The Scilly Isles have been on my bucket list for a very long time – originally I thought I could do a daytrip from Penzance, but after reading about the islands there seemed just so much to do, that a few hours, I thought, was never going to satisfy my thirst for exploration of England’s most southerly isles. So, this year I decided that we would have a few days there over the August Bank Holiday weekend, after our week in Cornwall.
I’m in love. This was the start of a lifelong affair with these wonderful islands.
I started off writing this blog about ‘The Scilly Isles’ and then I realised that actually there was just too much for one blog, so this one is about St Mary’s the main island and from where you can explore all the others.
We were there from Saturday to Tuesday, and whilst this was a brilliant break, it wasn’t enough to do everything but it was enough to spend time on three islands and really get a feel for this wonderful community. There is plenty to do here and we by no means covered anywhere near what there is to offer. When you have a three year old who is a major beach bum its hard to get the historical and cultural trips fitted in, let along long walks! But as he gets older I know we will broaden our exploration.
St Marys is the largest and most inhabited island and where the boat from Penzance arrives. I opted for the boat as we love boats and I’m quite happy to spend a couple of hours dolphin and bird watching on the water, with the salty breeze in your hair. The Scillonian goes from the main harbour in Penzance and takes about 2 ½ hours. You leave the mainland and are transported to a little tropical paradise, a world of peace and tranquillity, a world where homemade jams and homegrown cuttings are for sale outside wooden gates with honesty boxes, where cars are few and far between, where you can happily let children roam and run without fear and a place where time really feels like its stood still.
The wonderful stone harbour is the centre of Hugh Town, the main town on the island and where all the boats for the other islands and trip leave and return. Bouncing your suitcase or ‘tootsake’ as William calls it over the old cobble harbour path, you find yourself amidst old stone cottages, bunting happily flapping across the street like a scene from an Agatha Christie village fete, and people happily pottering about at half the speed we walk in London.
As soon as I turned the corner into the main little high street, I had fallen in love with the place and knew that this would be my second love, or rather my equal love to Cornwall. There are plenty of lovely little shops, clothes, gifts, a pharmacy, the co-op, local stores as well as some lovely little cafes, restaurants and pubs.
The population is around 1800 and only residents can have cars, so there are relatively few. Although it is the largest island, it only covers an area of 2.5sq miles, so it is easy to explore the whole island, either on foot or by hiring a bike or a little golf buggy. Hugh Town is the central part of the island with its shops, banks, churches, the post office, and a collection of old fisherman’s cottages, historic houses and much newer additions as the island has grown. There are three main beaches, Town Beach, Porthcressa and Porthmellon. We spent most of our beach time at Porthcressa Beach as it was so close to the hotel, had an excellent fish and chip van, tourist information centre and The Dibble and Grub tapas bar and restaurant. It’s a great sandy beach, with clear fairly shallow water and three famous residents…the ducks! Avoid feeding them your left over sandwiches though as the bread really isn’t good for them.
The other major town is Old Town, which is closer to the airport and has its own glorious beach as well as a nature reserve, the Old Town Church is where Sir Harold Wilson is buried (His wife still has a house on the island and continues to visit regularly) children’s soft play zone, shop, pub and cafés. We didn’t venture much here but is on the list for next time.
Away from the hustle and bustle of the town you will find miles of deserted white sandy beaches, rocky coves, incredible landscapes and seascapes, archaeology, walks and stunning scenery which reminds us just how beautiful our country is.
We stayed in the Schooner Hotel which was right in the town/village centre and within a stones throw of everything which was great. We had the family room in the attic. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming and made us feel at home right away. There was a beautiful sitting room and library opposite our room, with tea and coffee facilities, games, a good range of books and stunning views over the harbour. Breakfast treated us to a full English with local produce as well as alternatives such as poached eggs and salmon, a good range of cereals, fruits and yogurts.
The main beach is Porthcressa Beach, which is a wonderful sandy beach, with gorgeous views, and only a couple of minutes from the main centre. The water is shallow and clear and there are 3 famous residents…the ducks!
The tourist information centre is right beside Porthcressa Beach and they have an excellent selection of books and also all the details about the varying boats trips you can take to other islands. You can also buy tickets for the trips from here as well as from the main harbour office. The tourist centre opens at 9am and since we were only a few minutes away, I just popped here in the morning to check the times and get the tickets, it couldn’t be easier. They were very helpful and knowledgeable.
Getting boats to other islands is a must – there are several a day going to all the major islands, Tresco, St Hughs, Bryer and St Agnes and their departure times depend on the tides. But there is plenty of information in the harbour and at the tourist information and even on the days we went off island we were back by 4.30pm ish so then had plenty of daylight hours to continue our exploration of St Marys or just sit on the beach. When you buy your ticket just remember the time and name of your boat and go and find it on the harbour. Simple as that!
