An archipelago off the southwestern tip of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, often referred to as the Scilly Isles, are a tranquil retreat for weary travellers looking for an escape from the crowds. Made up of five inhabited islands and a pretty impressive sprinkling of uninhabited rocky islets, this designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is covered in low-lying heathland and fringed by glorious sandy white beaches - a world away from the hustle and bustle of mainland Britain. This enchanting cluster of isles will greet you with a good old-fashioned welcome and bid you a cheery farewell, safe in the knowledge that you will again one day, return to its shores. It's said that once you visit the Scilly Isles, you'll never want to return to normal life again and we can understand why.
Have a flick through our list of things to do on the Isles of Scilly to discover the reasons so many people are talking about this most southern of UK holiday spots.
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The maritime history
Events and festivals
Food and drink
How to get there
About the isles:
It’s often thought that Lizard Point in Cornwall is the most southerly spot in Britain - well, it is if you're talking about the mainland. If we include the islands too, then one of the Scilly Isles, St Agnes, beats the Lizard by over 4 miles to the finish line, to be crowned the most southerly place in the British Isles.
Sparsely populated with just over 2,200 inhabitants, it considers tourism and agriculture (cut flowers in particular due to the isles’ climate) a major part of its local economy. The temperate weather here may be great for growing daffodils, but exposure to fierce Atlantic winds can mean that the islands see some spectacular winter gales too!
The main five islands are, in order of size: St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s, St Agnes and Bryher. Most visitors tend to stay in St Mary’s and Tresco where there are various amenities and things to do to suit the traveller. You can drive around St Mary's by car or electric golf buggy (hire one here), while on St Mary’s you can also catch a taxi or see the sights on a tour bus with Island Rover. The main way to island-hop is via an inter-island launch – many residents have their own boats to visit island neighbours. Non-boat-owning visitors should head to one of the local boating companies who will take you across.
There are no typical touristy attractions on the Scilly Isles. This unspoilt group of islands certainly isn’t the place for theme parks and zoos, but it does have some wonderful natural and historic attractions to enjoy. One of the most popular is Tresco Abbey Garden which has over 20,000 exotic species of plant from all corners of the globe. Like an outside Kew Gardens, this Tresco-based delight offers an explosion of colour and scents to lucky visitors hoping for a little Tropicana on their holiday.
If you want to see some of the most beautiful representations of the isles on paper or canvas, visit the various art galleries across the islands where you can view beautiful coastal paintings, jewellery and pottery. Those who like to be more hands-on should book a couple of hours out of their schedule and take one of the daily afternoon craft workshops on St Mary’s.
Visitors who get itchy feet will love a bit of island-hopping, and the Scilly Isles are your best bet this side of Greece. Jump aboard a boat from St Mary’s Quay and explore all five of the main isles. You can also take a Wildlife Trust Wildlife Safari, departing from St Agnes Quay during the spring and summer months, to explore the islands and spot seals, puffins and seabirds - just remember your camera!
Explore the islands on horseback, riding along the white sandy beaches and coastal paths, or cycle around the island on a hired bike. Golfers can tee off at the Isles of Scilly Golf Club overlooking St Mary’s Harbour and visiting anglers can take a guided fishing trip around the islands' waters with a local fisherman. For something a little more adventurous, book a shark fishing trip, snorkel with seals or hurl yourself off Scilly's granite coastline with an afternoon of coasteering.
You can't come to the Scilly Isles without signing up for a bit of history. Interestingly, the Scilly Isles have the densest concentration of historical sites than anywhere else in the UK. Dating back to the Bronze Age, you can visit burial chambers dating back some 3,000 years or one of the other 239 scheduled monuments scattered across the isles. Some of the most interesting are Long Rock Standing Stone on St Mary's, and King Charles’ Castle and Cromwell’s Castle on the north of Tresco.
You’ll always find a local expert offering tours around the islands, though if you want to discover Scilly's history in your own time, the Isles of Scilly Museum on St Mary’s Island is a good bet.
The maritime history:
The Scilly Isles have always had a strong connection with the shipping industry. As they lie at the junction where five international shipping lanes meet, they used to be a popular stop-off spot for passing ships who anchored in the straits waiting for favourable weather conditions. The principal island of Tresco made a great trade out of selling supplies in the 14th century to ships coming in from the continent, as well as offering boat repairs and essential local navigation knowledge to sailors who needed help.
Later in the 18th century, the islands were turned into an isolation hospital and cholera quarantine station, but soon after, returned to all things maritime and agriculture. During these times, a significant number of ships came unstuck around the isles’ 100 miles of coastline due to the submerged rock reefs and treacherous waters, leaving a scattering of shipwrecks all around the isles. Discover some of these for yourself at one of the 150 dive sites around the isles - from snorkelling with seals to unguided dives for experienced divers with their own equipment - call Scilly Diving to book.
A little extra history: the isles were the site of one of the worst tragedies in Royal Naval history when in 1707, a fleet of Royal Navy ships perished on the rocks. Nearly 1,500 men were drowned, including Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. You can find the small stone that marks the spot of his discovery at Porth Hellick on St Mary's.
More maritime paraphernalia can be found at the Tresco Abbey Garden’s Valhalla Collection, where you can view around 30 colourful and varied figureheads and name boards from local shipwrecks. If you want to find out more, book a walk with resident maritime expert, Richard Larn OBE, who will take you around Hugh Town and the Garrison and thrill you with stories about these fascinating times.
The events and festivals:
The isles are host to various events throughout the year, in particular, the annual World Pilot Gig Championships in May, but late summer and early autumn seem to be a particularly popular time in Scilly. Strong swimmers may like the Scilly Swim Challenge which takes place across two days in September. Swimming from one island to another in varied open water conditions, you'll only like this one if you are an experienced swimmer and adventurer! If you prefer to stay on dry land, watch as a spectator or come for the Walk Scilly Long Weekend in October which takes you on a guided walking extravaganza across the five main islands.
