Mix Blyton's Famous Five, chuck in some 1950s manners and a touch of tropical wilderness – add a sprinkle of the Vicar of Dibley and you have the Isles of Scilly summed up. I have spent a good few years now talking about visiting the Isles of Scilly – finally we did it this Easter and it was certainly worth the wait.
The ferry leaves horribly early from Lands' End and only goes once a day so your options are flying or this daily crossing. We chose the ferry and stayed the night before at the Artists Residence about a two minute drive from the ferry. About 30 minutes away from the hotel is the totally amazing Minack open air cliff-side theatre where we watched a charming production of The Secret Garden whilst watching the sun set over a perfect flat sea. I’d definitely go again but next time would have raided the hat and glove drawer and taken a thermos as however lovely the evening it is super chilly. It's camping gear rather than theatre gear.
Early the next morning having dumped the kids and luggage we abandoned our car (no meters in sight) on a coastal promenade three minutes' walk from the ferry. Two containers with cheery assistants handed out labels for our bags and put the luggage in the containers where we were told we’d see it again at our hotel, service indeed and we hadn’t left the mainland yet!
The crossing was a little lumpy but travelling with our four sons aged nine to 14 and another family with another couple of boys of a similar age and only seeing one lot of breakfast back up constituted a success in my book. The crossing is 2hrs 45 mins so it's not short – or that cheap at £250 for the 6 of us but as you approach the Isles the water is emerald blue and all is forgiven.
The history of Scilly is almost as wonderful as its clear blue sea – it feels as though Mother Nature is well and in charge here. The islands were once a different shape altogether and indeed it is believed it was once connected to the mainland – divers tell of old stone walls and the remnants of dwellings on what is now the sea bed. Later, once the sea level was higher making its position further away from the mainland and directly en route to the Americas it made it a hot spot for trading, albeit not necessarily quite in line with the rulers of the England at the time. A hotspot for pirates and generally dodgy dealings finally Elizabeth I built Star Castle which was a fortification partially built to regain control.
Star Castle is now a hotel and where we were heading. A very wise choice if you are visiting Scilly as they couldn’t have been more helpful.
The ferry docked, our gang of ten wandered through the idyllic streets of the Isle of St Mary's (check) and we arrived at the moated hotel looking out over the headland. The entrance, complete with portcullis and cobbled passageway, is as castle-like as you could get but the reception is warm and welcoming with staff who couldn’t be more helpful. We had rooms in a more modern courtyard beyond the castle which whilst not quite as charming as the castle itself are very comfortable and spacious with simple classic design and a lovely vine filled conservatory where breakfast and dinner is served. There is a separate serving for children between 5pm and 7pm (check) which is great value at £9.50 each. The centre of the courtyard also houses a covered swimming pool which was well used by our party.
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Inside the main castle is a more formal dining room where you may want to eat if you want a 'dinner for talkers' rather than a 'dinner for eaters'. Down the stairs are the dungeons – now converted to a lovely bar. With a delightful barman with witty banter and some very fine Scillian Rose Gin perfect for a pre or post dinner drink.
(Photo: Mark Bolton)
We had three fun packed days. The hotel provided us with maps and guidance as to where to go. We hired bikes from a shop about five minutes' walk away – then cycled around the utterly idyllic island. You can’t hire cars on Scilly so getting around on land you have three options; bikes, a version of a golf buggy or shanks' pony. We did all three and they are all thoroughly enjoyable. Walking enables you to get around the edges of the islands better which are impossibly beautiful whatever the weather. Cycling takes you down perfect country lands with only the very odd car or van every now and then. The Golf buggies need pre booking but fortunately whilst we didn’t realise this, the very helpful gentleman running the hire shop left his Sunday lunch to come and on hire three buggies on Sunday morning.
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This sums up Scilly to me. It's expensive to get to but once you get there, there is a quality of life that our busy 24-7 lives on the mainland have moved on from. It feels Sunday lunch with friends and family on Scilly would be more normal than the Sunday shopping trip to a Mall and I wonder which makes us genuinely more happy and content.
On Scilly you plan around the weather. We luckily managed to front load our four-day break with the more sunny weather reliant activities and booked snorkelling with seals which was worth every penny of the experience. We were collected in a Rib by two chilled and super calm and ladies who had been teaching diving and snorkelling in Scilly for about 30 years and filled us with confidence. They took us first to another island St Martins where, considering the temperature in March, I was relieved to find a shed with racks of wetsuits on the beach. Mid-March is not the weather that makes swimming in the sea that appealing, but several layers of wetsuits later we were all clad up disguised as the seals themselves. Back in the boat we went to a small bay on a deserted island nearby and sure enough spent an hour or so in the water with seals inquisitively swimming around us. An experience I would 100 per cent recommend to anyone and would and will definitely do again. Once back on dry land we walked to a delightful pub for a lovely lunch and then a short walk to the small jetty with a ferry that takes you back to St Marys again. I’d leave time to pop into Fay Page’s jewellery shop where my husband bought me a rather beautiful silver seal necklace.
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The seals were definitely a highlight of the trip but so was the lovely Juliennes restaurant that we visited a few times both on bike and on buggies. Somewhat bizarrely there is also a totally amazing strudel restaurant which is a must to visit – run by a charming German lady with fine wine and even finer strudel. Keep a pocket full of change as on any walk you will come across artisan items and seedlings of the rare and exotic plants you see growing everywhere in Scilly to buy with honesty jam jars for payment that are tricky to resist.
The ferry home was cancelled due to the weather – but the hotel kindly switched our booking to a small plane and took us and our belongings to the little airport where we travelled back to the mainland in 20 mins in a little 8 or 19 seater plane for another £34 a head. We did have to get a cab back to Lands' End to get our car but it was easy to book and not too expensive.
Would I return? Yes definitely – I felt more in touch with who I should be and what I should be in Scilly than I have in years – it was good for the soul as well as being great fun. Scilly - we’ll be back.
FAMILY TRIED-AND-TESTED CHEAT SHEET
When to go: Spring - ideally May - the countryside is unbelievably beautiful and verdant and wild flowers bounteous
Where to stay: Star Castle Hotel - it is a must
What not to miss: Hiring Bikes, hiring golf buggies, Juliet's Garden Restaurant, The Mermaid pub, Studel in Town Swimming with Seals
What to avoid: Not a lot - perhaps travelling there in the winter if you have a deadline you have to return for if the weather rolls in.
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