For families who hanker after a tropical archipelago but just can’t stomach the long-haul flight, the Isles of Scilly are ready and waiting
They may lack the overwater chalets and underwater spas of the Maldives, but the Isles of Scilly share much tropical DNA with the likes of those Indian Ocean gems. A splatter of around 150 low lying islands, just 28 miles southwest of Cornwall, they’re caressed by the Gulf Stream, spawning palm trees, cacti and aloe to go with the bleached sand and eye-popping azure water. And you can add to that a vast range of activities from scuba diving to subtropical gardens, a very affable island masseuse and some of the most stylish and family-friendly hotels you’ll care to encounter.
Our early evening 16-seater Skybus from Bristol to the main island of St Mary’s takes just over an hour. There’s none of the usual airport fuss, just friendly faces and a taxi to take myself, my partner Steve and our two young children, Scarlett and Fin, to the boat for the ‘off-island’ of Bryher. We land at a rudimentary pier over a white sandy beach strewn with seaweed and that wonderful feeling of discovering a magical place. There’s a Land Rover waiting to take us to Hell Bay, our first hotel.
I should point out that Bryher is a dot of an island with a population of just 150. Huge bursts of purples and pinks, succulent flora and fauna and massive protea blooms like you’d expect to see in Cape Town abound. To have a hotel the calibre of Hell Bay is a miracle. This is thanks to the Dorrien-Smiths, the family who lease the neighbouring island of Tresco from the Duchy of Cornwall and also happen to own Hell Bay. Named after the treacherous stretch of water that has claimed many a mariner’s life, the 23-suite hotel is anything but forbidding. Coming down the sandy drive, you hardly realise you’ve entered England’s first or last hotel; it’s rather like a tiny village with higgledy-piggledy houses and gardens. We’re led to a cute pebbledash house. Inside it’s bijou and beautiful with pale blue wood panels.
There's Dame Barbara Hepworth art in the bar and objects d’art everywhere from the gardens to the bathrooms, and there certainly isn’t a crèche or children’s club in sight, yet there are no sharp edges or slippery surfaces and the mood is so civilised and accommodating that having young children with you at dinner amongst the blue glass and superb cuisine by Graham Shone feels perfectly natural. Head to the pretty outdoor pool and there’s a huge sandpit and climbing frame to keep little ones amused. Plus there are so many lovely lawns to tumble on.
After a peaceful night with no jetlagged children or time difference to contend with, we wake up to sunny days of exploration. Because Bryher is so tiny, it’s full of mini adventures. We strap Fin into his papoose and head up the hill near the hotel with its springy grass, amazingly tame birds and fabulous views. Next we wander along a dirt road to Eagle Studios – an old boathouse, now the studio of painter Richard Pearce (www.rpearce.net).
Another day we amble along the only road that crosses the island. All the stone houses are picture postcard and many have honesty stalls outside selling everything from shell jewellery to homegrown cucumbers. Everywhere there are amazing black aeoniums and purple agapanthus growing like weeds. On the other side of the island is Fraggle Rock Bar Café with outdoor tables overlooking a pretty natural harbour.
For the more adventurous visitor there’s Cyclone, billed as ‘the Scillies first jet boat’, offering trips to see birds and seals. Then there’s Bryher Boat Services for charter for picnics, bird-watching and sightseeing, not to mention boats that will take you shark fishing, wreck or reef fishing and diving. Every Wednesday there’s an evening trip to St Martins for dinner at the Round Island Bistro. One of the highlights of the summer is the inter-island gig-racing.
Our next stop is Tresco, just a five-minute ferry ride from Bryher. Privately owned by the Dorrien-Smiths, this private island is more manicured, like a mini utopia, where everything works like clockwork. All the stone houses look like something out of Country Living with idyllic names like Reading Room Cottage and Dolphin House. The main ‘town’ of New Grimsby has ‘Tresco Store’, a million miles away from Tesco. It’s one of the most beautiful supermarkets I’ve ever seen, like a mini Fortnum & Mason. There are pristine bikes for hire next door (as on Bryher, there are no cars). Just down the road is Gallery Tresco, stuffed with paintings and sculptures from local artists as well as jewellery by the likes of Anne Dalton, who casts local shells in silver.
There are houses by the harbour with front gardens that stretch down like a Monet canvas. And you’ll see many groups of happy scuba divers heading off for the day. Through a little gate with ‘The Therapy Shed’ (www.therapyshed.co.uk) posted on it is the home of Joan, a wonderful woman who will give you a great massage for around £40 per hour.
The 48-room Island Hotel is our new resting place, sister hotel to Hell Bay and nestling on the eastern side of the island in a rocky knoll with sea-lawns that roll down to the water's edge. It's a bit more seaside traditional and less designer-ish, but lovely nonetheless. At reception, there’s a huge wooden chest stuffed full of buckets, spades and fishing nets to take at will. Our super bikes with baby and toddler seats are ready and waiting for us.
The New Inn is the perfect lunchtime stop with its fabulous ice cream parlour. But one of the main reasons for visiting this island is to see the magnificent Tresco Abbey Garden. Established in 1834, it has been lovingly maintained and developed by five generations of the Dorrien-Smith family.
If you want a shopping trip, the only place to go is St Mary’s with its cute boutiques. Seasalt, a local Cornish company has opened a store with clothes for all the family. Pick up some local delicacies at Woodcock & Mumford deli and some scented narcissus bulbs from Tideline. It was in the 19th century that the islanders realised the potential of exporting cut daffodils and narcissus. Scilly had a full month’s advantage over everywhere else in the British Isles. You can still order your narcissus such as Soleil d’Or and Scilly White from www.islesofscillyflowers.com.
Who needs the Maldives, I say? Or is it more a cross between Cape Cod, Corfu and the Caribbean? Another visit is in order, I feel...
Island Sea Safaris (01720 422732) offer shipwrecks, seals and seabird and gig race trips.
For flights and ferry details and other information on the islands, contact Isles of Scilly Travel (0845 710 5555; www.ios-travel.co.uk).