In search of an idyllic private island with magical charm, blessed with exotic plants, translucent seas and endless amounts of golden sand? Somewhere you can spend your days exploring ruined castles, discovering tales of shipwrecks, and enjoying the sounds of the ocean? Welcome to Scilly, Britain’s very own Island treasure.
It’s as if you’re watching high-definition drone footage of the most beautiful sub-tropical paradise you could possibly imagine, mesmerised by the perfect aeriel view of an archipelago surrounded by turquoise ocean, outlined by craggy coastlines and white sandy bays. Waves lapping onto the shores and sweeping against the rocks, whipping up an effervescent trace of brilliant white as they break before they seemingly melt away again into the mica twinkling waters. It’s a satisfying contrast to watch – from the deep greens of the islands and the crisp whiteness of the waves to the contouring blue of the sea – the glistening sapphire in deeper waters, blending into a crystal-clear emerald in the shallows.
We’re flying by helicopter from Penzance to Tresco on a new 28-mile direct flight, taking just 15 minutes to reach utopia. From the air, the 140 specks of land, five of which are inhabited, look more like the tropics than the south of England. Beautiful enough to rival anywhere in the Caribbean, Scilly is every bit as dreamy, yet without the cars, the hurricane season or the need for passport control! There’s a sense of magic on these tranquil lands – a place where simple pleasures and outdoor adventures invigorate feelings of contentment, relaxation and a profound sense of wellbeing. So whether you’re an international globe trotter considering your first British staycation, or a hardened British Isles adventurer, I hope this account of 48 hours spent in paradise will inspire you to visit these remarkable islands and experience the enchantment for yourself.
The Fortunate Isles
Classed as part of Cornwall, The Isles of Scilly (to include Tresco, Bryher, St Mary’s, St Agnes and St Martin’s) might feel more like you’re abroad, but they are in fact the UK’s largest group of islands – and quite surprisingly – still one of Britain’s best-kept secrets.
Bathed by the warming influence of the Gulf Stream, the temperature rarely dips below 5°C, and this balmy climate not only means it feels warmer than on Britain’s mainland but that plants flower here all year round.
Described sometimes as ‘The Fortunate Isles’, the islands are a kaleidoscope of colour in both flora and fauna – a myriad of wildflowers, abundant wildlife, and palm trees apparent in every landscaped vista.
In 2020 yet more fortune came Tresco’s way with the launch of the long-awaited return of the Penzance to Isles of Scilly helicopter service. Not a small feat when you consider this is one of very few scheduled helicopter services across the entire world!
Penzance Helicopters, following many years of hard work, is now running a service of up to 17 flights per day, six days a week, over 313 days a year to both Tresco and St Mary’s..
There is no better way to travel to this luxurious private island than to ‘do it in style’ aboard a state-of-the-art AW139 helicopter flight across the Atlantic.
The bird’s eye view from the sky, from the legendary St Michael’s Mount on departure to your very first glimpse of the Isles of Scilly and watching your pilot master a grand crescendo of a flawless landing, makes the journey of getting to Tresco now every bit as special as staying there.
Arriving on Tresco
Tresco is the Isles of Scilly’s second-largest island, and the only island to be privately-owned, leased from the Duchy of Cornwall to the Dorrien-Smith family since 1834. From the moment you step foot on the island, you feel an incredibly warm welcome.
There is a true sense of this being a family-run estate – home-from-home – you barely even need to say who you are, your luggage is lifted into your transfer buggy and you’re benevolently escorted to your cottage.
We stayed in Driftwood, one of the Sea Garden Cottages situated on the east side of the island, and I couldn’t have imagined a more beautiful property as our island holiday home. Light flooded through the open plan living space, with a modern kitchen, beachy-designed lounge with beautiful Scilly artwork, exposed beams and log fireplace and a huge dining area with painted lobsters and mackerel dinner plates and floor to ceiling views out to Old Grimsby harbour.
When we visited Tresco a few years before we had stayed on the opposite west side of the island, in Flora, one of the beautiful Flying Boat Cottages – both properties are equally as luxurious, highly deserving of their 5-star status, and within footsteps of white sandy beaches with breathtaking views.
The Flying Boat Cottages have the advantage of being directly alongside many local conveniences, from the local stores, Island office and bike hire, however, the Sea Garden Cottages on the quieter side of the island, with the beautiful beach bays, sailing school and Ruin Beach Cafe was my idea of complete heaven – almost unimaginably beautiful.
