The Isles of Scilly may be just off the Cornish coast, but they're like nowhere else in the UK, with beaches that could hold their own in the Med - ideal for a British seaside holiday with a twist
Head 28 miles off the Cornish coast, and you'll arrive in a totally unique British landscape. The Isles of Scilly are a treat for the senses, with a milder climate than the rest of the UK. Here, flowers originating from South American shores generate fantastic scents, and you hear the sound of birds unusual enough to bring twitchers flocking and tame enough to entertain kids and adults alike.
You can get to these magnificent shores by boat from Penzance from £69 return (www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk). However, if you can cope with mild turbulence, do as we did, and take the 12-seater plane from Southampton to St Mary's. This short flight gives you an aerial view of the stunning coastline of Devon and Cornwall, and about 15 minutes before you land you can clearly see the final tip of Lands End.
The journey from the airport to the centre of Hugh Town on St Mary's takes minutes. Along the way, we were shown the house of Harold Wilson. The ex-Prime Minister (who chose to be buried in the graveyard of one of the local churches) used to come here regularly, and the house is still owned by Mrs Wilson.
At the other side of Hugh Town was our destination, the Star Castle Hotel, which dates back to the 16th century and was the final royalist retreat in the English Civil War. It has everything you would expect from a luxury hotel: a swimming pool, beautiful bedrooms and lounges, impeccably well-trained staff, etc, but there is one thing in particular this hotel is renowned for, and that is the food. The owner of the castle also has a lobster boat, and the hotel's two restaurants feature freshly caught seafood; locals as well as tourists come again and again to sample the delicious daily five-course menu. Rates at the hotel start from £83 per person per night. For a slightly less expensive option, there are plenty of other hotels and B&Bs scattered across the islands; you can find B&Bs and pubs in Hugh Town offering rooms from £40 a night even during the peak summer months. Early booking is essential, though, as organised tours sometimes fill up these smaller residences.
Even if you don’t get the chance to stay or eat at the Star Castle, the footpath around the headland it is perched on is definitely worth a visit. The views over the central bay, the port of Hugh Town and the surrounding islands are fantastic. The headland is also a great place to stop off in the early evening, when you can watch the sun set across the Atlantic. On a rather spooky note, it is said that the cliffs around the castle are haunted - but whether the ghostly tales are true or merely made up to keep tourists off the cliffs at night depends on who you speak to!
From an eating out point of view, all the local pubs in Hugh Town provide great food at affordable prices. Be sure to book ahead if you want to sit down, as they all get busy around lunch and dinner time. On a personal note, we loved the cheesy chips in the Atlantic Inn on the quay - great after a windy morning walk. For those who choose to pack a picnic or self-cater, there is a well stocked local co-op in the centre of Hugh Town, which can provide all the essentials and, to our delight, some rather tasty luxury Cornish biscuits.
Apart from attracting bird-watchers, the islands are also often enjoyed by deep-sea-diving fanatics. The waters around Scilly are incredibly clear, providing ideal conditions for divers to visit the thousands of wrecks in the surrounding waters. It’s easy to get around the wrecks and to visit the other islands - if you are on St Mary’s, just head down to Hugh Town harbour. Here, you will find a wide range of boats, from speedboats to sailing boats, and see boards all along the harbour walls advertising the types of excursions each captain runs. Each excursion usually lasts half a day.
The boat company we used was called Island Sea Safaris (run by the incredibly friendly and welcoming Mark and Susie Groves), who took us out in what is known as a RIG - essentially a dingy with a rigid bottom, seating a maximum of eight people. Not for the faint-hearted, our trip took us at great speeds through the waves all around the islands, and included what was described as a marine safari. It was great for all of us on board to see both seals and puffins on numerous occasions during the morning. We also got to use the boat's underwater camera to look at some of the most visible shipwrecks, and periscopes to view the vegetation in the shallows.
The trip also gave us the opportunity to visit the most popular boat destination, the rather more exclusive island of Tresco. Tresco's popularity is down to its world-famous Abbey Gardens, hidden in the middle of this beautiful small island. The gardens are still family-owned (by Sarah Ferguson's uncle, no less!) and the money raised from visitors goes to support a team of talented gardeners, who are responsible for maintaining the magnificent beauty and the unique eco-system. The climate of the islands, with their incredibly mild winters, allows them to grow botanical specimens that would struggle elsewhere in the UK outside a greenhouse.
These islands truly are something magical. The landscape is like nothing else in Britain, the plant life is amazing and birds as timid as those seen in Disney films are everywhere. Only the occasional red telephone box and Union Jack flags on the masts of the boats reminded us that the islands are, in fact, only miles off the coast of Penzance. Maybe it is the home-from-home experience with a difference that appeals to some of the regulars who come here year after year. They include a few well-known faces - Jude Law, for example, apparently likes nothing more than a game of cricket on the beach at St Martin's.
I always say that when the sun is out, there are few nicer places than the British coastline - and for British coastline with a twist, I thoroughly recommend a trip to the Isles of Scilly!