Turquoise water, white sand and bottle-nosed dolphins; Stylist’s events director Mariam Ahmed discovers Britain’s most tropical archipelago
“It looks just like the Maldives!” I say to my husband as we start our descent on the Isles of Scilly in our 19-seater Skybus plane. “Tenuous,” he replies. But over the next two days, with the sun shining, our tans glowing and the azure-blue water lapping at our feet, I can tell he’s starting to come around.
It was 15 years ago that a former colleague told me about what sounded like a mythical collection of islands 28 miles off the Cornish coast. They had a sub-tropical climate, he said, due to sitting within the Gulf Stream. And white sandy beaches, he said. And blue water and palm trees. All just an hour’s plane journey from Exeter. I have been dying to go ever since.
The isles’ five inhabited islands – Bryher, St Agnes, St Martin’s, Tresco and St Mary’s – are home to around 2,200 people, which means there’s a limited amount of visitor accommodation and when it’s full, it’s full. Except it’s never really full. It’s peak season when we visit (April-October; the isles are ghost town-quiet the rest of the time, with cold weather and reduced services) yet it never feels busy – an undisputed bonus.
We’re staying on St Mary’s – the largest of the islands – at the Star Castle Hotel. Originally built in 1593 to protect the islands from invaders, the building looks like a Game Of Thrones set on the outside, while beautifully furnished and cosy on the inside. It’s also got two award-winning restaurants, which serve up four courses of locally sourced food for a very reasonable £25. Or head to nearby Dibble & Grub, a Mediterranean eatery that showcases local produce via the most delicious range of tapas (dibbleandgrub.com).
Island hopping will be your main activity here (there are around 140 uninhabited islets), although for the more adventurous there is kayaking, swimming with seals and dolphin- watching excursions. St Mary’s Boatmen’s Association runs most of the transport here with direct services between the main islands as well as a selection of wildlife and sightseeing trips (scillyboating.co.uk).
My favourite island is Tresco, the second largest. It feels dedicated to visitor experience, with bikes to hire, a spa featuring a full-size pool and yoga studio for rainy days, and Tresco Abbey Gardens – a tropical paradise manicured in the gardens of a ruined abbey.
Our last night is spent on St Mary’s at Juliet’s Garden Restaurant. It’s the spot to watch the sunset and the food is incredible: lightly dusted dover sole with hand-cut chips and ice cream from St Agnes’s Troytown Creamery. On the way out is The Bulb Shop where you can take local bulbs home with you to recreate the peace of the islands in your balcony box, which we did. A reminder of a place where – wherever you are standing – you can always see the sea.