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A must for your holiday destination wish list - Isles of Scilly

Date Created: 01 October 2013

Flying over the Isles of Scilly archipelago, it’s hard to believe I’m only 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall’s Land’s End. Below me the ocean shallows are Caribbean turquoise and islands are fringed with half moon beaches of blonde sand. There’s even the odd palm tree. It’s only as we’re coming into land on the island of St Mary’s with its flower filled fields and a classically British patchwork of wood and heathland, that I’m reminded this is still dear old Blighty.

After landing at St Mary’s endearingly Lilliputian airport, I’m greeted by Chris, the congenial porter of the Star Castle Hotel. En route to Huge Town, the capital and centre of commerce for the islands, we pass a small cottage called, somewhat bizarrely, ‘Nowhere’. ‘See that cottage,’ says chatty Chris. ‘A lad who lived there went to join the army. When the sergeant asked where he was from, he said ‘Nowhere’. Thinking he was being clever, the sergeant shouts, ‘Now then boy, don’t mess me about. Where are you from?’ The answer came, ‘I’ve told you Sir, I’m from Nowhere, Scilly.’ It seems the Isles of Scilly may look like a foreign country but, it seems, the Scillonian sense of humour remains resolutely seaside postcard British.

The same can be said for the historic Star Castle. As Chris negotiates the granite gateway of the hotel - with a whisker to spare on the wing mirrors – I see the date l593 carved above the imposing fortication. Built during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 to protect the Scillies from the threat of a second invasion after the defeat of the Armada, the castle's keep and outer walls take the form of an eight-pointed star - a Cornish symbol dating back to the Crusades. Erected on the fortified Garrison Hill to the west the island, it commands panoramic views of Hugh Town, its picturesque harbour and the deep channel between St Mary's and Tresco.

Whilst the fortress exterior might seem forbidding, inside there’s not a screaming sergeant in sight. This family run hotel prides itself on friendly but efficient personal service and the homely atmosphere is enhanced by a cosy interior - all polished antiques, sumptuous furnishings and historic memorabilia plus Monty and Henry, the wagsome in-house Labradors. My room in the main castle (there are also garden rooms) is charming with views – through the castle crenellations – to the harbour crammed with brightly coloured boats.

Dinner is served in what was the original officer’s messroom. The grand Tudor fireplace and candles flickering in converted arrow slits are reminders that this belongs to the age of Drake and the sea-dogs. It’s thrilling, in a Horatio Hornblower sort of way - to enjoy a sumptuous dinner featuring local produce and vegetables from the hotel’s kitchen garden in this atmospheric room. A fine wine list helps to lubricate congeniality and falling into conversation with my fellow guests contributes to the house party atmosphere.

During the evening, Richard the owner greets his guests and reminds them that Tim, the hotel boatman, will be around during breakfast, should we wish to explore the other islands. Next morning Tim, another joker, arrives. ‘What sort of boat do you have Tim?’ ‘Calypso. She’s a nice little thing – oars for all of you!’ Tim offers trips to all 5 inhabited islands; St Mary’s, Tresco, St.Martin’s, Bryher and St. Agnes but there are literally hundreds of many smaller uninhabited islands and rocky islets offering attractions for everyone from wild life enthusiasts to scuba divers.

Along with new friends from the Star Castle, I sign up for a trip to Tresco, famous for its lush sub-tropical Abbey gardens. Calypso II moored in the bustling harbour turns out to be 31 ft of gleaming teak and handsome dimensions. As she cuts through the cobalt blue seas, Tim points out places of interest - the treacherous rocks upon which countless sailors have lost their lives, Samson island (inhabited until 1855 when the population, consisting of only two families, was removed due to severe deprivation, mainly caused by a diet of limpets and potatoes) and the UK’s tallest lighthouse, the Bishop Rock.

Tresco is a paradise island of golden sands, rugged rocks and skylarks singing as they soar above the gorse. Attracted by the towering palm trees on the horizon, I head straight for the gardens. Started in the 1830’s this has developed into a shockingly fecund collection of sub-tropical plants. Wandering a series of terraces carved into the south facing slope, I marvel at Gulliver sized succulents, technicolour Proteas and other show stopping rare species from eighty countries which have no business flourishing on British soil. Rockeries, sculpture, the ancient remains of the abbey, a shell house and a collection of figureheads, spookily collectd from the many sailing ships which have foundered over the centuries, act as diversions for less plantaholic visitors.

Outside the gardens, Tresco is a bucolic, if not slightly unreal island. The island has 150 residents, the majority of whom are employed by the family-run Dorrien Smith estate, which has the leasehold. Charles and Diana took their boys here and it’s bizarre reclusive atmosphere makes it a mecca for the glitterati. With no cars, one pub, a village store, a tiny church with a minscule school near by, strolling around Tresco makes me feel like an extra in a cross between the Wicker Man and The Prisoner.

As Tim explains on our return journey to St. Mary’s, each of the islands possess a unique atomosphere. But the following day, I’m denied the pleasure of exploring further by sea when the weather closes in and a pea soup sea mist rises. Instead I walk the coastal path around the inlets of St. Mary’s to Juliets, a terrific restaurant offering, as the mist clears, stunning views and a fine lunch of mackerel pate served with a glass of chilled Sauvigon.

In the afternoon, I take a sight seeing bus trip round the island courtesy of local Scillonian Glyn who, with his own deadpan comedy routine, lends further insight into local life. ‘I’ve just made an appointment to get the brakes sorted out,’ he quips as the bus heads down a hill beside fields festooned with narcissi. To be honest, there’s not a great deal to see except what I imagine to be an unspoilt version of the English countryside during the l950’s. I half imagine he’ll stop the bus and whip out a primus stove to boil up a cuppa. But this, plus Glyn’s performance, makes a major contribution to my falling under the Isles of Scilly’s spell.

The Isles of Scilly seem to be populated with genuine characters and it is this, along with the family atmosphere at the Star Castle hotel and the stunning scenery which makes this a unique destination. After all where else can you find a holiday destination which feels foreign but so much like home. Forgive the pun, but you’d be Scilly not to go there.

Getting there. Sail, catch a plane to St Mary's.

  • The Scillonian III ferry (0845 710 5555; www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk) sails from Penzance
  • The Skybus (0845 710 5555; www.islesofscilly-travel. co.uk) flies from Landsend, Newquay, Exeter, Bristol and Southampton.
  • British International (01736 363871)

Written by Beverley Byrne.

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