There’s something so special about small islands. Maybe it’s that feeling of escape, of going on an adventure. Perhaps it’s about being enveloped by the sight, sounds and smells of the sea, which soothe mind, body and soul.
Islands create close knit communities – something many of us crave in the modern world. Locals have a fierce sense of their own identity and are desperate to protect their land, their way of life and their age old traditions.
For visitors, life away from the mainland can be fascinating, quirky and a little old-fashioned, like stepping back into a more innocent time. The peace and quiet and lack of cars and big industry means that wildlife can proliferate and plant life can flourish, often creating unique biodiversities. Little light pollution means a nightly star show in the sky. Everything seems to slow down – which means we can slow down…surely one of the main benefits of a holiday?
Seafood is always on the menu – and often plucked from the sea that very morning. A combination of healthy food, brisk walks and salty swims can definitely put colour in the cheeks and a smile on your face.
There’s no need to jet away to far-flung climes. We are lucky to have so many special places within the British Isles, all just a boat or ferry, plane or even a canoe ride away, just waiting to be explored and easy to experience in a day, a weekend or longer.
Here are some of our favourites – places where you can pretty much guarantee some beautiful solitude…
Burgh Island, Devon
Could there be a more glamorous island? The tiny and privately owned Burgh Island is famous for its connections with Agatha Christie, who wrote Evil Under the Sun and And Then There Were None whilst staying in the hotel. It still has a vibe that is pure 1920s Art Deco and every night is black tie night in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom. Non-residents are not allowed in unless they have booked lunch, afternoon tea or dinner. Anyone can, however visit the 14th centry Pilchard Inn, and take a walk with a view. Getting to the island is…. interesting. When the tide is low, walk across the sand from Bigbury-on-Sea – it’s around 250 metres. Hotel guests get transported in a hotel Land Rover or, if the sea has closed in, on the extraordinary ‘sea tractor’. Bigbury-on-Sea is a glorious beach, with a great little eatery – the Venus Beach Café – and a water sports centre. Paddle boarding, water surfing and kite surfing are all on offer, or it’s a great place to just pootle around rock pools.
Where to stay
In the Burgh Island Hotel, of course. Best room is Agatha’s Beach House. If your pockets aren’t deep enough to stay, an excellent alternative is the Burgh Island Causeway apartments on the other side of the water. That way you can sit on your balcony and admire views of the island and hotel…and even sneak across for dinner!
The Farne Islands, Northumberland
Many of us have heard of Holy Island (aka Lindisfarne) but less well known are the Farne Islands, 7.5 miles away as the boat sails and scattered a couple of miles off shore near Seahouses. They are one of the best places in the UK to see wildlife – Sir David Attenborough’s favourite, in fact! Hop on a boat from Seahouses harbour to pootle around them (up to 28 depending on the height of the tide) whilst seals bob in the sea and bask on rocks. If you are lucky you may spot wild dolphins, too.
There are a couple of stops where you can get off to get up close to thousands of breeding sea birds in the late spring and summer, including cute Puffins, Arctic Terns and Eider Ducks. On Inner Farne there’s a chapel, built in the 14th century and dedicated to St Cuthbert, who lived as a hermit and died here in the 7th century.
Golden Gate Farne Island Tours also takes visitors to Longstone Island. It was once home to Grace Darling, whose father ran the lighthouse, which visitors can tour. She became a local heroine in 1838 at the age of 22 when she rescued passengers from a sinking paddle steamer
Where to stay
Coquet Cottages have self catering accommodation in this area, including the quirky Gin Gan, sleeping six, near Seahouses. Interesting fact – a Gin Gan is another name for structures once built to house a horse engine – basically an engine powered by horses in order to operate machinery (it’s where the term ‘horse power’ comes from!). Or there’s cosy Curlew cottage for two in nearby Bamburgh, with its atmospheric castle and huge sandy beach.
Herm, Chanel Islands
By day, this pocket-sized paradise bustles when the ferry arrives from Guernsey (they call it the ‘mainland’!) and day trippers descend to eat, shop and explore.
Those in the know, however, spend their entire holiday here – and have the place to themselves once the ferry departs.
Activities tend to be of the spontaneous variety – crabbing and rock pooling, kayaking (with ‘puffin patrols’ from April until July) and Stand up Paddleboarding.
The whole island is walkable in two hours, taking in hulking cliffs, rolling fields, wild flowers, dreamy beaches and a tiny chapel.
The very best thing to do here, however, is to be inactive. What a pleasure not to feel the need to visit a castle or a museum, to be able to stretch out on a perfect stretch of sand and totally unwind. We love the long sweep of Shell beach (it really is made up of millions of tiny shells) and Belvoir Bay’s cove of ice-cream coloured sand – like something from an Enid Blyton novel.
Where to stay
There are cottages, and a campsite with views. The White House Hotel is delightfully old fashioned (croquet, tennis, no clocks or televisions), there’s a pool for warm days and the food is excellent – don’t miss the oysters, grown just offshore.
Jura, Argyll & Bute
Come to this Inner Hebridean island for untamed Scottish scenery. George Orwell lived here on and off for years and it’s where he finished writing his novel, 1984. The island is best known for its whisky, though. Take a distillery tour, then enjoy a dram or two of single malt in the local pub, next door…which is also the only hotel on the island.