If you walk along the footpath beside Porthcressa Beach, a short walk up the hill takes you to the Camera Obscura and Cabinet of Curiosities. This was a highly entertaining and enlightening visit and well worth taking a trip to. I’d never been in a Camera Obscura before – this one has been lovingly created and restored by its owners, and the guy is so passionate and knowledgeable about it all and the island. You get a full 360 degree tour of the island and it rather reminded me of a Harry Potter-esque map as everything is so still but then you see tiny figures walking along the street, washing flapping in the breeze and a seagull diving for someone’s ice cream. William was fascinated until he fell asleep in the darkness! (We’d had a long walk)
When we arrived we were the only people there so got a great history of the tower and what the Camera Obscura was before it was set in motion. It was only £5.00 for adults. Just be aware of the steep stairs – which is fine going up and down unless you’re carrying a sleeping 3 year old!
Its very easy to spend a day just wandering around this town and there is something wonderful and quirky at every turn. I am a creature of habits and once I’ve found something I like I tend to return to it time and again. Not to say I don’t try new things, I love new things, but I have my favourites too.
I found a wonderful artist and his shop called the Silver Street Gallery. Steve Sherris absolutely captures the islands perfectly in his paintings. He uses mainly oils and acrylics and the colours really jump out at you. I couldn’t resist and chose a beautiful original painting of the water as the waves just seem to ripple and ping…this picture doesn’t do the colours justice, but they are just so vibrant.
I also chose a couple of prints, including a beautiful sunset of Porthmellon Beach, which they happily sent to my home address rather than me worrying about taking it on the ferry.
We also found a great little tapas place right on the beach called Dibble and Grub. A Mediterranean restaurant right on Porthcressa Beach. Check opening times and you do sometimes need to book ( as found out) as it does get quite busy especially in high season. Great tapas, friendly staff and the most beautiful views at sunset.
The Atlantic Inn also became a favourite – a traditional English pub and restaurant, with a great pizza restaurant as well, facing onto the harbour. They serve a good range of beers and other drinks, and a good varied menu. There’s a nice terrace area with lovely views over the harbour and boats, and it was lovely to sit here in the evenings and watch the sun go down. The Scilly Isles has some incredible sunsets, great for photographers.
The Kavorna Cafe is a bit of an institution in St Marys and another firm favourite. We had lunch and breakfast there. A full breakfast menu plus an excellent range of sandwiches, soups, cakes and other lunches, homemade. There is a wonderful atmosphere in here and feels a bit like a vintage tea shop in a Miss Marple story.
There’s also a craft and artists centre which is well worth a visit. The Phoenix Craft Workshops is a co-operative of seven artists and craftspeople who work at the business park at Porthmellon. Printmaking, glasswork, leather work, paintings, fabric designs and jewellery. There are also workshops for children and adults at varying times of the year and there’s a great range to suit all budgets and occasions. I got some beautiful painted glass from Oriel Hicks for myself and Christmas presents.
The only downside to the Scilly Isles is the cost. It is a little more expensive than your usual UK holiday. Our return boat tickets cost £250.00 for the three of us and our hotel worked out at about £190.00 a night for the family room in a 2 star hotel. Holiday cottages can cost up to £6000 a week in peak season for a family house. Having a look around at the moment there are more affordable ones around £1300 mark for the summer season. But despite this, people return here year after year.
I spoke to one family who have pre booked their holidays for the next five years and this is not uncommon. Some cottages have been reserved for ever more and people place deposits down in advance to secure them. I started looking for a hotel in January for our August trip and I was already struggling to find availability and I also found that a lot of places didn’t want to accept children under the age of 7 or 10. So, its October and I’m already trying to book for next year. E
qually parking in Penzance is also booked years in advance – I left it quite late and we parked in the out of town car park which was great. The Scilly Isles parking is easy and based only a couple of miles away in a secure field. There is a taxi to bring you back to the harbour and then its already waiting for you when you return. Although they say they might not be able to take more than the main driver and no bags in reality they’re really helpful and when we returned they took us and all our luggage back to the car without a problem. It couldn’t be easier. It cheap (£25 ish for the 4 days) but there are also car parks close to the harbour in Penzance but this needs advance booking without fail.
There’s a real sense of community in St Marys. Something which I think we’re sadly lacking in our busy lives in London and the South East. We spend so much time rushing from place to place, filling every waking moment of our lives with ‘things to do’ and our children’s lives with activities that sometimes I think we forget that actually there is a slower pace of life and it’s important that we do all, on occasions, just stop and enjoy what’s around us, the countryside and spending time just chilling out with the family.