Whichever side of the island you choose (there are also rooms and apartments ideal for shorter stays) all guests to the island are entitled to entry to Tresco Island Spa (which includes one outdoor and two indoor swimming pools) and the Abbey Garden. There’s also good wifi available throughout the island – especially useful for ordering deliveries from the Tresco Stores & Deli (a new service launched in 2020).
The stores are a shop, bakery and delicatessen all in one – stocking everything from breakfast essentials, light snacks to pizzas and frozen Cook meals. There’s plenty of option of cereals, fresh bread, croissants, pastries, fruit, vegetables, meat, fish – as well as a fabulous selection of beers, wine and tasty treats!
My husband pre-ordered from home before we set off and our shopping was in our cottage on our arrival. For top-ups throughout your stay as long as you make the order before 2pm Monday – Saturday they’ll even deliver to you on the same day.
Be sure to add some of Zoë’s locally-made chocolate chip brownie slices to your order – they are heavenly!
Ruin Beach Café
Once we had unpacked and settled in we strolled out of our back door and down our garden steps to arrive at the two AA Rosettes Ruin Beach Café. The café takes its name from the ruined smuggler’s cottage that forms part of its terrace, overlooking Raven’s Porth – but don’t be mistaken, it might be small but its Mediterranean-inspired menu far exceeds the selection of light meals and drinks you might imagine would be available from a beachside café.
Serving lunch and dinner throughout the season, a visit here is one of the many highlights of Tresco. Famed for its pizzas, sharing boards, salads and chargrilled meat dishes, at the heart of the restaurant is the wood-fired oven, roasting fresh fish, chicken and vegetables – as well as producing delicious pizzas.
The Ruin dinner menu features ‘catch of the day’ from local fishermen or, for another sea to fork delight, the seafood platter (to include Tresco gin cured sea trout and dressed Bryher crab) is an absolute must. If there’s any space for more, decadent desserts, including local Troytown Farm Ice Cream, become difficult to resist.
We woke up to the sun rising over the Old Blockhouse lighting up the quay, and took a stroll by the water’s edge. For an endorphin boost like no other, we chose to take a dip in the ocean for a cold water swim. You will be likely to see at least one other islander doing the same, wild swimming is gaining in popularity across the UK, said to improve general health and wellbeing.
It has been a treasured pastime for islanders and coastal lovers for generations, and I can see why so many add it into their daily routine, there’s really no better energiser for starting your day.
You might find Tresco offers enough escapism purely from its idyllic landscape, but for even more natural healing you might choose (as I did with my daughter Daisy) to head to the new Flying Boat Yoga Studio with Gem Hansen, who lives on Bryher. Gem’s practice offers a balance of strength (sthira) and serenity (sukha) and uses visualisations and techniques inspired by Scilly’s scenery and natural surroundings. This includes visualising the breath as the ebb and flow of the tide, and honouring the mythic qualities of asana (poses) that were inspired by the islands and the environment, from the fearless lion to the reticent tortoise.
For lunch we headed to The New Inn – Tresco’s authentic island pub. You can spend much of your holiday under the sense of having travelled to your very own private island, other than the odd encounter on a walk, meeting very few others during your stay – so it feels quite apparent that The New Inn has an important role to play. More than just a pub serving delicious food, this is the island’s social heartbeat – a place for islanders in need of some good conversation and time to catch up with friends.
As a holidaymaker, you are made to feel every bit as welcome as the locals, the atmosphere is warm and inviting with genuine wreck wood and marine relics adorning the ceilings, beams and walls. They serve traditional pub fare from crispy whitebait and dressed Bryher crab to traditional cottage pie, using locally grown, reared and landed produce.
There’s also a sheltered terrace decorated with candlelight and fairy lights, and occasionally live music – an opportunity for visitors and locals to dance the night away under the stars!
We popped into the gallery next door – formerly the pilot gig shed, the Gallery Tresco hosts art by some of Cornwall’s most established artists, as well as a selection of unique giftware inspired by the islands. We then continued our stroll south to Tresco Abbey Gardens, turning left along Abbey Drive for a river walk (or head straight onto Appletree Road passing Appletree Bay).
Tresco Abbey Garden
Tresco Abbey Garden, built around the 12th-century ruins is home to a wonderful variety of sub-tropical species. Augustus Smith established the Abbey Garden in 1834 – he built up a collection of exotic plants from South Africa, Brazil and Mexico that thrived in the micro-climate – and the gardens have been lovingly tended by successive generations of the same family ever since.
