Tell us more… I spent a week hopping from island to island in this one-of-a-kind archipelago, which lies off the tip of Cornwall in the southwest of England. I’ve visited the main one – St Mary’s – once before, so the focus of this trip was the other four inhabited islands (known locally as the ‘off-islands’).
In a nutshell… Unique is an overused word, but the Isles of Scilly have no true analogue in the British Isles: thanks to the Gulf Stream, they have a Goldilocks climate – never too hot, never too cold – that results in a profusion of plant life. So you end up with a compelling contrast between a culture that feels quintessentially English, traditional coastal architecture, and a natural environment that calls to mind the tropics at times.
Defining moment? When an Atlantic grey seal popped up literally between my fins as I floated on the currents swirling around the Eastern Isles. The award-winning Scilly Seal Snorkelling team had warned us this might happen during the RIB ride out to the seal colony, but it still caught me by surprise – I fumbled with my action cam, nearly dropped it into the seaweedy depths, and then managed to snatch a few seconds of film.
Good grub? If there’s a better place to eat crustaceans in the UK, I’m yet to find it. You can score superb crab sandwiches or dressed crab from pretty much anywhere, but if you want a real feast for all the senses, try Crab Shack on Bryher. They keep it simple: scallops or mussels to start, followed by a crab the size of hubcap, which you’re expected to dismantle with aplomb using a pair of claw crackers and a seafood pick; I struggled enthusiastically.
Fave activity? Easy, this one: the Low Tide Event, a unique mini festival held two or sometimes three times a year when the spring tide retreats to the point where you can walk across the channel between Tresco and Bryher. For a few hours, this patch of seabed hosts pop-up food stalls, prosecco and gin bars and – a first this year – a live band. It’s brief but magical as you stand there, lobster roll in one hand, a gin and tonic in the other, squidging your toes in damp sand amid a litter of scallop shells and bright seaweed to the sound of rock’n’roll. Where else can you experience that?
Quintessential experience? Simply catching one of the regular boats that sail between St Mary’s and the four off-islands. The constant toing and froing of these bright little craft, which bear evocative names like Firethorn, Voyager and Lightning, sums up the family-friendly yet buccaneering vibe of the isles. They also force you to adapt to the tidal rhythm of life here, a practical restriction that might frustrate at first but soon becomes strangely soothing.
James Kay travelled to the Isles of Scilly with support from the Islands’ Partnership. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.
Want more behind-the-scenes adventures? Find out what Picture Editor Claire Richardson got up to on her honeymoon to Hawaii.