10 Best Things to Do on the Isles of Scilly

Top 10 Scilly Isles things to do

The Isles of Scilly lie just 28 miles west of Land's End, yet despite just being a hop away they are a world apart. It is debatable whether the islands are technically in Cornwall but they should definitely be on the itinerary of anyone visiting this end of the country.

Of course there are plenty of similarities with the mainland, but the Scillies take many of these aspects that make Cornwall special and turns them up. The weather is even milder, the water clearer and bluer, the sand whiter and the wildlife more exotic. Forget where you are for a moment and you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd washed up in the Aegean or Caribbean!

With five inhabited islands and numerous smaller ones there is a good deal of exploring to be done. Each island has its own feel and everyone who visits has a favourite. Whichever you choose there's at least a day's worth of things to do and see on each. Here we'll try to give you a few ideas, but to be honest, a visit to the Scillies is pretty self explanatory - just relax and enjoy...

Beaches

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Deserted beach - St Martin's, Scilly
Deserted beach - St Martin's, Scilly

I'm sure I've probably said elsewhere that you can't top Cornwall's beaches. Well, there might be some serious competition with the Scillies being one of the few places that could out-beach Cornwall.

To be honest it is pretty difficult to name any more beautiful beaches anywhere on earth. Think generous stretches of near-white sand lapped by clear azure waters and a backdrop of low dunes, and not much else. This is could describe most of the island's myriad beaches. Admittedly, there isn't much in the way of surf but this also means it is generally safe to swim or snorkel. 

All the islands have their fair share of stunning beaches, but it is generally accepted that St Martins, Bryher and Tresco are where beach-lovers should head.

Tresco Abbey Gardens

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Tresco Abbey Gardens
Tresco Abbey Gardens

Scilly's second largest island Tresco is best known for its sub-tropical gardens set among the ruins of a medieval priory. The gardens were created by Augustus Smith in the 1830s who also built the house here - which is referred to as "the Abbey". The 17 acres contain a wide variety of exotic species, many of which do not grow elsewhere in the British Isles. It is said that Smith would buy seeds and plants from passing sailing ships returning to the UK from more temperate climes. Since the early days of agapanthus from South Africa and echiums from the Canary Islands the stock has expanded to include Mexican Yuccas, Chilean Puya, Indian fan palms and a host of other sub-tropical delights.

In addition to the plants the gardens have a few quirky points of interest many of which would not be out of place in a museum. There is a Bronze Age holed stone, an ancient Roman shrine and "Valhalla" - a collection of figureheads and curiosities collected from the many shipwrecks around the Scillies.

Wildlife Cruise

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Common dolphins
Common dolphins

Surrounded by some of the clearest and cleanest waters to be found anywhere the Scilly Isles are home to an abundance of marine life. Depending on the time of year there is a good chance of spotting giant basking sharks, furry seal pups and puffins. The best times to visit for wildlife are the late spring and early autumn, although you'll see plenty throughout the summer too. Frequent sightings at this time of year also include common dolphins, porpoises and the occasional sunfish.

There are no shortage of boats running trips from the various islands, and most of these tend to head to the rocky islet on the northern, western and eastern fringes. Atlantic grey seals are pretty much a given wherever you head, bud for bird-lovers the island of Annet is a must.

Historic Sites

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The Old Man of Gugh
The Old Man of Gugh

It is thought that humans have been present on the Scilly Isles for around 10,000 years. The islands were a very different place back then; for starters the sea levels were so much lower that there was in fact only one island, Ennor. In fact it is possible they weren't islands at all at this point in time and were connected to the mainland. This would explain the wealth of archaeological remains that exist on the islands, many of which bare a great deal of similarity to those found in West Cornwall. Who influenced who is debatable since the most impressive monuments left behind are the entrance graves which are also known as "Scillonian burial chambers". The finest examples of these can be seen Innisidgen, Porth Hellick and Buzza Hill, all on St Mary's.

There are other ancient sites including a number of standing stones, the most notable of which is the Old Man of Gugh which sits at a jaunty angle overlooking neighbouring St Agnes. Also well worth a visit is the impressive Halangy Down Iron Age village which features an assortment of older sites scattered around the remains of the courtyard complex.

In mediaeval times the Isles of Scilly were recognised for their strategic value and a number of fortifications were built in the 16th and 17th centuries. The most obvious of these is Star Castle (now a hotel), which overlooks Hugh Town but there are smaller forts and fortifications scattered all over the islands.

Birdwatching

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Puffins - Scilly Isles
Puffins

The Scilly Isles are regarded as one of the best places for birdwatching in the UK. The islands are not only a breeding ground for a variety of seabirds but act as a stopover for migrating birds. However, what really draws the crowds are the unusual visitors which are frequently blown off course and onto the islands. Incredibly rare species such as Zino's Petrels and Great Blue Herons have both been spotted on the islands along with many other equally unusual species like Hoopoes - which are something of a regular visitor.