There’s not a bad time of the year to visit – thanks to the balmy weather plants flower in Tresco all year round. Visit in the spring to see flowers blooming weeks ahead of those on the mainland, and in the autumn to see beautiful reds, golds and ambers contrast with the magnificent proteas, aloes and camellias – even during the winter solstice, there are usually more than 300 species of plant in flower!
A tradition dating back 150 years, there is a flower count to see how many different species are in bloom conducted by the team of gardeners in the first week of every new year – the record is 313 in 2017.
Tresco Abbey Garden is one of the main attractions in the Isles of Scilly, there are daily tripper boats from the neighbouring islands of St Mary’s, Bryher and St Martin’s, and regular trips from St Agnes, but if you’re lucky it is not unusual, especially at either end of the season, to visit at a time when you have the gardens almost entirely to yourself. Luckily for us it was one of those occasions.
We had fun looking out for red squirrels as we roamed the garden’s criss-cross paths through towering palms and giant trees, admiring the great blue spires of Echium and shocking-pink drifts of Pelargonium. Don’t miss the fascinating Valhalla Museum – a collection of figureheads collected from shipwrecks around the islands – and take a pit stop at the Garden Cafe for a coffee and cake – there’s a well-stocked gift shop and an interesting exhibition telling the history of the Abbey Garden.
We fancied a movie night in, so were delighted to discover a good selection of DVDs available to rent from the Tresco Stores on the way back to our cottage, (alternatively, there’s the option to log into Netflix from your cottage). Walking back to Old Grimsby Quay we passed St Nicholas’ Church and the primary school before stopping in at Lucy-Tania, Tresco’s boutique and sewing studio.
There’s a luxe selection of island-inspired homeware, swimwear, jewellery and more – and I couldn’t resist buying a navy blue Tresco branded hoodie and Lobster embroidered cap.
Back at our cottage it was time for dinner, a movie, and playing a family game of Catchphrase (the board game version) in front of the log burner before falling asleep to the sounds of the ocean.
Tresco is a world away from the hustle and bustle of the British mainland – with no cars on the island you are not only filling your lungs with pure coastal air, instead of breathing in fumes, you are naturally exercising more, taking your bike or walking whenever you leave the front door. It doesn’t take very long before you feel the positive effects of this – and from the time spent outdoors connecting with the beautiful landscape.
For me, this happened on day two. I woke up glowing and feeling more vitalised than usual. I had a Kundalini Back Therapy massage booked at the Island Spa and remember wondering if I even needed it!
As it turned out it though, I did – I felt the tension in my computer tight shoulders being released and my body felt more balanced. It was wonderful – and thanks to Ila Spa the delightful scent stayed with me throughout the rest of the day.
From the spa it is just a short walk to New Grimsby Quay – our departure point for visiting the neighbour island, Bryher. You can clearly see Bryher across the azure waters – in fact, it is so close to Tresco that if you are lucky enough to visit during dramatic spring tides, (when lunar forces combine) the channel between the islands can become dry enough to cross on foot. As such, every year the islanders (never ones to pass up an opportunity for a shindig!) prepare for a mid-channel mini-festival, low-tide event. This involves teams from Tresco and Hell Bay setting up benches, bar and firepits on a long sandbar between the islands – then as the water recedes further the celebrations begin with a host of impromptu games, live music, food and drink. Thankfully for the other 362 days of the year, regular services by Tresco Boat Services will get you there safely instead! Weather permitting of course.
It was a very pleasant 10-minute inter-island boat trip across to Bryher. Remember to listen out to hear the scheduled return times on landing – and whether it is the new Anneka’s Quay (named after Anneka Rice who managed to build it in less than 4 days) or Church Quay (inaccessible at low tide).
We stepped out onto one of Bryher’s white sandy beach bays. Although smaller, it very much resembled those on Tresco. The island is smaller in general, around one kilometer wide and two kilometers in length – home to 80 residents – you can easily walk it in a day or spend an afternoon enjoying the highlights.
An island of dramatic contrast – Bryher is pounded by Atlantic waves on one side, yet blessed with calm sandy beaches on the other. You might recognise it from the movies as Bryher was also the setting of the film, “When the Whales Came”, based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel inspired by the island. (Samson Hill on the southern end of the island was the site of the birdman’s cottage).
We enjoyed meandering our way around, walking past the dotted stalls selling fresh produce including farm eggs, local vegetables, freshly-landed seafood and mouth-watering island fudge. It is all so pretty, a picture-perfect postcard at every turn – you do feel as though you are wandering through a movie set.
