The Isles of Scilly (Cornish: Ynysek Syllan) is a small archipelago of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Cornish coast in the South West part of the United Kingdom. The Isles of Scilly were designated an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1975.
There are five inhabited islands:
|St. Mary's |
By far the most populated island, the commercial and tourist centre with the ship quay and airport.
The smallest of the inhabited islands is wild, windswept and quite magnificent.
|St. Martin's |
The most easterly of the islands and therefore the most sheltered from Atlantic storms; many small holdings growing flowers and vegetables.
|St. Agnes |
The southwesternmost inhabited outpost and perhaps the most charming of all the islands; the island of Gugh is joined to St Agnes at low tide and usually treated as part of it.
The 2nd largest island is very grand indeed with the Abbey Gardens and an upmarket timeshare resort.
And a large number of smaller uninhabited islands and islets:
|Uninhabited islands |
These include Annet, the Eastern Isles, the Norrad Rocks, Samson (formerly inhabited), St. Helen's, Tean and the Western Rocks.
St. Mary's is the largest island with a population of around 1750. Most commerce is centred here as is the vast majority of the tourism related infrastructure. Hugh Town is the main centre. Tourist numbers are naturally limited by the spaces on the boat or planes, so in Scilly you can leave Cornwall's tourist hordes behind - and arguably enjoy even finer scenery.
The other four inhabited islands, known as the off islands, are home to between 80 (Bryher) to 175 (Tresco) people.
Much of the land is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, a royal estate intended to provide an income for the heir to the throne, and you'll spot the characteristic signs of estate management here and there. It also means these quiet islands are frequently used by minor royalty as a holiday home where they can lead a normal life without being besieged by crowds.
The Isles of Scilly have a temperate Oceanic climate, among the mildest climates in the United Kingdom. The average annual temperature is 11.6°C (for comparison the average in London is 11.0°C). Winters are among the warmest in the country due to southerly latitude and moderating effects of the ocean. Summers are not as warm as on the mainland. This is perhaps the sunniest area in the UK with on average 7.6 hours per day in July. On average there are fewer than 2 days of air frost per year. This balmy climate has resulted in the islands developing a thriving flower industry.
Not on Sunday you won't: no ferry, no flights. So Sunday newspapers arrive Monday.
By boat1 The Scillonian III passenger ferry, Quay Street, Penzance TR18 4BZ, ☎ . The ferry sails end of March to end of Oct, Mo-Sa, from Penzance at 09:15 to reach Hugh Town, St Mary's by noon; it returns at 16:30 for 19:15. No winter or Sunday sailings. Foot passengers only (dogs & bikes welcome), booking essential - the ferry may sell out. In Penzance, check-in at the "Weighbridge" building, next to Dolphin Tavern. Get your baggage tagged to go either to Hugh Town pier, or to an "off-island", or to a specific hotel on St Marys. From the Weighbridge it's a short walk with hand luggage to the boarding point - Scillonian will be the biggest and whitest thing in the harbour. In Hugh Town, baggage for pier delivery and the check-in point for return are at the end of the main pier: toilets and cafe here.
Scillonian has outdoor and indoor seating, two cafes and a bar. No vehicles are carried. Watch for marine life on the way over, dolphins may follow the boat. At high tide the ship takes a short-cut north of St Mary's, at low tide it's a slightly longer route south of the island. In Hugh Town harbour, local boatmen will be offering day-trips to the "off-islands" - you can easily tour Tresco Abbey Gardens in time for the afternoon return ferry. Day trip adult £45, child £24; Return adult £100, child £50.
See Penzance for long-stay parking options near the ferry terminal.
There are flights year-round to the Isles of Scilly from Land's End and Newquay, Monday to Saturday. In winter when the ferry doesn't sail, this is your only way in. March to October there are also flights from Exeter. These "Skybus" flights are in small fixed-wing twin-props (eg Twin Otter or BNF Islander) so your checked baggage limit is only 15 kg, and flights can be grounded by weather that wouldn't bother an Airbus or 737. There is also a helicopter service from Land's End, in a 10-seater AW169, same baggage limit. Day-trips (with no checked baggage) can be made from Land's End or Newquay but not Exeter.
