Can you believe that there is a small string of islands only 45 miles off the coast of England which have empty white sandy beaches, tropical coloured blue sea and palm trees? Nope me neither – but a small smattering of photos online seemed to confirm this which is why the Isles of Scilly have been on my to visit list for as long as I can remember.
Isles of Scilly Travel restarted their helicopter flights this May (2018) after 6 years away to St Marys. I’ve never been in a helicopter so this was a perfect opportunity given that it wasn’t much more expensive compared to their normal plane flights (when I say normal, I mean in cute little twin prop planes but more on that later). The helicopters go 8 times a day, 6 days a week so there are loads of flights to pick from.
/Edit Sept 2020 – sadly the helicopters no longer run but plenty of plane options!
Arriving at Lands End airport (yep that’s it real name), it was the most friendly and relaxed check in I’ve ever done – the chap just said to take a seat anywhere in the (tiny) airport and they’d call us in a bit. True to his word, after we had got a (decent) coffee from the small cafe and sat outside watching the little planes move about, he called for us over the tannoy. After weighing our bags and us (!), he gave us some wooden laminated boarding passes (nice touch) and told us to take a seat until they called us for our pre flight briefing. After watching one of the twin props take off, we were called in the helicopter briefing room (yes that is a real thing) and shown a short safety video. In all honesty all this did was make us even more excited!
We were walked over the tarmac to our helicopter which had landed a short while before and the captain got out and offered to take our photo! It was an impressively friendly touch that he didn’t need to do but made the whole experience even better. We were sat right behind the cockpit (with nothing between us and them) so we could see everything they were doing and saying – that is until the turbines started and you really realised why you need the ear protectors.
We took off so smoothly that you barely noticed until we gently rotated around picking up height at the same time. Suddenly we could see the Cornish sea below with surfers bobbing up and down in the swell, Lands End itself and the white sails of yachts scattered all over the dark blue water. Unlike normal flights, we didn’t gain much altitude which meant we had literally a birds eye view of the sea and scenery below us which was incredible. Surprisingly it was also smooth the entire flight – even when we went through some clouds which I didn’t expect. Touch down was as smooth as the take off and again the pilot got out to help us out.
We got the shuttle to Hugh Town and left our bags in the waiting room which is on the harbour side. There is no staff there but people leave all their bags there without a care in the world. Crime is incredibly rare on the islands where everyone knows everyone and our shuttle driver said that anyone that inclined was quickly run out of town. We left our bags here several times over the trip and nothing was touched – nor was the battery case that we left charging for a few hours (also worth noting that there are showers here).
I had booked a table at The Mermaid Inn which we could see from the harbour and which had views across the bay. According to the reviews it had a great menu including great fish & chips plus vegetarian halloumi fish and chips! Which I can confirm was delicious! We were also quickly learning that everyone on the islands were super friendly and laid back.
We strolled back to the harbour to get our boat across to St Martin where we were staying for 2 nights. Three boats, going to the largest islands, all docked at the same time and everyone walked across one boat to the next until they got to the boat they needed to be on. The crews helped carry larger bags (and pushchairs) in a really slick system. At the other end, they got everyone who had bags to form a chain to get everybody’s bags off quickly – again it created a really slick system. Our bags were picked up by a friendly driver who couldn’t fit all us guests in in one go – we started walking along the single road on the island from one end to the other (took about 25 mins) and in all honesty that was better for us – we got to see more! If you couldn’t walk that far for whatever reason then he’d simply drive back again – and the view you’ve have whilst waiting is stunning!
We were booked into Karma St Martin which is the only hotel on the island. There is only one B&B on the island (with one room) and several self catering houses. Most people on St Martin stay in the campsite which is right by the beach (hidden from view by dunes) and who collect peoples bags in a tractor and trailer.
I’ll be honest about Karma St Martin. It was on the island I wanted, had the views I wanted (sea views from the bedroom), a fantastic restaurant and great reviews. But the website is shocking (very poor information & out of date) and several other things just don’t work (like their loyalty club which the website is still live but actually they’ve stopped doing). Their website also wouldn’t take my online payment (tried several cards) which was another alarm bell. But I’m pleased to say that all my fears were very unfounded – it was a lovely location (right on the beach with carefully cut lawns outside), our sea view room was out of this world (it will take a lot to beat that view!) and everyone was friendly and welcoming.
We wanted to eat our dinner outside to watch the sunset so were a little disappointed when the front of house said that we couldn’t. I get the reasons why with “fine dining food” but still they have a beautiful setting which they’ve certainly aren’t using to it’s full potential. To give him credit though – he came and told us when the sun was setting and it was one of the best sunsets I’ve seen in a very long time. The lemon dessert with lemon candy floss still makes me dribble whenever I think about it as well!
