Stories of the Sea

A day trip to the Isles of Scilly

For the most indulgent, awe-inspiring day out, may we introduce you to the Isles of Scilly? Just a short yet oh-so-memorable 15-minute journey from Penzance by helicopter, escape the usual tourist spots and whisk yourselves off to the glamorous archipelago for a day in the (almost) tropics.

The early morning found us heading down the road, eagerly awaiting the day ahead. First stop – Penzance Heliport  at Eastern Green, where helicopters take lucky visitors to St Mary’s and Tresco six days a week, Monday to Saturday. Pulling in, we parked up and entered the bright, cheerful waiting area. After a period of closure, helicopter flights to St Mary’s and Tresco happily resumed back in 2020, thanks to the Dorrien-Smith family (the owners of Tresco) and supporters in Penzance. Chirpy folks helped us check in, and as we had an hour to wait before we could board, we watched in awe as an earlier helicopter took off, heading to St Mary’s. 

Walking across the helipad, we felt super-glamorous as we boarded the 15-seater helicopter, adorned with puffins on its tail. As helicopter novices, we had help strapping in and earplugs to protect us from the noise, but we were soon settled in and gazed eagerly outside as the rotors sped up, and we lifted gently into the air. 

The flight to Tresco is just fifteen minutes, and from the moment you’re airborne the views are simply spectacular; the helicopter passes over St Mount’s Bay, St Michael’s Mount and then westward over Land’s End and out to sea, whilst on the return trip you get great views of Sennen, the Minack Theatre, and Mousehole. 

With ships and boats passing below us, the immensity of the sea kept us all enthralled, gazing out of the large, panoramic windows. In a matter of minutes, the islands of Scilly spread out below us, like a splash of paint from an artist’s brush, edged by white sands bleeding into the most turquoise of waters.

Scattered in the Atlantic Ocean, just 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly are a cluster of around 140 islands. In size order, St. Mary’s, Tresco, St. Martin’s, St. Agnes and Bryher make up the five inhabited isles where around 2,200 residents live year-round.

We were landing in to Tresco, a privately owned, family run island famous for its beautiful, tropical gardens. As the second largest island of the archipelago, this botanical haven has about 150 people permanently living on the island and is two and a half miles long by one mile, making it perfect for exploring in a day, whether on foot or by bike.

As the helicopter descended, we landed in the east of the island, close to the gardens themselves. We quickly alighted and collected our rucksacks, before immediately heading towards New Grimsby Quay, and the heart of the island, following a path lined with stunning agapanthus in deep blues and whites. 

Choosing the inland walk, we passed the gardens and walked along Abbey Road, a leafy drive edged with woodland and subtropical plants, offering occasional glimpses of Great Pool, a picturesque lake much loved by birdlife and home to bird hides for the keen ornithologist.  

We marvelled at the peace; being blissfully free from cars (apart from the occasional estate vehicle), there’s no background noise that we usually live with, and we didn’t pass a soul during the walk until we reached the coastline. Here, we found the ‘hub’ of the island. As well as the Quay, you’ll find the bike hire depot, a village stores and deli (extremely well-stocked for supplies and goodies to take home, such as the island’s own gin), the beautiful Tresco Island Spa (perfect for a rainy day), and The Flying Boat Café, where we stopped for a coffee and cake. 

Sitting outside, we made the most of the view and the gentle summers breeze, accompanied by very friendly sparrows. Watching children play happily on the beach, we gazed over the water where boats bobbed on the gentle breeze, with the island of Bryher beyond. We tried the tasty Scillonian tattie cake, made to a traditional recipe on Bryher, and it was delicious – a cousin to bread pudding, we thought.

With tummies full, we walked along the edge of the bay. We were excited to hear, then see, oyster catchers, their call oddly melancholy in contrast to their bright black and white plumage and bright orange legs. 

From New Grimsby Quay you can walk up to the rugged north of the island, where you’ll discover two castles; Cromwell’s Castle built in 1651 to guard the harbour, and King Charles Castle, a fort built during the reign of Edward VI to defend the island from French and Spanish invasion.

We decided to walk across to the eastern side of the island, so we strolled past flower-clad cottages and The New Inn, a tremendous pub. Passing St. Nicholas’s Church, we caught sight of the sea and finally came across Old Grimsby Quay, with glorious views over to the uninhabited islands of St. Helen’s and Teän, with Round Island and its lighthouse and St. Martin’s beyond. We found a wooden bench and sat for a good while, gazing at the vista before us and watching boats and yachts sail past, then we headed down on to the beach for a stroll. 

With crystal clear waters and the finest, sugar-fine sand, a paddle was a must, and being a bit of a beachcomber, I fell in love with the tiny iridescent shells of periwinkles that scattered the beach, and I couldn't resist picking up a few as a memory of my stay. 

Next stop was The Ruin Beach Café  for lunch. So-called because of the ruined smuggler’s cottage that forms part of the terrace, this is an incredible spot for a Mediterranean-inspired lunch. Overlooking Raven’s Porth and the white sandy beach, it’s a dreamy setting, especially combined with the heady scent of wood-fired meals being prepared. We bagged a prime spot, and ordered lunch – scallops to start, followed by a seafood platter – and it was delicious; super-fresh, gorgeously prepared, and generously portioned. Teamed with a glass of crisp white wine, it was just heaven, and rightly awarded two AA Rosettes and Conde Nast Traveller’s Gold Standard.

Although we could have spent the whole afternoon here, time was ticking and we were keen to explore the Abbey Gardens, the jewel in Tresco’s lovely crown. We strolled back across the island, taking the coastal route passing brilliant white sandy beaches, azure waters, and wildflowers dancing in the gentle breeze, passing equally blissed-out people as they strolled by.

After a friendly greeting at the entrance, we stepped through into the gardens and were immediately transported into another world, where over 20,000 plants thrive in harmony together from more than 80 different countries, collected and established since 1834 within the grounds and ruins of St. Nicholas Priory. 

Walking over a bridge, we made our way up the central walkway to the very top, to take in the incredible skyline. Here the fuchsia pinks, sunshine yellows and all the coloured flowers you can imagine meet the turquoise of the Atlantic and the sky above, whilst bright chalk-white paths and steep steps wind their way throughout, lending the gardens a Mediterranean atmosphere. 

Dotted throughout the gardens are striking statues and works of art, from Neptune to Gaia, and shady spots for moments of quiet contemplation such as within the atmospheric ruins of the priory.

You’ll find other inhabitants here apart from the flowers here; we spotted a red squirrel, and a golden pheasant, which added to its other-worldly feel. Drifting through the garden, we felt an overwhelming sense of peace, irrespective of the other visitors that wandered around, and we were so pleased to end our visit to Tresco here.

Sadly, it was time to leave and head for the helipad, where we were effortlessly checked in. As we lifted off and the beauty of Tresco and the surrounding islands came into view beneath us, I made a vow to myself to come back again, to explore the other islands yet to be discovered, on another blessed day.

Feeling inspired to take a day trip to the Isles of Scilly? This is an expedition that’s perfect for any age or level of fitness; I went with my 74-year-old Mum, and she just loved it (it was a lifelong dream come true for her). You can catch the helicopter from Penzance to either Tresco or the main island St Mary’s, which makes for an equally grand day out. Another option is to fly in to one and depart from the other for a two-island day out. 

For more information on the Isles of Scilly take a look here, whilst you can find lots of information on Tresco here. For helicopter flights, you can book with Penzance Helicopters here.

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