The Isles of Scilly are about to have a bit of a moment. This low-lying archipelago flung off the coast of Cornwall is one of the few places due to be under the Government’s tier 1 coronavirus restrictions from December 2. This means pints with friends indoors without food – the luxury! – will be allowed on the five sparsely populated islands, and revellers can even stay out past 10pm.
But there’s more to these isles than relaxed restrictions. The Isles of Scilly have endless walking trails – ideal for socially distancing with granny this winter – strikingly white beaches with supremely soft sand, and some of the finest seafood feasts in all of the UK. You might be tempted by tier 1, but you’ll be sold on the Scillies as soon as you set foot on St Mary’s or Tresco, where a dangerously laidback vibe will have you looking up property prices in no time.
It’s worth noting, though, that while Scilly will be under the most relaxed restrictions, anyone travelling from a Tier 2 location will be required to continue to follow Tier 2 rules. With a population of just 2,200 over the five islands, and only a handful of known cases of the virus so far, it’s important to respect the safety of this archipelago and its residents.
Things to do
Shop around Hugh Town, St Mary’s
The lovely harbour in Hugh Town on main island, St Mary’s, is a delightful little hive of activity. The only place with an cash machine in the whole archipelago, this is where locals come to do their shopping and a smattering of great boutiques and stores peddling local produce are a wonderful distraction for an afternoon.
Head to 49 Degrees for Scilly-branded clothing and accessories, Sandpiper for ladies’ style or Seasalt Cornwall for high street fashion.
Tresco Abbey Gardens, Tresco
If you can make it out to Tresco Island you’ll be richly rewarded at the Abbey Gardens, where over 20,000 plants thrive in the archipelago’s microclimate. The landscaped estate surrounds the ruins of an old priory, which is thought to date back beyond the 12th century, and artworks and statues punctuate the footpaths. Stop by the shell house, spot red squirrels darting amid the trees near the blue bridge, and walk up Neptune Steps to get a fantastic view out towards the ocean.
The Valhalla Museum is worth a look in, too, where a collection of 30-odd figureheads salvaged from wrecked ships around the Isles of Scilly are displayed in a small outdoor courtyard.
Contact: tresco.co.uk; 01720 424108
Seek out ruined castles, Tresco
Walks around the northern headland of Tresco will lead you to two intriguing ruins. Coming from New Grimsby, the first is Cromwell’s Castle, a well-preserved stone fortification built after Robert Blake recaptured the islands from the Dutch in the mid 17th century. A little way up the coast path from here is King Charles’s Castle, built 100 years earlier than Cromwell’s during the reign of King Edward VI. Its crumbling state today is a testament to its use in defence of the islands – it was never hugely effective, as its cannons would have had to point down at such an angle to hit invading ships, the cannonballs would have rolled right out before fired.
King Charles’s Castle was partially dismantled to create Cromwell’s a century later, and now it’s an eerie spot from which to survey the surrounding islands.
Take a blustery beach walk, St Martin’s
All of the inhabited and uninhabited isles here have their own alluring beaches. If the weather’s on your side and the Boatmen’s Association is running services between the islands, head out to St Martin’s and hit the coastal path. The beaches here are absolutely gobsmacking, with bright white sand kissed by brilliant blue ocean. Hang about in the bays and you might even spot Atlantic Grey Seals swimming and playing in the water.
Go birding on St Mary’s
Local ornithologist and naturalist Will Wagstaff usually spends his winters in the Antarctic leading cruise expeditions, but this year he’ll be guiding closer to home on St Mary’s thanks to Covid. Bird-watching on the islands in winter is “almost better than summer,” he says, with more waders on the sand and elegant egrets mooching about the beaches.
Head out on a hike with Will and he’ll introduce you to the island’s beautiful coastline and flourishing flower fields, where daffodils are grown and picked throughout the winter. Look up to spot kestrels, warblers and great northern divers, and seek out some of the more unusual species such as Iceland gulls.
Contact: islandwildlifetours.co.uk; 01720 422212
Where to drink
The Mermaid Inn, Hugh Town, St Mary’s
A proper British boozer, the Mermaid Inn will be welcoming drinkers and diners throughout the winter this year. Once the haunt of smugglers and sailors, it really does have a pirate’s life feel with its wood-panelled bar area stuffed with maritime flags and random Scilly paraphernalia. A second bar is built inside half a fishing boat, and a light airy dining room has views over the harbour. Expect to drink British ale on draught and chilled Healey’s Cornish cider, and if you’re peckish, plump up for the classic cottage pie or fried whitebait.
