth I had missed it since my last trip in 2018 when I led a group of equally enthusiastic clients around the islands on our ever popular Springtime in the Scillies tour.
There’s something quite magical about these islands, something that brings back fond memories of typical family holidays as a kid when time seemed to pass at a much slower pace and days were spent building sandcastles on the beach and searching for wildlife on countryside walks. During my time in the travel industry I have been fortunate enough to have travelled to most corners of the world, and yet I would happily return to the Isles of Scilly year after year; it’s easy to see why so many of our clients do exactly that.
After a four-hour journey from our offices in Ringwood, spent listening to John’s never-ending 80’s playlist, we arrived at Penzance for our pre-night stay at the Premier Inn in preparation for our early 08:00 sailing on the Scillonian III ferry the next morning.
Following my ‘guaranteed good night’s sleep’ at the Premier Inn, the sun was just rising behind the docked Scillonian as we waited to board. This was my first trip during the COVID pandemic, and although I had expected apprehension and uncertainty as to what we should be doing regarding face masks and seats, the Steamship company had absolutely everything in hand and well planned out. Plenty of seats on board were marked as unusable and social distancing was easy to maintain. Everyone had to keep their masks on for the entire journey, and all in all it was a very comfortable crossing.
When you arrive at St Mary’s, your bags are taken for you to your hotel, even if you’re staying on one of the off-islands. Our hotel of choice for the trip was one of our favourites – the St Mary’s Hall Hotel, located right in the heart of Hugh Town and only a two-minute walk from Porthcressa Beach and five minutes into town, with its selection of boutique shops and artisan bakeries. The hotel offers stylish accommodation and a restaurant that serves some of the finest food in the whole of the archipelago. You are always greeted with a warm welcome by the charismatic owner, Roger, who goes out of his way to ensure everyone is enjoying their stay.
We had a busy itinerary, and most of this would be spent with the island’s best-known naturalist and tour guide, Will Wagstaff. We have known Will for a number of years now, and he joins our regular tours in the spring and autumn. A fun and likeable character who brings the islands’ history to life whilst having a sixth sense for finding wildlife that would appear invisible to the normal eye.
Day 1 – Tresco and the Abbey Gardens
After a hearty breakfast in the hotel restaurant, we met with Will at the quay (a mere 10-minute walk from the hotel) for our 15-minute ferry transfer to the island of Tresco. One of the most visited off-islands, Tresco is most notable for its impressive Abbey Gardens, boasting an amazing display of flora along shady terraces, fountains, and, at its heart, the remains of a Benedictine Abbey. Most of the flora here would be unable to survive on the mainland due to the climate, and the gardens are often (quite rightly) referred to as “A perennial Kew without the glass”. Look out for the resident Red Squirrels or the impossibly bright Golden Pheasant that can be seen within the grounds, and do not miss the mouth-watering pasties on sale in the adjoining café. Also worth a look is the Valhalla Museum, which displays a number of figureheads that have been collected over the years from the numerous ship-wrecked boats that have run aground on the outer islands.
We also took time further exploring some of the pools and heathland looking for birds and enjoying the stunning vistas. At certain times of the year, a low tide appears that makes it possible to walk from Tresco to neighbouring Bryher.
Day 2 – Seabird Special Boat Trip
Today we headed out on one of the boat trips in search of seabird colonies on some of the more isolated islands and rock stacks. This is a public trip available to all during which Will narrates and points out all there is to see. In springtime, this is one of the best ways to see the colonies of Puffins, and quite often you can see the bobbing heads of seals breaking the calm of the water’s surface. The trip lasts approximately two-and-a-half hours and is well worth the £19 ticket you can purchase on arrival.
Day 3 – St Agnes and Gugh
I have previously never been to St Agnes and was quite excited to see it. One of the archipelago’s five inhabited islands, albeit with only 72 residents, the main island of St Agnes is joined to neighbouring Gugh (pronounced Goo) by a sand bar. Dotted with small holdings and quaint houses boasting immaculate flower displays, the island can easily be explored by foot. Look out for the Standing Stone on the brow of Gugh where you can catch stunning views over the island and onwards to St Mary’s. During our walk we stopped at Troytown Farm to sample one of their famous ice creams; it certainly didn’t disappoint! Whilst waiting for the ferry back to St Mary’s we enjoyed lunch at the delightful Turk’s Head pub which boasts an excellent view and serves a hearty ploughman’s on its grassy terrace.
Day 4 – Eastern Isles Cruise and St Martin’s
Our second organised boat tour—also open to the public—had the aim of seeing the colonies of Atlantic Grey Seals which take up residence in the Eastern Isles. Whilst it is relatively easy to see seals around the islands, they tend to use the Eastern Isles to come ashore, which offers visitors amazing views and photo opportunities. Pupping season tends to be between August and December. We were also lucky enough to catch some good views of a pod of Harbour Porpoises seemingly enjoying life on the open water.
The boat trip gives you the option of coming ashore on St Martin’s for a few hours before heading back to St Mary’s. This is one of my favourite islands and boasts some of the finest white sand beaches I have ever seen, more akin to islands in the Indian Ocean or the Caribbean. The walking trails criss-cross the island and join the imaginatively named settlements of Higher Town, Middle Town and Lower Town.
Day 5 – St Mary’s
Our final day took us to the renowned and multi-award-winning Scilly Spirit gin distillery, located in Old Town, just a 20-minute walk from the hotel in the direction of the airport. Old Town is thought to be the oldest settlement on the island—hence its name—and is home to the grave of the late Harold Wilson.
We were welcomed by the delightful co-owner Art at the distillery and spent an enjoyable hour learning about their story, the distilling process, and—the most enjoyable part!—sampling the gin. I must admit, gin has always been one of those drinks I have always wanted to enjoy, but in truth I have not been a fan. Oh, how I was wrong! This was superb, both neat and with tonic—one of the smoothest drinks I have ever tasted. They have a great setup here that is well worth a visit, and they offer many different experiences including making your very own gin which they store for you in case you ever want to order your unique blend again. I left with two large bottles and a rather cloudy head!
We also managed to squeeze in a visit to one of our other favourite properties, the Star Castle, perched atop of the Garrison at the southern end of the island. Built in 1593, this Elizabethan Castle is in the form of an eight-point star and commands amazing views over to Tresco and Bryher. Offering both authentic castle rooms and more modern chalet-style rooms in the grounds, it is rightly regarded as one of the best hotels in Scilly. We met with the lovely Reception Manager Sarah, who showed us around the ramparts, grounds and interiors, including their well-maintained indoor pool, Dungeon Bar, and Conservatory Restaurant.
So again, I find myself feeling down about having to leave these amazing islands after what was a quick trip but included so much in such a short space of time. Dolphins, Seals, Red Squirrels, lush tropical gardens, white sand beaches, castles, an Abbey, superb food, and one of the warmest welcomes you are likely to get anywhere. For now, it’s farewell, but I know I will be back. That’s the thing with the Isles of Scilly: it’s addictive and appeals to a place deep within your psyche that makes you have to visit time and time again.
Written by Lee Hamilton (General Sales Manager, Prestige Holidays)