The Isles of Scilly sit around 30 miles off the South-West coast of Cornwall and comprise a whopping 140 islands (even though just five are inhabited).
Whilst holidaying in Cornwall, we decided to take the Scillonian ferry across to St Mary’s – the largest and most populated of the Scillies – to see if the rumours were true about this being the best of British bucket list material.
I should point out at this point that you can also access the isles by Skybus from Lands End or Newquay – or if you’re really minted – by private helicopter.
The ferry left at 09:45 from Penzance harbour, although boarding began an hour prior. The crossing – thankfully – was smooth so there was no necessity for me to fill a sick bag – and yes, these are provided on all decks!
A couple of tips for those of you who plan to take the journey and do suffer with seasickness: Sit on the very lowest deck where you can’t see the water – and be sure to pack your own travel tablets as the ferry company don’t sell them on board. I’m told that it can be a very choppy crossing if the weather is not on your side and even during our crossing, people were swinging and swaying as they walked about.
We arrived into St Mary’s at 13:00. According to the timetable, this should have been 12:15 but apparently the tide was too low to allow us in. Naturally, this was a bit of a disappointment as it lost us precious time on the island, which in honesty was always going to be too short anyway. Like an excited kid, I was keen to get in front of the long-stayers with suitcases and the ‘blue rinse brigade’ and exit the boat as soon as I could.
Stepping off the ferry, the first thing that hit me was that old familiar salty sea air, the type of smell that lets you know you’re on holiday. Crystal blue waters, rugged rocks and bobbing boats on the harbour – yes, definitely a very pretty place!
The other thing I immediately noticed was the difference in temperature; although only around 14° and cloudy, it felt decidedly more pleasant than the wetter, cooler temperatures we had been experiencing on mainland Cornwall! The weather on the Scillies enjoys its own unique micro-climate, leading to it being unofficially given the title of ‘Britain’s Caribbean’ by many returning tourists. It’s a place where exotic plants and trees thrive, including those lovely big palm trees that so remind you of holidaying abroad pre-Covid!
As a snap-happy tourist who permanently has their smartphone at the ready to record memories, St Mary’s was a haven for photo opportunities; lots of narrow, cobbled streets, old rowing boats, cute cafes and the local fauna enjoying the local flora. If there’s one thing to pack for this trip (aside the travel sickness tablets), it’s your camera!
In order to try and see as much as possible during our three hours on the island, we hired bikes from St Mary’s Bike Hire, situated in the town and a mere 5 minutes walk from the harbour. Four hours hire costs just £9 per person (although I did later learn they have electric bikes for £17, which may have suited me better!).
As well as seeing the countryside (and some of its bird life), we got as far as North Pelistry, where there’s a lovely beach with soft sand, that looks out to Tolls Island. I can’t lie – there were some steepish hills and the path down to the beach was rocky, both proving to be somewhat challenging for this amateur cyclist! Back to those electric bikes and the benefit of hindsight again…
In two hours, we managed to cover a decent proportion of the island at a leisurely pace (set by me). If you’re at Lance Armstrong level, however, or have more than just a few hours available to you on the saddle, it’s really easy to see St Mary’s in very little time at all!
After our mini-adventure seeing a new island in a short timeframe, we made sure that we saved some essential time to visit a couple of the gift shops in the town and grab that all-important holiday ice cream just before re-boarding the ferry.
Obviously, I was sad to leave St Mary’s so soon – who wouldn’t be with so much still left to see? I learned a lesson from this – yes, the ferry is convenient and inexpensive (we paid £30 each round trip which I think is excellent) – but if you’re a daytripper, the Skybus will get you there in just 15 minutes (as opposed 3 hours by sea). This would be my chosen option if I ever go again.
Better still, a few nights spent on St Mary’s, or a week hopping between the five islands would be perfect. Time is precious after all – and the Isles of Scilly are there for the taking…
After a long but lovely day, I was relieved to find that the sailing back to Penzance was even smoother than the journey out – and ample time for me to sit with a cuppa from the onboard cafe and write this blog!
As the late afternoon turned into early evening, the sun shone down on the water as one last little treat for me and my camera.
Oh and one more thing. We actually made it back to Penzance well ahead of schedule. I think that’s what they call ‘sods law’!