How To Visit The Scilly Isles, Cornwall

Scilly Isles
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Imagine a place where you can enjoy year-round mild weather and sub-tropical gardens without leaving England. Where the pace of life is slow, and you can travel everywhere by foot, or bicycle – or boat. Where you can visit castles and prehistoric sites with hardly another tourist in sight. You can have all this and more when you visit the Scilly Isles, just off the Cornish coast.

Why Visit The Scilly Isles?

For many people the Scilly Isles are one of the best places to visit in Cornwall. A major attraction is the climate: although not far from the coast the islands benefit from the Atlantic jet stream, creating a beneficial microclimate that is quite different from the mainland.

There are other differences too. Although the Isles of Scilly are popular, accommodation is limited and day trippers tend to limit themselves to the area around Hugh Town, on St Mary’s. This – together with a relative lack of cars – creates an atmosphere of peace and seclusion not always found elsewhere in Cornwall. And it is a friendly place, where everyone knows everyone else, where locals will chat to tourists in the bars and restaurants.

Rows of vines surrounded by trees
A vineyard on St Mary’s

For such a small place there is a surprising amount to see and do. You’ll find historic sites, countryside and gardens, boat trips and nature watching, and even a vineyard or two.

What To See And Do On The Scilly Isles

The Scillies consist of 140 islands, five of which are inhabited. However you travel, you will first arrive at St Mary’s, the largest island, and this is where most visitors choose to base themselves.

Spend some time exploring the small harbour settlement of Hugh Town (the main town, with just over 1,000 inhabitants). Then set off for a leisurely walk (or cycle) along the island’s country lanes, in search of historic sites, a vineyard, or just a bit of peace and quiet.

And, of course, you can take boat trips to the other islands.

Booking.com

Prehistoric Sites

There are several prehistoric burial chambers on St Mary’s. One of the most impressive is Porth Hellick Down Burial Chamber, on the eastern side of the island. Dating from around 1500 BCE this is a large passage grave overlooking the sea. It is accessed via a footpath through some beautiful (and empty) countryside.

To the north of St Mary’s is Bants Carn, another burial chamber, with the remains of an Iron Age village nearby.

A neolithic burial chamber, a long low structure covered with grass
The burial chamber at Porth Hellick Down

Historic Defences

The most impressive defences on the Scilly Isles are the Star Castle and the Garrison, on the headland near Hugh Town. The central keep of the 16th century Star Castle is now a rather smart hotel, but you can walk around the outer bastions. The Garrison was a larger, walled area: visitors can follow the wall around the headland.

Section of wall with a large archway looking towards cannons on the grass in front of the sea
A section of the Garrison wall

Elsewhere on St Mary’s you can see Harry’s Walls. These were the beginnings of a Tudor fortress, but it was never completed. And on the island of Tresco is the remains of Cromwell’s Castle, a relic of the Civil War.

Tresco

If you only go to one other island it should probably be Tresco. The island itself is quiet and attractive, with tree-lined paths, but the main attraction is the Abbey Gardens. Based in the ruins of a Benedictine priory, the garden was established in the 19th century. It is quite spectacular, built on a slope with lots of subtropical plants including succulents, collected from South Africa, New Zealand and elsewhere.

Path leading to an archway and stone fountain, surrounded by abundant trees and colourful flowers
The Abbey Gardens in Tresco

The garden is planted to provide year-round colour. As you walk around you can also enjoy the sea views, sculptures and a summer house with shell mosaics. Before you leave have a look at the Valhalla Museum, a collection of figureheads salvaged from old shipwrecks.

Other Islands Of The Scillies

The other inhabited islands are St Agnes, St Martins and Bryher. They can all be reached by boat, and it is also possible to take boat trips around the other islands for the purpose of bird and wildlife spotting.

A curiosity on some of the islands (notably St Agnes and St Martins) is the stone labyrinths. (Read more about the Stone Labyrinths of the Scilly Isles.)

Practicalities For Your Visit To The Isles Of Scilly

  • The ferry from Penzance to St Mary’s operates between March and November. Alternatively you can fly to the Scilly Isles in a small plane from Land’s End, Newquay or Exeter (Exeter flights are in the summer only). The airport shuttle bus will take you anywhere on St Mary’s.
  • Although some residents have cars there is no car hire for tourists, and it is not possible to take a car to the islands. For most visitors this will not cause a problem as it is very easy to walk or cycle from one place to another. However, mobility scooters are available to hire if necessary.
  • Boat trips are to some extent dependent upon the tides and the weather, and so the trips on offer vary from one day to the next. When I was there the boat operators came to the guest house each morning to tell us what was on offer; alternatively you can look at the information boards on the quay.
  • At peak times accommodation can get booked up – if you are visiting in the summer it is advisable to book well in advance. Have a look at the accommodation options on booking.com.
Pinnable image of how to visit the Scilly Isles, showing a ruined castle tower beside the sea and yachts in the water
Pinnable image of Tresco and Cromwell’s Castle

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Karen Warren

WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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