As the name implies, slow travel involves exploring a destination at a gentle pace, and there is no other way to experience this Lilliputian archipelago, which lies 28 miles to the southwest of Land’s End, Cornwall.
From sailing its turquoise lagoons to combing its bone-white beaches, there is every reason to linger in this exotic fragment of England, where time slows and space expands. Whatever you do, don’t rush it.
Seen from a small plane (one of two ways to get here), the Isles of Scillyresemble jagged pieces of jade inlaid in the lapis lazuli of the Atlantic Ocean. If anything, the sense of a world apart intensifies at ground level, where strange flowers riot through the hedges and overrun the dry stone walls.
Warmed by the Gulf Stream, the isles’ micro-climate promotes a profusion of life. Pink thrift, red campion and yellow bird’s-foot-trefoil dot the landscape with colour. Songbirds serenade the dawn, seabirds commute by day and waders patrol at dusk, while the sea harbours seals, dolphins and even the odd basking shark, not to mention a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fish and shellfish.
Scillonian flower farmers still export scented narcissi to the mainland, but tourism is the dominant industry now. Visitors come – some year after year – to walk, sail or simply soak up the atmosphere of this unique place whose nickname, the Fortunate Isles, gives a clue of what to expect.
St Mary’s – an all-rounder for adventurers
St Mary’s is the largest of the five inhabited islands and its quay buzzes with activity: the passenger ferry from Penzance docks here, and it’s also the hub from which a fleet of small boats ply the waters between the four other inhabited islands – Tresco, Bryher, St Martin’s and St Agnes, collectively known as the ‘off-islands’.
More craft bob in the nearby harbour of Hugh Town, the isles’ dinky capital, which contains by far the widest selection of galleries, shops and places to eat. It’s also the base for many of the activities on offer, which makes St Mary’s perhaps the best bet for adventurous but time-poor visitors.
As you’d expect, many adventures feature the sea – a bewitching blend of crystalline water, storm-sculpted coastlines and storybook shipwrecks makes the archipelago, which comprises 145 islands and islets in total, perfect for everything from sea kayaking to coasteering and diving.
These circuits pass a miscellany of artists’ studios and artisan producers, historic sites ranging from Bronze Age tombs to WWII defences, and countryside that bears scant trace of development, despite the main island’s abundant charm. Ask a local for their favourite Scillonian haunt, however, and they’ll tell you that the best – or perhaps the essence – of the isles is to be found elsewhere… and you’ll need to catch a boat to reach it.
Tresco – a flower-filled utopia
Although much smaller than St Mary’s, Tresco is the best-known of the isles. Its fame stems from the presence of Tresco Abbey Garden, a 17-acre horticultural fantasia containing more than 20,000 exotic plants from around the world. Established in the 19th century, the garden was the brainchild of the isles’ then Lord Protector, Augustus Smith, a visionary who established a benign fiefdom here and whose descendants lease and live on Tresco to this day.
The result of the family’s long stewardship is an island of exquisite beauty – not just in the garden itself, but throughout a diverse landscape that includes coastal hamlets (New Grimsby and Old Grimsby), a birder’s paradise of a lake, farmland and maritime heath, as well as several sublime beaches, particularly Pentle Bay and Appletree Bay.
Bryher – a taste of the wild west
Tresco is a tiny utopia in several senses of the word – it’s I-can’t-ever-leave lovely at every turn, but also planned and packaged to the nth degree. Although none of the other off-islands could be called untamed, they feel wilder, particularly Tresco’s nearest neighbour, Bryher.
The novelist Michael Morpurgo set several of his stories in this lumpy landscape – Bryher has seven hills, none higher than 50m – and it’s easy to see why it ignited his imagination: with one flank exposed to the fierce Atlantic and the other indented with rock-pool-framed bays, this island is ripe for Swallows and Amazons -style exploration.
Bagging its miniature hills and roaming its seaweed-strewn beaches is fun, but for an alternative perspective of Bryher hire a boat, kayak or paddleboard from Bennett Boatyard and take to the water. There’s no better way to admire this island’s raffish charm.