Contact: mermaidscilly.co.uk; 01720 422701
The Bishop & Wolf, Hugh Town, St Mary’s
Pick a table by the cosy log fire in this lovely little pub in Hugh Town. Run by the mainland’s St Austell Brewery, the Bishop & Wolf has one of the more extensive drinks menus on the island. Strawberry martinis and mojitos make up the cocktail list, while behind the bar are St Austell beers like Cornish pale ale Tribute and Proper Job IPA. If you find yourself hankering for a meal, pick one of their pizzas – the best on the island – or a hearty burger.
Contact: staustellbrewery.co.uk; 01720 422771
Where to eat
The New Inn, New Grimsby, Tresco
The only pub on Tresco is a solid bet for a cosy evening meal. Its wood-panelled walls are laden with old fishing artefacts and maritime paintings, and behind the bar you’ll find proper English ales, Cornish ciders and Scilly gins. For dinner, try the Bryher crab. Hand-picked from the neighbouring island, you can have it on fries, dressed with salad or inside a comforting mac and cheese. Cod comes battered with Cornish ale and locally made ice cream from nearby St Agnes is a winner for dessert.
Contact: tresco.co.uk; 01720 423006
A trip to Scilly isn’t complete without fish and chips and The Galley have got this well covered, plus a host of other great options. Battered cod, haddock and monkfish scampi are the highlights, but there are also pies, curries and unusual dishes like banana blossom and chips. You can dine in (booking ahead is essential) at their cosy restaurant, or have take out and scoff it on the seafront or in your accommodation.
Contact: 01720 422602
On The Quay, Hugh Town, St Mary’s
The first port of call for anyone coming to Scilly by boat, On The Quay sits quite literally on quay. While it has glorious views over the harbour and out across the ocean, it’s not all about the location – On The Quay’s dishes live up to its setting. They’re famous for their steak and seafood nights, when rump, sirloin, ribeye and fillet is on the menu alongside whatever the fishermen have brought in that day. This year, they’re doing a special Christmas menu throughout December, including confit duck and turkey with all the trimmings, too.
While likely to be closed from January, they hope to serve up more feasts over the weekends throughout February and beyond.
Contact: onthequay.com; 01720 423525
Cooked breakfasts, fresh pastries and a cabinet full of insanely tempting cakes makes Kavorna Cafe one of the best options in the centre of Hugh Town. Lunches are simple but effective – think jacket potatoes and paninis – and they become a bistro in the evenings, serving a selection of wines, beers and main meals such as Penang chicken stir fry and seafood linguine. Staff are impossibly smiley – even when the weather’s dreary – and dogs are well received with treats and fuss. Call ahead to check opening hours.
Contact: 01720 422660
This striking star-shaped fortress is set within its original garrison walls amid four acres of subtropical gardens, mixing centuries-old character with contemporary charm. Highlights of the Star Castle Hotel include magnificent views from the turrets and ramparts plus heritage features such as wooden beams, open fireplaces and the original stonewalls. Note that the bar, pool and restaurant are closed throughout winter and the hotel is operating as bed and breakfast only.
Read our review of Star Castle Hotel here
The New Inn is the only pub on car-free Tresco. Enjoy staying in the hub of island life while relaxing in a comfortable setting with sea views, excellent seasonal dishes and a residents-only bar and lounge. Rooms are bright and spacious with fresh décor in a neutral palette, clean lines and a nod towards its coastal setting. Breakfast is designed to set you up for a day of exploring, with dishes such as poached eggs and smoked haddock on English muffins.
Read our review of The New Inn here
Tregarthen’s has arguably the best position on St Mary’s, just yards from the historic quay and offering panoramic vistas to the islands of Tresco, Bryher, Samson and St Martin’s. It offers an ideal base to experience the unspoiled beauty of the Scillies. Expect a warm welcome from local staff who are incredibly knowledgeable, offering advice and suggestions on how to plan your days ahead.
Read our review of Tregarthen’s here
How to get there
With the Scillonian ferry and Penzance Helicopters service not running throughout winter, your options are fairly limited for getting to the Isles of Scilly. It’s a 20-minute flight on the Skybus Land’s End Airport (from £186.50; 10 per day) airports. Trains from London to Penzance connect to Land’s End via a pre-bookable shuttle bus. Newquay also usually operates flights to St Mary’s, but right now the airport is closed.
Contact: islesofscilly-travel.co.uk; 01736 334220