For walkers, ramblers, and lovers of countryside and sea, a spring or autumn escape to the Isles of Scilly is like revisiting lost childhood, says Sam Harrington-Lowe.
It feels extraordinary to finally be writing this article. It was over two years ago that I went, and then – well, you know what happened after that. But at last I can share this with you, the absolute joy that was my little trip to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Spoiler alert – it’s one of the loveliest holidays I’ve ever had in the UK.
Sadly, some of the things I got to experience – like a friendly little flight from London, or the hotel Mount Haven – don’t exist anymore. The pandemic has put paid.
However, if ever there was an utterly gorgeous place to go for a spring or autumn trip, it’s here. And there is still plenty to do, or not do, if relaxing is more your thing.
Where did you stay?
Let’s start with the land side, Cornwall. I stayed in Marazion, at the Godolphin Hotel which must have one of the best views of St Michael’s Mount in the area. During the summer this part of Cornwall is extremely busy, which is really not for the faint-hearted. If you ask the locals how they feel about it, you’ll get a mixed reaction. They’re pleased of the trade of course, but hate the fact you can barely walk on the pavements because it’s so busy. Early season though – or late season – it’s a gorgeous part of the world. I was there in June, before school holidays, and it was perfect. Autumn, after the kids go back to school, is also apparently a brilliant time to go.
The Godolphin nestles in the heart of Marazion, right on the beach in a dip surrounded by craft shops and small eateries. I loved the soothing décor – it’s all pale blues and wood, and white paint, you know the vibe. Beachy, but upmarket. It’s got a great restaurant which has indoor and outdoor dining, and the food there, whether it was a full English (Cornish?!), a lunch burger, or a fancy evening meal, was all top notch. And it’s dog friendly. Unsurprisingly it’s not hugely cheap, but there are plenty of little B&Bs knocking about if you’re on a budget and wanted to be in the same area. We did fall in love with the Godolphin – the view of the Mount, the food, the happy sunny buzz – a good place to treat yourself to. Locally there are also plenty of sandy beaches, for those of you who like a bit of sunbathing and swimming.
When we went across to St Mary’s, which is the largest of the Isles, we were based in a gorgeous hotel called the Star Castle. This is a four-star, 16th century actual castle – if you’re tall, prepare for some ducking through doorways. We had a cottage with stunning views over the bay, and a friendly resident blackbird. I spent ages picking the raisins out of some garibaldi biscuits for him – they are incredibly trusting.
Sadly, I can’t really talk about the hotel we stayed at when we returned to the mainland. The Mount Haven was really lovely – but it’s permanently closed now, according to their website, and I’m not sure what will happen to it. It seems there are some issues with the building itself. But it was a corker, and the food. Oh my word. Anyway…
What did you do?
We crammed a lot in. Initially, we landed in Marazion, via Newquay (although coming in by train you’ll arrive at Penzance, which is a just a few miles up the road). We stayed at The Godolphin there, right on the glorious Mount’s Bay – a sweeping sandy stretch that includes the walkway across to St Michael’s Mount at low tide. Don’t get caught!
Whilst on the mainland side, we got a couple of rover type bus passes and went for a day out at St Ives, which is on the north coast of Cornwall. The bus gives you a cracking look at a good section of Cornwall as it crosses the land, well worth doing.
St Ives is a different buzz to Marazion – more bustling, fishing, people, shops… Personally I was glad to be staying in the quieter south, but those who want a bit more to do would love St Ives. We had a really cracking lunch there at the Porthminster and browsed the crafty shops and ate clotted cream ice cream, obviously. There was a man patiently building stone sculptures on the beach and we watched him for a bit, before dozing home on a joggly bus. We did not meet a man with seven wives at any point.
One of the absolute highlights was getting the little Skybus plane across to St Mary’s from the mainland. The flight goes from Lands End – there is a boat if you’re more inclined to do water than air, I’ll tell you about that in a sec – and it’s huge fun! We had a gloriously clear day and absolutely loved the little flight. Once we landed there, we headed to the Star Castle, where we were based for the next three nights.
From St Mary’s, we had a day in Tresco. Now Tresco is really something. It’s like a world away from the modern reality – beautiful gardens (you must go to the subtropical Tresco Abbey Garden), breath-taking forest and beach action, no vehicles… definitely one for the walkers. It’s also incredibly hard to get a room there. There aren’t many hotels or B&Bs, so there’s lots of day trippers coming in on the boats, and huge competition for the bed stock on the island – and they plan to keep it that way. But it’s very exclusive, very beautiful, and I think I want to live there forever.
Hilariously, when we were back at St Mary’s, we ate a (massive) lazy late Sunday breakfast and then couldn’t face lunch at lunchtime. In our innocence we’d thought we could get something later, so we relaxed, had a walk and a snooze, and then went to find a nice pub. Ha! We got lost in the rain on a Sunday afternoon with nowhere to eat, bickering as we tried place after place, getting wetter and wetter. Thank god for the Coop and bedroom picnic. Who knew that things closed on Sunday afternoons on St Mary’s?! It was like the 1970s – all the pubs shut at 2.30pm. Anyway, we found out, and now you know too.