Between the islands
Each island is serviced by a network of inter-island launches that run daily from 1 April through to the end of October each year (£9 return ticket between any two islands). Apart from direct trips between the islands, circular sightseeing tours are also offered giving the opportunity to look at the extensive wildlife in and around the islands, particularly the large colonies of Atlantic seal and sea bird colonies. For example, a Three Islands day tour would visit Bryher, Tresco, and St Agnes, giving an hour or two time ashore on each for walking and exploring.
One of the most popular trips is to see the puffins who arrive to nest in late April, leaving the Isles in early August.
The boat service in winter is governed more by wind and tide, but daily, direct trips still take place with the occasional circular journey when the weather is sufficiently benign. Services however are provided for the benefit of those on the off-islands to visit St Mary's, rather than vice versa.
The quay at Hugh Town on St Mary's acts as the hub for inter-island boating, and is also where the ferry from Penzance docks.
Transport on St. Mary's
Scilly is made for walking, and the relative lack of cars and other motorised transportation creates an atmosphere that is a luxury few can enjoy in their home towns. St Mary's is larger than the other islands, but a walk to furthest reaches and back to Hugh Town is easily manageable for most people.
An infrequent bus service operates around the island, though check first if it is running.
There are a few local taxi operators and these are best looked for in the centre of Hugh Town. Like everything else on Scilly, these are rather laid back and seem to be not working more often than not!
Bicycle hire is widely available and if you are not up for walking everywhere, are the best way to see the islands. There is also electric cart hire available on St Mary's - these are road-legal carts (and you will be on the public highway) and so you will need a driving licence.
Transport on the off islands
There is no public transport available for day visitors. However, transport is normally provided to and from the quay or heliport (on Tresco) to your accommodation. This ranges from old land rovers to golf carts. On Tresco there are tractors with trailers, and it is often said you won't ever find as many millionaires riding on the back of a tractor as you do on Tresco!
Bike hire is available on all the islands, but again walking is easy and very pleasant.
- 1 Isles of Scilly Museum, Church Street, St. Mary's, TR21 0JT, ☎ . Easter-Sep 30: M-F 10AM-4:30PM; Sa 10AM-noon. Oct 2-Good Friday: M-Sa 10AM-noon. Many exhibitions on the essence of the islands and their place in history. Very much worth a visit. Adults £3.50, seniors and students ¢3, children 5-16 £1.
- 2 Harry's Walls, St. Mary's. These are the walls of an unfinished artillery fort built above St Mary's Pool harbour in 1552-53. Free.
- The Garrison (overlooking the Hugh Town harbour). Part of this old star fort is being used for a restaurant, bar and hotel, but you can walk inside and on top of the walls. There is a one-room museum (free) in the old powder magazine that explains the history of the fortifications. Free.
- 3 Abbey Gardens, Tresco, TR24 0QQ, ☎ . 10AM-4PM. Pretty expensive to get in but an impressive botanical garden with a range of sub-tropical plants growing healthily outdoors. You will wonder just how you can possibly still be in England. Adult: £15, concessions £13.50, children: free.
- 4 Cromwell's Castle, Tresco (15 minutes walk north of New Grimsby along the coastal path). During daylight hours. This coastal gun tower was built by Oliver Cromwell in 1651-1652 on a promontory to guard the anchorage between Bryher and Tresco. It is administered by English Heritage. free.
- 5 King Charles Castle (15 minutes walk north of New Grimsby along the coastal path). A ruined artillery fort built during the reign of King Edward VI overlooking New Grimsby harbour. free.
- Report a rat! St Agnes + Gugh and Annet are rat-free, the other islands are aiming to be. Ground-nesting birds such as the Manx Shearwater depend upon this. So report it if you think you see a rat, but don't try to whack it yourself. You'd only succeed if it was something else, like the Scillies Shrew, a protected species.
- Golf: There is a golf course in the isles, which is located on St Mary's and also serves food.
On the water
- Boat trips: a lot of boat trips are available from wildlife watching to island circular tours. On St. Mary's look out for the notice boards at the quay or the website of the boatmen's association. On the off-islands, check with the island boat companies.
- World Pilot Gig Championships are held every year in May. Over 100 crews of traditional Cornish wooden rowing boats compete. The last night party is legendary.
Exploring the islands on foot
- St Mary's - the outcrop of land to the west of Hugh Town had an eight-pointed star castle known as the Garrison, which now houses the Star Hotel and its restaurant, but you can explore the grounds and a one-room museum for free. The main bulk of the island to the east can be explored via a coastal path.
