Jane Anderson and family find a homegrown paradise just off Land's End, when they visit the surreally exotic island of Tresco, part of the Scilly Isles
Utopia isn’t a word to bandy around lightly, but that’s what springs to mind having visited Tresco, one the Scilly Isles’ five inhabited islands. Amazingly, this archipelago, just 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, still feels like a secret, though those in the know return year after year, handing the knowledge down the generations.
By rights, we should have flown halfway round the world to arrive somewhere so exotic, not 2 hours 40 minutes on the Scillonian III ferry from Penzance, following all the excitement of the overnight sleeper train from London.
But here we are, chugging over turquoise sea on our second ferry, the Firethorn of Bryher, from the main island of St Mary’s to Tresco, an island two miles long by one mile wide. It has just 130 permanent human inhabitants but many more puffins, Manx shearwaters, peregrines, gannets, curlews and Atlantic grey seals. Since the 1830s the island has been leased from the Duchy of Cornwall by the Dorrien-Smith family, and the entire island has a slightly surreal perfection about it, from its classy supermarket – like a mini Harrods food hall – to the yoga studio in the old helicopter landing port, and the picture-perfect New Inn pub with rooms, where live folk bands play in the garden and ice cream comes in hipster flavours, such as rose geranium and ginger.
We have a similar experience when we reach our three-bedroom cottage, Seapink, part of Sea Garden Cottages, built on the footprint of Tresco’s renowned Island Hotel. It’s basically my dream seaside dwelling. It’s light and airy and incredible stylish yet homely with impressive art on the walls, pretty bedrooms, a cool kitchen and lofty lounge. It makes you want to scream, leave me here forever!
From the front garden you get an incredible view of the bay and the Old Blockhouse, a 16th-century fortification, on the hill. Scarlett uses a nearby rock summit as an artist’s settlement and its safe enough here to let her go off and do her own thing. Right out the back door is the indoor pool – akin to swimming in a serene art gallery with huge oil paintings on the walls. White fluffy towels come ready-rolled in tasteful pale turquoise cubbyholes with a rustic Tiffany feel.
For good measure, there are also two beautiful outdoor pools on the other side of the island for guests of the cottages to use, along with another indoor pool at the gorgeous spa.
Staying at Seapink may seem like self-catering, but you actually have all the facilities of a hotel at your beck and call. If you can’t be bothered to cook, just head to the gorgeous Ruin Beach Café across the road – an old stone building right on the beachside. It’s a parents’ idyll, where you can dine on the terrace and watch your little ones play in the sand. And when they come to find you, order them a chocolate milk served in mini milk bottles with stripy paper straws and a fine macaroni cheese. Inside, the cafe is all rustic tables, old pews and seashell mosaics on the walls. Scarlett and Fin love the pizza-making classes, and Steve goes kayaking with the sailing school next door, so everyone is kept happy.
On the ferry over, we meet Sally and Charles Hodgkinson, with their young kids Isis and Rex, who have been coming to Tresco for 18 years, as Charles’ parents have a timeshare – a stone cottage up the hill behind Old Grimsby quay. The Scillies is a place they remain loyal to, and epitomises the perfect multi-gen holiday destination.
Scarlett and Fin instantly click with Isis and Rex, who can’t wait to show them all their hidden play places, and the rest of the holiday is brought alive for them by their newfound friends, and an exhilarating feeling of freedom as they hurtle round on their bikes.
Thanks to the Hodgkinsons, we discover the beautiful old treehouse in the woods behind Tresco Abbey Garden, built for the Dorrien-Smith children. Shhh, don’t tell anyone!
Sub-tropical Tresco Abbey Garden is an absolute must, with its exotic species from 80 countries, from Burma to Brazil, including impressive blue spires of Echium, King Protea and Lobster Claw, many of which wouldn’t survive just 28 miles away on the Cornish mainland.
We love the ancient ruins and follies covered in shell mosaics (see right), the golden pheasant and the sculptures. The garden has many treasures including a homage to seafaring folk at the Valhalla Museum, a collection of impressive figureheads salvaged from shipwrecks.