It’s possible to bring a car on the ferry but, with just one main road along the 30 mile length, most places are accessible only on foot. This is a walkers’ paradise. You are sure to spot red deer, which outnumber locals by around 30 to 1. There are large birds too, including golden eagles. The west coast has incredible beaches, seals aplenty and, if you’re lucky, otters. Dotted around the island are iron age forts and ancient standing stones. The three ‘Paps’ mountains are a good climb (Paps is an old Norse word for breasts and they were named so due to their conical shape!). From the summits are incredible view over neighbouring islands and the Mull of Kintyre.
Where to stay
The Jura Hotel is cosy and welcoming, with breathtaking harbour views. As well as the aforementioned pub it has a restaurant specialising in fish, seafood and venison. It’s in Craighouse, the only proper village. Most of the local population live here and it’s where you will find Jura’s only shop, school and church.
Flat Holm, Wales
Strategically, Flat Holm, five miles from Cardiff and Barry, has always held an enviable position – in the Bristol Channel with views to the coasts of both Wales and England. It has led to a varied past as a smuggler’s haunt, isolation hospital for victims of cholera and the bubonic plague (the ruins of the building still visible today), and a fortress in Victorian times as well as the Second World War. It also received the first ever radio message across water by Italian inventor Marconi in 1897. Guided tours tell more and, on a day trip here, there’s also time to have a drink at Wales’ most southerly pub – The Gull and Leek. The name gives a clue to the island’s most prolific residents – wild leeks and lesser black-backed gulls. There’s also a lighthouse dating back to 1737. The light here, once coal powered, is now solar powered – very eco-friendly!
Where to stay
Most people visit for the day from Mermaid Quay at Cardiff harbour (50 minute journey), but dormitory style or camping is available in the Grade II listed Fog Horn Cottage.
Tresco, Isles of Scilly
Those who visit the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, are usually seduced into coming back time and again.
You can get there by ferry or small plane, the Isles of Scilly Skybus, and the new direct helicopters from Penzance. Once there it feels a million miles away from the rest of England.
Tresco is a great choice – with a relaxed, sophisticated vibe, and plenty to see and do. Pick of the bunch is the Abbey Garden with its tropical vegetation and Valhalla Museum displaying the eerily beautiful painted figureheads from local shipwrecks.
You’ll want to get onto and into the water. As well as swimming and island hopping, visitors can sail, hire motor boats or snorkel with seals.
Where to stay
Tresco Sea Garden Cottages stylishly sleep between 2 and 10 people, with jolly interiors and facilities including access to a swimming pool, tennis court and spa. Breakfast and dinner is offered for those in the smaller cottages, served at the Ruin Beach Café (converted from old gig boat sheds) nearby. Larger accommodation is restricted to weekly bookings, with self catering only.
Eilean Shona, Scotland
Step from the little boat on to Eilean Shona and you feel as if you are in a storybook. It’s fitting, as this speck floating in Loch Moidart on Scotland’s west coast was where JM Barrie spent Summer 1920, writing the script for Peter Pan. He was accompanied by Michael, his foster son and inspiration for the boy who never grew old (tragically Michael drowned in the Thames a year later so his vision came true).
It’s easy to explore this car-free, ecofriendly, Neverland-in-miniature. Tramp through woods filled with pine trees, encountering Red Squirrels, Red Deer, Pine Martens and Otters. A circumnavigation of around 10 miles can easily while away a morning or longer. Then, picnic on a white sand beach and swim in turquoise seas (which could be in the Caribbean but for the Arctic temperatures) watching out for Minke Whales, Dolphins and Basking Sharks.
Celebs love the away-from-it-all feeling on Eilean Shona. So does Sir Richard Branson – his sister Vanessa is guardian of the whole island!
Where to stay
Eilean Shona House is very boho chic, and it’s where the Branson family hole up when here (JM Barrie stayed, too). When they’re not, it’s rented out for up to 20 lucky people. Elsewhere are 8 cottages sleeping between 2 and 8 people. Our pick of the bunch is The Old Schoolhouse.
Coney Island, County Armagh
The National Trust owns this bijou and beautiful island in Lough Neagh, largest lake in the British Isles. Its seven acres are a nature reserve and an Area of Specific Scientific Interest, due to its breeding ducks and wet woodland. It has a rich history and evidence of humans living there as early as 8000 BC. St Patrick is thought to have stayed here, as did the future King Edward VII with his mistress Lillie Langry. It was the summer retreat of both a Viscount and a Baron. Irish chieftain, Shane O’Neill used the 16th century round tower as a lookout post and a place to store his treasures. You can still see it today, a romantic ruin surrounded by bluebells in the spring. There’s also an Anglo-Norman motte and a holy well. It’s a fascinating place, totally wild and with a real ‘lost in time’ feeling and a little path cut through the woodland so that you can explore. Abháinn Cruises are the only company taking people there – a minimum of six, so take some friends. Don’t forget your picnic!
Where to stay
It’s an easy 35 minute or so drive from Belfast city centre to the Lockkeeper’s Cottage on the Toome Canal, where the boat trips leave for Coney Island. Or why not combine a city and nature trip? The Fitzwilliam Hotel is five star fabulous with lovely staff and a popular bar and it’s a short walk from all the city sights.