- St Agnes - a very hospitable island, stepping ashore you are faced with the island's only pub, the Turk's Head. The two main features to see are the lighthouse, built in 1680, and the connected island of Gugh which is accessible across a sandbar at low tide. The sandbar provides a lovely clean beach.
- Bryher - walk across the island to Hell Bay to see the Atlantic waves crashing in and for a hot chocolate at the Hell Bay Hotel, then back along the eastern shore where you can see Hangman Island, allegedly a gallows site in the English civil war.
- St. Martin's - some locals claim this is the most beautiful island, criss-crossed by walking paths, and surrounded by rugged coastline and some unspoilt beaches. It has a bakery, a cafe, a couple of pubs, a winery. In the off-season, be sure to ask what is open.
- Tresco - Tresco is a 30-minute boat trip from St. Mary's. Four hours is enough to walk around most of the island at a moderate pace, and have lots of time to see the Abbey Gardens, both castles, and stop for a cup of tea or coffee at the Ruin Beach Cafe on Old Grimsby. The walking paths are well-marked, but wear good shoes.
Keen birders will need no introduction to the Isles of Scilly. This is the Mecca of birding in Great Britain and probably the whole of Europe. The islands are ideally positioned to be the point of landfall for many scarce migrant species in spring and especially in autumn. Each October, many hundreds of expert birders from Britain and further afield converge on the islands.
The slightly less keen will still find plenty to interest them in the summer months as the islands host several important seabird colonies.
Lots of locally produced food and gifts are available. Beef, pork, lamb, duck, fresh fish and shellfish, wildflower honey, fudge, ice cream, paintings, pottery, glassware, jewellery and even soap, the list is endless. Each island has at least one stall selling locally produced fruit and veg together with fresh free range eggs. Scilly is famous for its flowers, and a wide variety of bulbs are available to take home.
There is a Co-op food store on St. Mary's and some off islands have a well stocked shop.
There are two banks in Scilly, both are in Hugh Town on St. Mary's - Lloyds and Barclays - though only Lloyds has an ATM. Many shops, pubs and post offices will do cash back.
- Picnic on the beach. The Co-op on St. Mary's or the local shops on off islands.
- Good pub and cafe food available is on all the inhabited islands, though out of the peak season it is worth checking opening times.
- Cream teas are done well on the islands, and should not be missed.
- In addition to the pubs listed below, Cafe Kavorna (on Hugh Street beside the Lloyd's Bank, , +44 1720 422660) does good breakfasts, lunches and cream teas until 5PM. Gluten-free and vegan options.
- Most of the islands have at least one 'high end' restaurant specialising in local produce.
Each of the inhabited islands has its own pub, and St. Mary's manages to support five. The opening hours of all Scilly pubs vary greatly according to season. In the low season (November to April), many do not open at lunchtimes.
- Atlantic Inn, Hugh Town, St Mary's, ☎ . The poshest pub on St. Mary's which serves notably decent food.
- Bishop and Wolf, Hugh Town, St. Mary's, ☎ . These days seems to concentrate on food as much as drink. Serves St Austell ales.
- Mermaid, Hugh Town, St. Mary's (very close to the quay), ☎ . Every traditional British coastal town has a pub which looks fit to be the haunt of crusty old sea dogs, with nautical decorations that look unchanged for the past 50 years. This is the one on Scilly. Do not expect any frills! The Ales of Scilly brands are very popular.
- Old Town Inn, Old Town, St. Mary's, ☎ . The only pub on St Mary's away from Hugh Town.
- Scillonian Club, The Parade, Hugh Town, St. Mary's, ☎ . Nice view over the bay, Skinner's Ale on tap, and a popular Sunday carvery (noon-2PM and 6PM-8:30PM - booking ahead is advised).
- Fraggle Rock, Bryher, ☎ . Close to the campsite and noted for the Friday night fish and chips and double decker crab sandwiches. Serves Proper Job and Doom Bar Bitter. 3 self-catering units available here.
- New Inn, Tresco (just above the quay at New Grimsby), ☎ . Always stock a good range of real ales.
- Seven Stones Inn, Middletown, St Martin's, ☎ . . Gdood range of real ales.
- Turk's Head, St Agnes, ☎ . Close to the quay and famous for its home made Cornish Pasties.