Another day, we walk to King Charles’s Castle, a ruin on the headland overlooking Cromwell’s Castle and the neighbouring islands of Bryher and St Martin’s. We cycle some of the way, but soon it gets too rocky and hilly, and we abandon the bikes to continue on foot, knowing they’ll be perfectly safe on the grass.
One day, we take Tresco Boat Services to St Martin’s via Bryher from New Grimsby quay, with its cute waiting room filled with second-hand books and maps. St Martin’s is yet another idyllic island, slightly less chichi than Tresco, though none the worse for that. Its beaches could literally be in the Caribbean, with their turquoise hues and fine sand. In summer, visitors can go snorkelling with the rare Atlantic grey seals. We discover Fay Page Jewellery, her work inspired by seashells and admiralty charts. And the gorgeous Seven Stones pub, with a fabulous view over St Martin’s Flats, and jam jars with wild flowers on the outdoor tables, where we munch on crab sandwiches and knock back a local ale.
Another great adventure is to take the early evening ferry from Tresco to Bryher for dinner (yes, here in the seafaring Scillies this is perfectly normal). We head to the glorious summer pop-up Crab Shack at Hell Bay Hotel. We sit at trestle tables housed in a cow barn decorated with fishing nets, and the children’s eyes stand out on stalks (not unlike a crab’s) when great tureens of seafood arrive, stuffed full of crabs, their impressive claws reaching over the sides as if to escape. The kids love tearing around the field outside as the adults glug back more chilled white and crack another claw.
We sit next to Amy, who works for the tourist board, whose daughter, Zoe, is 15 and working hard as a waiter. Zoe goes to boarding school on St Mary’s during the week, and will have to leave the islands aged 16 for school in Truro on the mainland. Such is island life.
Amy tells us that at certain times of the year, often in September, the tide is so low between Tresco and Bryher that you can walk between the islands. This being the Scillies, the islanders take the opportunity to set up a Taste of Scilly food festival on the seabed when this phenomenon occurs.
Next day’s treat is a ‘Guided Walk of Tresco’s Wild Side’ (see left) with Nicki Banfield (tresco.co.uk/enjoying/events/wildlife-walk), an expert from the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust. Nicki’s family dates back to the 1300s, and were the last ones to leave the island of Samson. A true Scillonian! We assembled at the Ruin Beach Café at 10am, and set off in Nicki’s capable walking boot prints to Gimble Point. She gets us right down in the grass looking at the bird’s-foot-trefoil –nicknamed eggs and bacon, and great for bugs – and out into the bay overlooking Golden Balls rocks to spy grey seals. She tells us the pups weigh 14kg and put on 2kg per day! Nicki is a great advocate of the fight against plastic pollution, and brings out a bag of beach debris – a 1995 lobster pot tab from Maine, a 1964 Smarties lid with the letter D on it. Lego bricks following a container spill off Land’s End. She also educates us about the island’s invasive species, such as rhododendron, and its native ones, such as the bell and ling heather, vital to bee life. Alas, the Sally bee, which looks like a little teddy bear, hasn’t been seen since 2012. We begin to understand the fragility of Tresco’s incredibly localised eco system.
Our final experiences are out on the water. We join a Tresco Boat Services trip out to the awesome Bishop Rock lighthouse, a reminder of how treacherous these waters can be – the hidden rocks did for four warships in 1707, one of the worse maritime disasters in the history of the British Isles. We love seeing the seals, puffins and shags all bobbing in the water.
On our last day, Scarlett and I head out on a boat to St Mary’s bay to watch the gig-racing, a proud island tradition with handsome vessels dating back to 1830. Pilot gigs were the early lifeboats that used to row out to help pilot ships or rescue survivors from the hundreds of craft that have been wrecked in these rock-infested waters. The gigs line up and race round the bay and back to St Mary’s Harbour – all part of the magical utopian feel of the Scillies.