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Isles of Scilly: 10 reasons to visit UK’s answer to the Maldives

With white-sand beaches, clear seas and palm-tree peppered islands, a visit to this archipelago feels a long way from home, says Ben Kentish

An idyllic view on St Martin's

Here are 10 reasons to start planning a trip to the Isles of Scilly.

1. It offers a touch of the tropics

Situated right in the path of the Gulf Stream, Scilly, as it is known to locals, has its own microclimate – meaning you’ll take off from drizzly mainland Britain and, all being well, land on what appears to be a sub-tropical island. Palm trees and succulents pepper the archipelago, and around every corner is a view over turquoise seas and sweeping white sands.

While temperatures rarely stray above 25C even in summer, it feels much hotter, with a holiday season that runs from March to October. Just be sure to pack a good raincoat – it may look tropical, but it’s still England.

2. You get five islands for the price of one

A trip to Scilly provides excellent value for money, because you can easily enjoy five different islands during your stay. While most people base themselves on the biggest island, St Mary’s, the other four inhabited islands are all well worth a visit. There’s upmarket Tresco with its famous abbey gardens and well-heeled resort vibe, rugged Bryher’s Atlantic-facing bays and wind-swept cliffs, untamed St Agnes and its postcard-perfect coves, and St Martin’s quaint cottages and sweeping beaches. It’s easy to get between them, with boats offering trips several times a day.

3. It’s like stepping back in time

It might only be 30 miles from Lands’ End, but sleepy Scilly feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. Wildflowers tumble down stone cottages and winding lanes lead to hidden, moss-covered churches. Overgrown cricket fields give way to rocky cliff-top paths, while the roads, such as they are, are dotted with old red phone boxes and honesty stalls selling local fruit and vegetables. It’s hard to avoid feeling like you’ve travelled to Tolkien’s Shire or back to an age when everything was much simpler.

4. It’s teeming with wildlife

Go seal spotting on Scilly

With no real industry, few cars and significantly more animals than humans (only around 2,000 people live on the islands), unspoilt Scilly is a nature-lovers dream. Birdwatchers come from all over the world to point their binoculars at the skies – the puffins, which decamp to the islands to breed between late April and July, are a particular draw.

When it comes to wildlife, you can get just as close in the water. Dolphins, porpoises and whales pay an occasional visit, and St Martin’s Watersports offers a magical seal snorkelling trip where the blubbery mammals come within touching distance.

5. It’s fantastic for foodies

With its fresh fish, island-grown fruit and veg, locally reared meat and seafood plucked straight from the ocean, Scilly has become a top foodie spot in recent years, as a slew of new restaurant openings breathed new life into the islands. Must-visit daytime spots include Juliet’s Garden on St Mary’s, where you can laze away the afternoon over a crab sandwich, and Polreath Tea Room on St Martin’s, which serves lunches and cream teas in its sun-soaked garden and greenhouse.

For dinner right by the water, check out the aptly-named The Beach, right by St Mary’s Porthloo beach, which serves up sumptuous seafood and stone-baked pizzas in an old boat shed. And you won’t want to miss fish and chips at the Turk’s Head pub on St Agnes – the most southwesterly in the UK. Foodie Scilly also hits its peak with the Taste of Scilly festival every September.

6. It has some of the country’s best beaches

The pristine beach on St Martin's

Scilly’s beaches are frequently listed as among the very best in the UK, and it’s not hard to see why. The long, empty stretches of white sand are more reminiscent of the Maldives than the UK. Pentle Bay on Tresco, Great Bay on St Martin’s and the Sand Bar on St Agnes are particularly idyllic, but all of the islands offer magnificent shores. Be warned though: Scilly might look like the tropics but, with the sea only reaching a gasp-inducing 17C in summer, it sure doesn’t feel like it.

7. It’s the ideal place to get active

From kite-surfing, kayaking and paddleboarding to deep-sea fishing and diving, most of the more strenuous activities on Scilly are water-based. The countless shipwrecks that rest on the seabed around the islands – the highest concentration in the UK, in fact – are a diver’s paradise, with the St Martin’s Dive School providing an opportunity to see 18th-century schooners and the remains of the Cita tanker which sunk off St Mary’s in 1997.

Back on land, grab bikes from one of the several hire shops or even book a horse-back excursion.

8. It has a rich history

It's easy to hop between islands

Long seen as a key strategic vantage point guarding the mouth of the English Channel, the archipelago has the densest concentration of historical sites in Britain, including a bronze-age village and burial chamber on St Mary’s and a scattering of Neolithic tombs. Several castles are dotted around the islands, mostly dating from the time of the English Civil War, when Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentary forces seized the Scilly Isle from the Royalists.

As well as visiting the castles, visitors can actually stay in one. Built in the 16th century, Star Castle is now one of the most luxurious hotels on the islands but has maintained many of its original features.

9. It’s the best place to experience gig racing

A key part of the Scillonian calendar is gig racing, which takes place on Wednesday and Friday nights during the summer season. The tradition of racing pilot gigs (old wooden rowing boats) dates back centuries, when men from the different islands would compete to be the first to arrive at the latest shipwreck. Those who got there first and helped rescue the crew and cargo would receive a lucrative reward from the ship’s owner, so speed on the water was crucial.

Now, with the pressure off, the races are a fun and distinctive way for the islanders to stay in touch with Scilly’s more sombre past. Grab a bottle of wine and a few snacks and jump onto one of the passenger boats that leave to follow the races.

10. It’s easy to get to

Scilly might look like some far-flung archipelago, but in reality, the islands are scattered just 30 miles off the Cornish coast, and are easily accessible from London. Flying, while not the cheapest option, is the best way to maximise your time on Scilly. There are 10 flights a day to St Mary’s from Land’s End and three a day from Newquay and Exeter. For a cheaper (and greener) option, take the ferry, which runs daily (twice daily on Saturdays) from Penzance.

Travel essentials

Staying there

The Karma Hotel on St Martin’s, located just metres from the island's sweeping sand flats, has the feel of a luxury beach house, with white-washed, modern rooms. Attentive staff help ensure a relaxed stay, and the food is almost all sourced from across Scilly, with fish caught daily by the island’s fishermen and vegetables grown up the road. Doubles from £200.

Read our full review of the Karma Hotel.

More hotels on the Isles of Scilly

For more information call 01736 334220 or visit islesofscilly-travel.co.uk

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