Most accommodation is on the largest and most populated island, St. Mary's, which has plenty of accommodation of all kinds. The other islands have more limited accommodation. Demand for accommodation exceeds supply, so prices are high, even by English standards, and early booking is advisable.
With the mild climate, camping is a great option on Scilly and of the inhabited islands, only Tresco does not have a camp site. During the height of summer (June to August) booking is a must.
- Bryher Campsite, Bryher, ☎ . Fabulous views over Tresco channel. Showers, washer/dryer, dishwashing facilities, phone charging and gas cylinder exchange. Sleeps around a hundred.
- St. Agnes Campsite, Troytown Farm, St. Agnes, ☎ . Facilities include showers and a drying room. Some fine fresh produce is available from the farm.
- St Martin's Campsite, ☎ . An English Tourist Board four-star rated campsite, right by the beach. Facilities include toilets, hot and cold water basins, coin-operated showers and hair-dryers, baby-changing facilities and washing-up sinks. They limit numbers to 50 pitches.
- St Mary's Campsite, The Garrison, St. Mary's, ☎ . A 9-acre camp site with facilities which include toilet blocks, hot showers, washing up facilities, laundry, supplies shop and a limited number of electrical hookups (must be reserved in advance).
Streets are not marked with name plates on St. Mary's, so you will likely have trouble finding your lodgings. Ask any resident for directions. If staying in a B&B, knowing the name of your host is more helpful than the name of the B&B.
Cheapest B&B starts around £32 per person.
- Various B&Bs and pubs on St. Mary's £40-70 per person.
- 1 Star Castle Hotel, St Marys TR21 0JA (on hill overlooking Hugh Town harbour), ☎ . Check-in: 15:00, check-out: 10:30. 38 luxurious bedrooms in 16th-century castle - the "star" refers to the Vauban-style fortifications. Also cottage accommodation within 4 acres of gardens. Two restaurants (non-residents welcome, reservations essential): the conservatory majors on fish, the main castle dining room has a wider selection and is better designed for defensive musket-fire against invaders. Excellent cuisine so half-board is pricey but worth it. Other facilities include an indoor heated swimming pool, tennis court and golf. A courtesy minibus runs between hotel, harbour, town and airport. Check-in your luggage at Penzance ferry terminal or the airport and it will go straight to your room. single £233, double £203-300.
- Hell Bay Hotel, ☎ . A lovely hotel with an outlook over the wild, crashing ocean. Noted for the quality of its food and for its extensive art collection. Owned by the same family as the Tresco Estate, so expect to pay! £135-300.
St. Agnes is the only inhabited island without a hotel, and is therefore the quietest, with just a handful of bed and breakfasts, and holiday cottages.
- Covean Cottage, ☎ . A charming little guesthouse with just three rooms. Has a cute little cafe attached which goes out of its way to use as much locally grown produce as possible.
- The Parsonage, ☎ . A small number of bed and breakfast and self-catering rooms available.
Tresco is a private estate which runs an upmarket timeshare resort, and has a hotel and a pub.
- Holiday cottage rental on Tresco, £237 per week at the FBC sleeping 6-8.
- The New Inn on Tresco, rooms for around £55-120 per person B&B.
- Timeshare cottage on Tresco, range from £20,000 for a week off-season to £50,000 in August or during school holidays (you get "your" week every year for 25 years).
Local people do not use - and do not like - the expression "Scilly Isles" or worse "Scillies" (which is just plain wrong). Local usage is to refer to the "Isles of Scilly" or simply "Scilly". Inhabitants of the islands are known as "Scillonians".
The islands are nearly crime-free. The biggest dangers are probably from bicycle theft or from the odd rowdy group of drunken pub-goers in the evening. Don't leave your bike unlocked outside a pub on a Friday or Saturday night... if it does go missing though you'll probably find it returned nearby the next morning.
If walking along the more rugged coastal paths, or exploring remote parts, especially the smaller uninhabited islands, take with you a charged mobile phone or other means of communication. There is generally good mobile coverage.
As with the rest of the UK, in any emergency call 999 or 112 and ask for Ambulance, Fire or Police when connected.
The landline area code for the Isles is 01720. There is mobile coverage by all UK networks. The islands are connected to the internet by a high-capacity ocean cable, so there is good internet access available. Royal Mail deliver and collect as on the British mainland, Mondays to Saturdays.
You won't want to leave! Only way out by public transport is back to Cornwall on the mainland. It'll feel strange when you return.