Lending itself to a real ‘Swallows and Amazons’ style adventure you can choose to spend your time in Bryher exploring rocky coves, relaxing on white sandy beaches or hiking up one of its small granite hills for some great views.
An absolute must for us was watching the Atlantic rollers thunder into Hell Bay (especially spectacular in the winter!) and we also enjoyed the calm tranquillity of Rushy Bay overlooking Samson.
There are a number of restaurants, bars and cafés located around the island. Stepping off at Bryher Boatyard we first stumbled upon Island Fish, owned by the Penders – a traditional fishing family who go back generations on Scilly.
You won’t find a better crab roll or lobster salad than here, and they have a great selection of coffee and cakes with the most picturesque immaculate lawn, where beautiful birds dart about, from which to enjoy it.
Also, good to know is that while they supply to local hotels and pubs they also take private orders (delivered within 24 hours notice) so you can enjoy fresh shellfish while on holiday from the comfort of your own cottage.
Next we made our way up the hill passing Olivia’s Kitchen at the Vine, a small, family-run café situated in “the Town” in what was originally a flower and bulb shed (previously Vine Café) serving sumptuous lunches and suppers, light snacks and cream teas.
A must here is the Scillonian tattie cake – it is so good you might want to buy some to take home too!
We passed the Bryher Shop and Post Office before taking Newton Road on our right. We followed this for a few hundred yards before reaching the luxurious Hell Bay Hotel – Scilly’s highest-rated restaurant, with a 3 AA Rosette rating and open to non-residents to enjoy.
Hell Bay Hotel
At the helm is Head Chef Richard Kearsley – known for serving the finest food on the islands, using only the freshest island produce. Islanders and visitors journey from across the islands to dine here. Think dishes like tender Hell Bay gin cured salmon, succulent roast partridge, pan roasted sea bass and Richard’s sensational tangy lemon meringue pie.
Order the oysters – they were by far the best I have ever had. By evening, you can dine in the contemporary yet intimate Czar restaurant – named after one of the islands historic island pilot gigs – and lap up the views as the sun sets over Gweal Hill and dips into the Atlantic.
Following our lunch we continued south along the coast and stumbled upon Golden Eagle Studio – a gig shed transformed into a studio and gallery for local artist Richard Pearce. You can step out from the gallery and look out across the exact view of one of his paintings. His artwork is mostly of Tresco and Bryher and is incredibly beautiful, capturing the Scilly spirit so perfectly.
From here you can choose to continue around the south of Bryher, passing Droppy Nose Point and watching seals swimming off the rocks while dipping your toes in the white sands of Rushy Bay. Take a walk up to the summit of Samson Hill where the views are sensational – or head to the rugged north of the island towards Fraggle Rock, one of Britain’s smallest bars, overlooking Hangman’s Island, famous for their Friday Fish & Chip night. Feeling somewhat ambitious and in awe of the island we opted to take the later ferry back so we were (just about) able to experience all three.
On the way to Fraggle Rock we passed Mike and Sue Pender’s honesty stall in front of their house, selling a broad range of herbs, fruits, eggs and vegetables. Our final stop was at Veronica Farm’s fudge stall for a bag of delicious homemade fudge.
Once you have stepped foot on the white sandy shores of the Isles of Scilly it has an incredible way of capturing your heart – offering a notion of escapism to rival that of any coastal destination on mainland Britain. I was so smitten three years ago I choose to get married on Scilly – and visiting for the second time, I was surprised to discover that there was yet even more to love.
It is no surprise the same guests visit year after year – and Tresco’s successful Islandshares is testament to this. Often passed down from generation to generation the scheme offers families the chance to become owners of their very own week, in their favourite cottage, for up to 40 years.
Closing my eyes to remember the views, I will regularly take myself back there – always dreaming about my next visit to this incredible destination – this is a holiday that just can’t come again soon enough. Now where did I put the Island shares listings again?
Jessica was a guest staying on Tresco Island www.tresco.co.uk
Travel by train with Great Western Railway from London Paddington to Penzance Station with advance one-way tickets starting at £26.20 www.gwr.com
Flights with Penzance Helicopters start from £130 per person one-way www.penzancehelicopters.co.uk
Prices to stay at Hell Bay Hotel, Bryher start at £95 per person per night (based on two sharing) on a bed and breakfast basis www.hellbay.co.uk
Jessica Way is an award-winning travel journalist, Editor of British Travel Journal and Dream Escape Magazine. She spends most of her time visiting extraordinary cityscapes, countryside and coastlines across the British Isles