We stayed on St Mary’s, which is the largest of the islands and serves as a good base. There’s 60 miles of footpaths to explore on foot, or you can hop on a passenger launch to follow the sweat and toil of the 10m-long, six-oared gigs as they race around the islands from May to September. Look out for Bonnet, the oldest gig of them all. Dating from 1830, the vessel is so named the St Mary’s women who would wave their bonnets at the departing crew to bring them good luck.
We came across The Galley, a snug fish restaurant on St Mary’s Parade, which would be easy to miss if it weren’t for co-owner David, our new best friend, waving cheerily every time we passed en route to the quay. After a night munching freshly caught monkfish washed down with deceptively strong cider, our leisurely few days became busy with places to visit on David’s recommendation.
The Abbey Gardens on Tresco are a relaxing way to spend a morning or afternoon, even if you’re not an avid gardener. They were created in 1834 after Scillonian mariners, led by Augustus Smith, brought specimens here from around the globe. Thousands of species thrive because Scilly’s frost-free climate is warmed by the Gulf Stream. You can stroll from Mexico to New Zealand and back again in minutes.
Jumping off the boat at Higher Town Quay on St Martin’s, we stumbled across signposts to St Martin’s Vineyard. Val and Graham Thomas own and run the vineyard, whose land has been in Val’s family since the 1600s and was previously used to farm flowers. Val replanted the fields with grape vines, leaving them bordered with tall hedges of pittasporum, euonymous and escallonia, intended to protect the daffodils from the sea wind.
Eight varieties of wine made on site are ready for tasting and make for a happy start to the day. These are best followed in style with lobster rolls from Little Arthur’s Bistro, some of Val’s dry white wine and a bask in the hot sun on the endless white sand of Great Bay. They say that once you visit Scilly, you’ll always want to go back. It’s a well-kept secret and it’s tempting to keep it that way.
Seal of approval
A day snorkelling with seals begins with a white-knuckle speedboat ride from St Mary’s to the Western Isles in search of Britain’s largest marine mammal, the Atlantic Grey Seal. As motors quietened, we drift, trying to spot the seals’ sleek camouflaged forms as they bask on the rocks in the sun. The plop of a pup taking a dip or a twitch of a whisker helps our eyes become accustomed to their form.
Thankfully, wetsuits are provided for the icy waters. If you’re lucky, you might find yourself head-to-head with an inquisitive seal while another nibbles your flipper from below. Be warned, though, a squeal of excitement might make them dart away like torpedoes.
Swim with seals at Island Sea Safaris.