The Scilly's native birds are equally worthy of mention; shearwaters and petrels both have breeding colonies here, as do many more common species such as guillemots and razorbills. There is little doubt though that the star resident is the puffin, with these adorably comic little birds breeding on some of the outer islands, most notably Annet.

Desert Islands

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Samson Beach - Isles of Scilly
Samson - Isles of Scilly

There are five inhabited islands in Scilly and a total of around a hundred. So, a bit of basic maths tells us that there are quite a few uninhabited island. Don't get too excited as many of these are very much on the small and rocky side - they do however have some great names. My personal favourites include Daisy, Little Arthur and Illiswilgig.

Out of these 90+ uninhabited islands and islets there are a handful that are worth visiting, or at least having a look at. Two of these, Tean and St Helen's are located between Tresco and St Martin. Both have some interesting history including one early Christian chapel a piece. Tena has a couple of notable beaches, while St Helen's has the remains of "the Pest House", an old isolation hospital and is also home to the mythical Golden Ball surf spot.

Perhaps best for the desert island experience though is Samson. Once inhabited there are signs that it was this way back to the Bronze age and beyond. Along with the ancient sites are the remains of a few 19th century cottages that belonged to a community that tried (and failed) to eke out a living on Samson. After years of trying to live off limpets and potatoes they gave up and abandoned the island leaving behind an air of melancholy, but also a wonderful stretch of deserted sand. 

Island Hopping (choosing a favourite island)

Everyone has their favourite island, but you will have to visit them all to decide which is yours. Each island has its own distinct character and it charms, and it is well worth exploring beyond the relative metropolis (!!) of St Mary's to the tranquility of the lesser islands.

Don't get me wrong, St Mary's is wonderful, and it is quite possible this will be your favourite. It is something of a halfway house between the Cornish mainland and some of the smaller islands, but some might say it's a little "busy". If that's the case then St Martin's, Bryher or St Agnes might be your island of choice. With just the odd golf cart or tractor for traffic you can really enjoy the surrounds. St Martin's is something of a haven for beach-lovers, whilst Bryher is a touch more rugged with its wild west coast. St Agnes offers a little of both, and with a great pub it is very much self-contained.

Small ferry boats run a regular and organised service between all the inhabited islands. Being largely sheltered from the worst of the Atlantic waves, crossing between the main islands is a fairly tame affair by West Cornwall standards so the boat trip can be half the fun.

Getting there

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Scillonian - St Mary's Harbour
St Mary's Harbour

Obviously this one isn't optional and will have its fair share of fans and haters alike. If you don't like flying (which I don't) then your options are rather limited. Short of sailing yourself over the chances are you will be booking a crossing on the Scillonian III - don't ask what happened to the other two (actually they retired!). Affectionately named the "sick bucket" by locals the ferry has a small draft to allow it into the shallow harbour at St Mary's. Unfortunately this means it also tends to roll around rather a lot at the first hint of a swell.

Rough crossings aside I actually really like the boat trip. It drags on a little at over 2 hours each way, but I've seen dolphins and basking sharks from the deck and you get great views of the West Cornwall coast as you leave Penzance.

Flying is the other option, and there is now a choice between helicopter and plane. Both are pretty quick although I'm not entirely sure what the advantage of the helicopter is, as it is somewhat more expensive. Flying makes a day trip a much more attractive proposition with the bonus of some amazing views of the coast from above.

Turks Head pub

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The Turk's Head - St Agnes, Scilly
The Turk's Head

Being the most south-westerly pub in the UK is a worthy claim to fame, but there's more to the Turk's Head than bragging rights. Sitting overlooking the quayside on St Agnes, this is possibly the finest pub on Scilly. So good in fact that residents of St Mary's have been known to make the trip over just for a couple of pints (Scillies residents don't do much island hopping!). 

Blessed with one of the best positioned beer gardens to be found anywhere in Cornwall, the Turk's Head is the perfect place to enjoy a pint and a pasty as the sun sets over the little harbour of Porth Conger.

World Pilot Gigs Championship

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Isles of Scilly Gig Racing
Isles of Scilly Gig Racing

If the Scillies were to have a national sport it would almost definitely be gig racing. Pilot gigs originated in the 19th century when they were used to row pilots out to passing ships which needed assistance to navigate the tricky waters into port. As there would usually be more than one pilot vying for the job the teams of rowers would have to race each other. 

These days there is no call for pilots, but the rivalry between the teams of gig rowers has in no way abated. The various islands have their own teams, and some of the boats are even old enough to have had a working pedigree, such as the oldest of the all, Bonnet, which dates back to the 1830s.

Racing generally takes place on Wednesday and Friday evenings throughout the summer over a course of about 2 miles. However, it is during May that the biggest races take place with the World Pilot Gig Championships held on the Scillies. Thousands of rowers and their supporters descend on the islands for a weekend of competetion and partying.

All things to see and do in Isles of Scilly »