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Isles of Scilly: Discover one of Britain's best kept secrets

Jane Oddy

The only way to reach the Isles of Scilly is by ferry, boat or a plane ride, and the remoteness makes this island paradise one of Britain's best kept secrets. But once seen, memories are never forgotten. When the Duke of Cambridge and Duchess of Cambridge sailed to these breathtakingly beautiful islands for a royal visit last summer, Prince William reminisced about how he spent holidays there with Prince Harry and his mother Princess Diana when he was a child.

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Hollywood star Minnie Driver and actress Jane Horrocks have both confessed to falling under Scilly's spell on family holidays – Minnie's long-term partner, art curator Neville Wakefield, hails from the largest island, St Mary's and she is a frequent guest. Adventurer Ben Fogle, too, has been a regular visitor to Scilly, as it is also known, for many years. He describes it glowingly as "a land of beaches, flowers and pristine waters," while best-selling author and former Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo has written several books about the islands. And it is hardly surprising that they eulogise about this picturesque, lovely place. It is good for the soul. After a few days of experiencing peaceful island life, I never wanted to leave.

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The Isles of Scilly are loved by visitors including Prince William and Kate

The Isles of Scilly are a compact cluster of 140 or so islands just 28 miles off Land's End in Cornwall with a population of less than 2,000. Alongside St Mary's are Tresco, considered the most sophisticated of the five inhabited islands and St. Martin's, arguably the most beautiful. St. Agnes boasts its secluded sandy coves while Bryher is famed for wave-lashed wild Hell Bay to the north. As I flew into St. Mary's by Skybus from Exeter, I felt I was arriving in the Caribbean. I gazed down from the sky in awe at endless, dazzlingly white sand beaches and crystal clear turquoise blue waters and the odd palm tree below.

Once there, I realised I could have any kind of holiday I wanted. Scilly caters for all tastes and has different activities to suit everyone; couples, solo travellers and families. In fact, it has won awards for being the best UK holiday destination for families. While some visitors come to simply enjoy the fresh sea air, island hop and cycle or walk the pretty coastal paths, scenic tracks and beaches, others prefer to dip into the islands vibrant artistic community with painting and writing courses or yoga retreats.

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The Isles of Scilly have been named one of Britain's best holiday destinations for families

If you enjoy adventure sport, there are numerous outdoor marine pursuits; you can hire a kayak, grab a paddleboard, have a sail, go fishing, swim the islands and have a go at coasteering. Or even snorkel with seals. Gig racing is huge on Scilly and the World Pilot Gig Championships 2017 (28 April to 1 May) is said to be the islands' biggest weekend in the calendar. The sea completely governs the ebb and flow of daily life, and because the island are so close to each other, I found it easy and invigorating to island-hop by boat - or go off-island in local parlance - and experience another island (or more) for a day. I loved discovering the distinct characteristic of each new island. You can even take a wildlife sea safari and go a little further out into the Atlantic Ocean where there are incredible shipwrecks and amazing wildlife - seals, dolphins and comorants. Puffins are one of the most popular seabirds to be spotted on Scilly between April and July.

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There are regular local events throughout the year; some highlights include the popular walking festival Walk Scilly which kicks off the start of the season this weekend (April 1 - 7) with seven days of themed walks and nature trails led by expert guides and the Low-Tide events (May 27 to June 25) where you can walk between the islands of Tresco and Bryher on an extreme spring tide. I was assured it is something every Scillyphile should experience. Scilly lies in the path of the Gulf Stream, creating a sub tropical climate which is the warmest and mildest in the UK. Its spectacular long stretches of deserted sandy beaches, particularly in St. Martin's, are not only among the best in Britain, but some of the finest in the world which makes it perfect for bucket and spaders and crabbers but also great for simple pleasures like beach-combing and picnics.

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The Ruin Beach Cafe on Tresco is a must visit

Food is fabulous on Scilly too. There is an array of locally produced food from the land and sea which is wonderful and fresh, served in cosy pubs, beachside cafes, homespun delis - the Farm Deli in Hugh Town in St. Mary's has the best fresh coffee - and award-winning restaurants. Some fabulous homemade dishes can be sampled at Juliet's Garden Restaurant and Bar (julietsgardenrestaurant.co.uk), an essential stop, which overlooks the sea, boats and harbour. Another must is lunch at the The Ruin Beach Cafe on Tresco (tresco.co.uk). Eating delicious scallops on their terrace in the sun was like a slice of heaven on earth. Come in September and for the whole month, you can feast on the islands' rich variety of Scillonian produce at the Taste of Scilly food and drink festival.

Quite rightly, the entire archipelago is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It hosts an internationally-important seabird colony and is teaming with wildlife and sub tropical flowers and plants. On their royal visit last year, Prince William and Kate visited a flower farm, one of the islands' thriving industries due to the micro climate, and strolled through the exotic Tresco Abbey Garden, a botanical paradise with a staggering mix of the world's flora and fauna which boasts a spectacular collection of more than 20,000 plant species from the Canaries, South Africa, South America, Australia and New Zealand. And it made my heart lift to see the rare sight of a colony of cheeky red squirrels scampering around the Garden who are so friendly that they will actually come and sit on your table in the Garden Cafe.

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The entire archipelago is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Uncrowded and unspoilt, it was a delight to be away from traffic and the madding crowds on Scilly; cars are a rarity – most people travel by bike or on foot. There is a feeling of gentleness and tranquillity which is magical. Everyone seems to knows each other on the islands. This strong sense of community and innate friendliness means everyone cares for one another and Scillonians would pride themselves that any visitor would also feel totally integrated into island life. As a solo traveller, I found it safe and welcoming. I made new friends and I can't wait to return later this year.

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Scilly boasts an ancient history and legend has it that the islands are the remains of the mythical land of Lionesses. And there is a timeless feel to the islands. Here you can wind back the clock to more carefree lifestyle with a gentler pace. This is a place whose heartbeat is the rhythm of the sea. Be seduced like me and take a breath of fresh, Scillionian air. To discover more about the Isles of Scilly, go to visitislesofscilly.com.

Travel

Fly to St. Mary's with Skybus year round from Newquay and Land's End Airports, and between March and October from Exeter Airport. Prices start from £140 return from Land's End Airport. From spring through to late autumn, the Scillonian lll passenger ferry sails up to seven days a week between Penzance and St. Mary's. Prices start from £90 return. To book your journey, visit islesofscilly-travel.co.uk or phone 01736 334220. Great Western Railway trains run between London Paddington and Exeter St. Davids. For the best value tickets and offers, buy before you board at gwr.com.

Accommodation

  • Star Castle Hotel, St. Mary's - star-castle.co.uk.
  • Karma St. Martin’s, St. Martin's – karmagroup.com/find-destination/karma-retreats/karma-st-martins#gwBAWtCX83GoDhhz.97
  • Hell Bay Hotel Bryher - hellbay.co.uk.
  • Sea Garden Cottages, Tresco - tresco.co.uk/staying-on-tresco/sea-garden-cottages.
  • Also Tregarthen's, St. Mary's – tregarthens-hotel.co.uk and The New Inn, Tresco – tresco.co.uk/staying-on-tresco/the-new-inn.
  • For great guest house accommodation: Mincarlo, St. Mary's – mincarlo.info.

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