I’m told to slow down several times within my first hour on the Isles of Scilly. It’s easier said than done for a city dweller like me, but on arrival I quickly realize that much of life on this archipelago goes against almost everything I’m used to.
Take the friendliness, for example. After a 20-minute helicopter flight from the mainland, the staff at the tiny airport on St. Mary’s immediately haul my luggage off the carousel, smile, and ask where I’m headed. St. Martin’s, I tell them, taken aback by their willingness to help. If only all airports were like this.
Or the chattiness of the bus drivers. As we make our way to the nearest quay at Hugh Town, our driver spends the 10-minute journey giving us his best tour guide spiel, making dad jokes at every opportunity and surprising us with facts about former prime ministers who once vacationed here.
“Slow down,” he says, as I hop out of the van to retrieve cash from an ATM to pay for my ticket—because paying by plastic is rarely an option here. And when I need to leave my luggage—full of $2,000 of equipment—at the quay’s public waiting room, locals insist it’ll be fine.
Slowing down, trusting others, talking to strangers: None of this comes easy to me after five years of living in London, where I’ve become hard-wired to keep my head down and avoid eye contact and conversation. But talk to strangers I do on the Isles of Scilly, as it seems these islands ignite something in everyone who visits. It’s like we’re all quietly in awe of the landscapes—the Caribbean-worthy beaches, the verdant countryside, the stunningly clear ocean—and any opportunity to express it cannot be passed up. Even if it’s just a brief comment about the unusual, tropical flora as a fellow traveller walks past me with my camera in hand, taking yet another photo of a juicy succulent.
A deserted paradise just minutes from the mainland This little smattering of islands strung off the tip of Cornwall is truly astonishing. It has some of Britain’s most beautiful white beaches, miles of walking trails through gorgeous forest, heathland along the coast, and best of all, its own microclimate. With daytime highs of 57°F and rarely dipping below 50°F at night in October, it’s an ideal escape from Britain’s famously miserable weather if you’re visiting in the fall.
But even if it does cloud over, the drama of a stormy sky and choppy ocean should not be scoffed at—settle in with a locally brewed Ales of Scilly beer and watch the spectacular seaside scene unfold.
The five inhabited islands—St. Mary’s, St. Martin’s, St. Agnes, Tresco, and Bryher—are like English villages stranded out in the ocean. They’re the kinds of places where everybody knows everybody but it rarely feels claustrophobic. I spend my first afternoon walking the wild trails of St. Martin’s, accidentally finding myself on inexplicably empty white-sand beaches and in sweet-smelling pine woods. After I pass a woman walking her dog, it dawns on me: I’ve been out here for 90 minutes and seen just one other human. It almost feels like I have this two-mile-long island to myself.
I’m even alone in the local farm shop, where instead of a check-out counter there’s just a tin money box and a price list on a blackboard. I’ve heard of honesty boxes, but an entire honesty shop takes things to a whole new level. I help myself to some fresh apple juice and stick £1.50 in the pot.
The most hidden of all hidden gems Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this archipelago, though, is how few people actually visit. Compared with the millions of tourists who vacation in Cornwall on the mainland, just a couple hundred thousand come to the Isles of Scilly for a break, and even fewer bother to stay overnight, returning to the southwest of England to finish their vacation.
Granted, the Isles of Scilly aren’t easy to reach, even for the Brits—although that’s part of the appeal, and the journey is an adventure in itself. From London, I took the sleeper train—one of only two in the United Kingdom—to Penzance on the country’s southwest tip, then transferred by bus to a nearby airport where a twice-daily helicopter and a fleet of tiny planes serve the islands.
There’s a four-hour boat trip if you prefer to arrive by sea, but take the aerial option and you’ll be stunned before you’ve even touched down. From the air, the islands are tantalizing.
Slow travel is the name of the game here, as even getting between the islands isn’t as simple as hopping on the next boat. Times and pick-up locations are dictated by the tides, and you’d better listen carefully: If you miss the last boat back, you’ll be chartering an expensive private speedboat to take you to your accommodation, which is something I find out on day two as I’m hot-footing it across the width of pretty, private island Tresco after turning up at the wrong quay.
The food is slow too. It’s all local produce—dairy from St. Agnes, beef from Tresco—and the fish and seafood caught from the ocean around the islands. At Adam’s Fish & Chips, the only diner on St. Martin’s, it’s Adam himself who catches my dinner from the ocean and then prepares it in the kitchen: pollock and lobster tails fresh from the ocean today. Our server Fiona came to Scilly from the mainland in her 20s to visit her sister, who had a summer job on the islands, and never really left. She’s now married to Adam and runs the front of house.
The story is similar to many I hear throughout my trip. The couple who own the Seven Stones Inn came from Kent for their honeymoon and shortly after bought the run-down establishment and turned it into the quirky, antique-filled pub it is today. The bus driver on St. Mary’s was a mainlander who came on holiday here and never left, and the gardener at the luxury Karma St. Martin’s came all the way from the Czech Republic because he didn’t believe the United Kingdom had such beautiful beaches. He wasn’t disappointed on arrival, he says, and opted to find a job and stay.
So while the Isles of Scilly might be hard to get to, it seems they’re equally hard to leave, and as I stand utterly mesmerized by the sunset on my final night, I’m already thinking about when I can come back.