Foodies will love the annual Taste of Scilly in September which celebrates the excellent local cuisine on offer from all over the isles. Try lobster feasts and paella nights on the beach and enjoy masterclasses and tastings galore in a month-long celebration of Scilly local produce. Also, don’t miss the famous Low Tide mini pop-up festivals, as well as the brilliant summer fetes and Christmas walking nativity at the end of the year.
The food and drink:
The main theme on Scilly is local produce. From freshly-caught Scillonian shellfish to island-reared beef, there’ll always be something to delight the taste buds. Pubs, restaurants, cafés or beach bars, you’ll easily find somewhere to fill empty tummies. On St Mary’s, try the Spirit Bar and Restaurant which uses local produce from its own farm or the friendly Old Town Café overlooking the beach which is famous for its tasty pasties and homemade cakes.
When you want to sample a pint of the local nectar, head to the characterful pubs of the Atlantic Inn or the former smugglers' and pirates' haunt of the Mermaid Inn. For a meal with a view, take your guests to the delightful Juliet’s Garden Restaurant in Little Porth for Seafood Thursdays where you can try monkfish, plaice and gurnard, all sustainably sourced, served with buttery new potatoes or crispy hand-cut skinny fries. For something a little sweeter, pop over to contemporary Miller's in High Town to build your own ice cream sundae or indulge in a knickerbocker glory or fresh-fruit smoothie. We recommend the tropical Carrot Boost - a heady mix of carrot, goji berry juice, pineapple and papaya.
Over on Tresco, the Ruin Beach Café is a popular choice for laid-back, med-inspired beachside dining, while on St Mary’s, the boutique-style High Tide Seafood Restaurant offers some of the island’s best food. On St Martin’s, The Seven Stones Inn on the north of the island is a recently refurbished single room pub with spectacular views across the bay to St Mary’s and if you have a taste for some fresh fish and chunky salty chips, head south to Adam’s Fish & Chips for a takeaway fish supper. Settle down on Par Beach to eat, and wait for the snorkellers from Scilly Seal Snorkelling to come in from a day's diving.
The Scilly Isles are a birdwatchers’ paradise, attracting rare birds from all over the world. Twitchers usually head over in October, when the most unusual birds tend to visit, coming in from North America and Siberia among others, for a rest and snack before moving on to the mainland. Interestingly, the isles are known for being the only place in Britain where you may spot the lesser white-toothed shrew. Two of the islets, Samson and Annet are also home to large ternaries and there is a great population of seals as well as dolphins and puffins around the islands.
Blessed with over 35 glorious sandy beaches with aquamarine waters and almost white sand, you won’t miss out on coastal living here on Scilly. Almost tropical in look, they aren’t your typical bucket and spade beaches but instead, a gentle retreat for the senses where you can just lie back and take the time to dream.
Par Beach in the south of St Martin's is a great spot for both sunbathing and snorkelling, or head up over the heathlands and through the dunes to uncover the marvellous Great Bay with its calm sparkling waters - perfect for families and swimmers who like to stay near the shore.
Tresco doesn’t disappoint those who are hoping for a taste of the tropical. The tranquil beach and powdery white sands of Pentle Bay are a joy with miles of shallow azure waters to paddle and splash about in. On St Mary’s, the best beaches are said to be in the north, with Bar Point one of the most popular. With views over to St Martin’s and sheltered dunes, this gorgeous beach is well worth the visit.
Our accommodation in West Cornwall is ideal if you are looking to pop across to the Scilly Isles for a day or two. Stay in Land’s End if you want the quickest way to get over (see travel options below) though there are various departure points if you are going across for a longer stay.
Book a stay in Mowey Cottage, just 4 miles east of Land’s End. A lovingly converted barn for two, set in 20 acres of Cornish countryside, this sweet retreat is the perfect pad for a romantic escape. The friendly local pub is located just a mile away for post-walk lunches and the Minack open-air theatre is a short 4-mile drive if you are in need of a little culture. And with the Scilly Isles being just a 15-minute plane ride away, you’ll have no excuse to not book a surprise trip for you and your significant other!
If you are coming to Cornwall as a family or group of friends, book the gorgeous Hollyberry Barn At Banns Farm which sleeps seven guests and up to three dogs. One of your guests won't mind staying at home with the hounds while you pop off to Scilly, we’re sure – who wouldn’t want to spend a day at home in this charming Grade II listed converted stone barn, nestled in 37 acres of countryside? Wake up to the sounds of ducks, goats and ponies and take the dogs down to Sennen Beach for a splash about before returning to the warmth of a crackling wood burner and a good book - bliss.
How to get to the Scilly Isles from mainland UK:
From Land’s End (15 minutes flight time), Newquay (30 minutes flight time) and Exeter (60 minutes flight time) into St Mary’s Airport, operated by the Isles of Scilly Skybus. Please note that there are no flights on Sundays.
Passenger ferry from Penzance Harbour (approx. three hours sailing time) into St Mary’s Harbour in Hugh Town, operated by the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company. Please note that there are no ferries during the winter months and there is only a Sunday sailing during the peak months of July and August.
A bit of both!
If you want to mix up your transports, there's a third option where you can fly out to the isles and sail back in. Please see here for further details of all of the ways to get to the Scilly Isles from the mainland.
Stay with us
For the nearest accommodation to the Scilly Isles, have a look at our collection of cottages in West Cornwall. Book a stay in Penzance where you can catch the ferry across to St Mary's, or Land’s End, Newquay or Exeter, from where you can get a flight across.
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Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing,
please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.