My first glimpse into life on the Isles of Scilly was a line of 10 people outside a corner shop. “They’re waiting for their newspapers that come in from the mainland each day,” Star Castle hotel owner Robert Francis said. “We don’t lock our houses, and we leave our keys in the car,” he went on. “It’s a very different life.” Indeed, crime is nearly nonexistent on these delightful and tranquil islands, 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, England, where there’s just a handful of restaurants and shops, one grocery store, no movie theater — and no newspapers on Sunday, when there’s no transportation on or off.
The royal family maintains close ties to the isles – Prince Charles’ estate and source of income, the Duchy of Cornwall, owns and leases out real estate on the island — and enjoys vacationing here (so does Jude Law!). Last year, Queen Elizabeth II, who is currently celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, came to open the new primary school. The islands probably haven’t changed that much in the nearly half century since her last visit (in 1967).
The azure-green water surrounding the islands calls to mind the Caribbean, the lush landscaping echoes Hawaii, and the architecture reminds me of the Canadian Maritimes. But Scilly is altogether idiosyncratic. A visit here is rejuvenating, a reminder of what really matters in life. Fresh, unpolluted air. Extraordinary views on long walks. Rare wildlife and plant sightings. Good conversation. Delicious food. If you’re like me, you won’t want to leave!
The Basics: Out of 140 islands, 5 are inhabited: St. Mary’s, Tresco, St. Agnes, Bryher, and St. Martin’s. St. Mary’s is the largest of these and where you will arrive. I took a 5-hour train from London to Penzance, and then flew 15 minutes on Skybus from Land’s End to St. Mary’s. In the summer season, there are passenger ferries and direct flights from Southampton, Exeter, Bristol, and other cities.
The Best Place to Start: Star Castle Hotel, St. Mary’s
Star Castle is the focal point for Scilly’s history. Built in the shape of an 8-pointed star in 1593 under orders from Queen Elizabeth I for defense, the structure is now family-owned and operated as a hotel, but you can see traces of its past in the decor — like the “ER” inscribed for Elizabeth Regina (Latin for Queen Elizabeth) above the stone entryway.
The Best Pubs: You can enjoy a pint in what was once the most secure prison in Britain, though it’s much cozier now. Star Castle’s pub is called the Dungeon Barand manned
The Best View: Garrison Walk
Surrounding Star Castle’s Garrison Hill is a defense wall that took 150 years to build. Walk the length of the wall, which is a little over a mile, to see phenomenal views. On your way, you’ll pass Hugh House, the Duchy of Cornwall’s headquarters.
The Best Blooms: Abbey Garden, Tresco
It’s hard to believe you’re in Britain when you’re strolling through the palm-tree studded Abbey Garden. The islands enjoy the warmest climate in the country, and most of the plant species you’ll find there are subtropical. This year’s flower count (an annual New Year’s day tradition), saw more than 230 species in bloom!
The Best Tour: Scilly Walks
Katharine Sawyer, an archaeologist studying the Scillonian entrance tombs, leads walks through historically significant sites on many of the islands, both inhabited and not. Walking with Katharine through ancient burial sites and monuments on St. Agnes, followed by lunch and Cornish cider at Turk’s Head was a special treat.
The Best Local Chat: Richard Larn
Larn is one of Britain’s leading shipwreck experts (he chronicled Britain’s shipwrecks for Lloyd’s of London and was recently inducted into the Order of the British Empire) and leads tours of Scilly and Star Castle on Fridays. Ask him about his lunch with the Queen! You’ll soon agree that he’s one of the most fascinating people you’ll ever meet.
All photos: Annie Fitzsimmons