I live just outside Brighton and it’s a very different pace of life. It feels like stepping back in time, Mary Wesley style, not Graham Greene. The locals are friendly, and as soon as you arrive there’s a sensation of slowing down, which is blissful.
Return journey from St Mary’s
Having flown out to St Mary’s from the mainland via the Skybus, we came back on the ferry, which is the Scillonian. She’s a vintage vessel, with a very flat bottom, and she’s definitely a challenge for those without good sealegs. I’ve never seen so many dispensing containers for sick bags on a single vehicle. I didn’t care, I’ve got great sealegs, but even on a calm day it was a choppy experience. Something to watch out for. If you get seasick AND you’re afraid of flying, well maybe the Isles aren’t for you. But out of the two, I’d say the boat is probably the tougher gig – at least the flight is very short!
How was the eating out?
The standard of food we had across the board both on the mainland and across the Isles was generally very good. Lots of local produce on menus and some really creative dishes. It’s a fish-lover’s idea of heaven, the whole region. Standouts include the Porthminster restaurant at St Ives, where the fish menu was outstanding, and the dinner menus at both the Star Castle on St Mary’s, and the Godolphin.
We only had one iffy eating experience, which was Juliet’s on St Mary’s. Lovely venue, with great views from the garden; but chaotic staff and badly put-together meals. I won’t scare you with a photo of the thing they told me was a steak. There didn’t even seem to be a manager running the shift. We had forebodings when, as we approached the entrance, a couple came out laughing in disbelief and told us not to bother. The couple on the table next to us were kicking off about their meals too. Maybe Juliet’s was having a bad night, but anyway. We left hungry, but they did refund our bill.
Anything to watch out for?
Well – things close on Sundays. And in fact, during low season (ie any time that isn’t July to September) you’ll probably find that a lot of pubs and bars close during all the afternoons. Also, once you’re on the Isles, getting around can take some planning. There’s about two cabs on St Mary’s and you need to book in advance if you’re going anywhere. As for Tresco – lace up your walking boots.
The whole region has got a warm microclimate, as I said before, but this means not just better plant life, but all sorts of exciting marine life, like dolphins, whales, porpoises, seals. Some epic beetles and moths too.
Would you go again?
Sigh. I had a love affair with the estate agent window when I was there. I would LOVE to live there, on a romantic level. But I could make do with the occasional trip down, and will definitely go again. I’d like to try autumn when the gardens and flora across the whole Isles are winding down a bit. The climate there makes it very hospitable for a much longer season than the mainland. Yes, I’d go there again like a shot.
We flew on a Flybe plane from London Heathrow to Newquay, which was great – a quick flight, proper gin and tonic, bada bing, bada boom. Unfortunately, Flybe went into administration so that’s no longer an option. If you want to fly from London, there are direct flights between July and September on BA and Easyjet, but in low season the flights are Ryanair, and ‘not direct’ – which frankly could mean going via anywhere in the world. Other airlines that I could find that go to Newquay are Loganair (from Teesside) and there are probably others, but you’ll have to do a bit of searching. One flight offered a 35-hour option, with various layoffs. Take my advice though – let the train take the strain.
From London, by far the best way to travel to and from Cornwall in my opinion is the sleeper train, run by GWR, which we caught back. And if you are as train-happy as I am, and live in the north of the UK, maybe a sleeper to London followed by a sleeper to Cornwall? I’ve got a romantic love of trains, especially sleepers – I’m desperately trying to plan a tip on the Orient Express – there’s something lovely about going to sleep on a rocking train and waking up somewhere completely different.
Night Riviera Sleeper
If anyone has read the novel The Sleeper you’ll know about this London > Cornwall train. They call it the Night Riviera Sleeper and it goes from Paddington to Penzance with a bunch of stops along the way. I love the name, so Agatha Christie somehow. And there are lots of nice little touches for cabin class holders. First Class lounges with showers and comp food and drink at either end (Penzance/Paddington), and there’s a private lounge coach and bar which serves hot food and cold gin. You book your wake-up call and a breakfast – bacon roll and tea for me please – and off you go, to be gently awakened as someone knocks on your cabin door and brings you your brekkie. There are singles and doubles, and it’s – in my view – very reasonably priced. You can just book a normal reclining seat and doze all the way, but you’d probably arrive with neck ache. You can of course go in the daytime as a normal passenger too.
What do the prices look like?
I had to check these afresh as I imagined they’ve changed a bit, but this is what I dug out for you. All prices are based on visiting during May and will be subject to change. Don’t come for me if they’re hugely different when you look.
Both The Godolphin Godolphin and the Star Castle are priced similarly, starting around £200-230 for single occupancy B&B. The Star Castle has some dinner, bed, bed and breakfast packages that start around £260.
This varies hugely but a single cabin is about £90 low season, and a double £120. I found a return cabin fare in May 2022 for £124 for single occupancy. The website is pretty easy to navigate though.
Prices based on one way (return prices are on application, no idea why)
Skybus – from £97.95
Scillonian ferry – from £61.95
For more information about the mainland, click here.
Sam is Silver’s founder and editor-in-chief. She’s largely responsible for organising all the things, but still finds time to do the odd bit of writing. Not enough though. Send help.