The next morning, after a great breakfast (loads of options), we set off to walk around the whole island. Literally. There is a coast path that runs right around the island which is about 11 miles long with several additional paths cutting over the island if you needed to cut it short. I knew that St Martin had the best beaches from the photos I had seen – what I didn’t fully appreciate was just how white some of them were, just how turquoise the water really was and just how empty most of the island was!
The path is very easy to follow, soft grass in most places and follows the edge of the island around all the beaches and little coves. There was a curious stone maze at one point, seals bobbing up and down further out to sea and long stretches of mainly empty white sand. Great Bay was our first stopping point – long white sand beach with shallow (cold) water with a few harmless jelly fish floating around. But our favourite was Perpitch – partly as it was our own private beach for a while, partly as there were loads of seals further out at sea, partly as there was a small wooden sailing boat anchored out in the bay with an elderly couple dozing in the sun and reading (perfect retirement) but mainly as it was just a stunning location.
The tip of the island has a curious red & white cone on it, presumably for boats, which you could see from all parts of the island. From there we cut down to Par Beach which is where our boat docked the day before and cut back up to the Polreath Tea Room which luckily was still open, still had some ice cream left and still had some cold drinks. It’s a cute little place with plenty of seats (indoors and outdoors), lots of choices to eat and drink and very popular the day we visited – and I can see why.
That evening we ate at the Seven Stones Inn which was a very short walk from our hotel. Up a slight hill with a view across the sea to St Marys, it’s a fantastic little pub with fairy lights strung all over inside, plenty of outside seating and a great range of food. Oh and some excellent desserts. It appears to have changed hands relatively recently and it looks like they are trying to expand the space but again everyone working there was super friendly and there was nothing to fault – it’s worth noting that there are “supper” boats from the other islands during the summer; I’d highly recommend using one of those to visit here.
The next day, after another excellent breakfast, we got a lift back down to Higher Quay (where the boat came in) for our final activity – snorkelling with seals! They kitted us up in thick wetsuits (despite the gorgeous sun, the sea was still cold) and gave us additional tops – that gave the extra advantage of giving us more boency in the water. We also got flippers and snorkels.
We set out in a RIB across the turquoise sea and headed for one of the rocky islands where the seals lived. As soon as we arrived we could see some lounging around on the rocks and suddenly little curious heads popping up in the water. Curious by nature, seals just want to know what is going on and strange creatures (us) flapping around in the water in black suits is something they can’t resist taking a closer look at. The area we were floating around in was deep with kelp slowly waving below us – every now and again a young seal would dive below us and disappear into this forest.
As warned by our boat crew, the seals liked nothing better than sneaking up behind people and nibbling their flippers – it was hilarious watching people peering below them not realising that a seal was literally a few cm behind them! I was incredibly lucky and one seal took a liking to me and tried to tickle me – he was upside down under me poking and prod-ing my wetsuit. Every time I tried to roll over to see him better, he rolled over or swarm under me again – it was a proper little game. I could have stayed there for hours but sadly our time to go home had come.
Back on the boat we got a hot drink and a chocolate Twix before roaring back across the calm sea to get the ferry back to St Marys – our hotel had bought our bags down whilst we had been out thus saving us the time & effort going back and forth.
For the flight home, I had booked the SkyBus (plane) – again it was an easy, friendly check in and again we were given wooden boarding cards. When our colour (of the card) was called, we had another brief safety video before being walked out to the plane – this time the co pilot came out to greet us all and re-arranged us slightly once onboard (to equal the weight). He explained a few more things (whilst sat with us rather than over the tannoy from some anonymous cockpit) before taking his seat up front – again there was no door and we could see everything that was going on which was fantastic!
The twin engines spun into life and we made the short taxi to the end of the runway before being pushed hard back into our seats as we took off and flew right over the top of St Marys before banking round. The view was spectacular and, as with the helicopter, we didn’t climb very high so we had amazing views all the way back to the mainland – you could see the changing colours of the sea, the surf crashing against the beach in Cornwall and the lighthouse protecting boats from Land’s End.
After a smooth landing, the co pilot got off first to help us down and our bags were very quickly taken out of the hold for us to collect. Another super friendly relaxed experience.
Tips and Tricks:
- The totally free offline maps.me app has seemed to improve slightly recently though the map shown above was pretty much all we needed!
- Remember to book everything you can via TopCashBack – even when booking via Hotels.com, Expedia etc or even direct with the hotel/car hire/carrier
- Land’s End airport has pre-paid parking facilities but I used http://www.airportcottage.co.uk/ who are significantly cheaper and literally opposite the airport
You can fly with Isles of Scilly Travel from Exeter, Newquay and Land’s End Airports and enjoy breath-taking aerial views of this beautiful cluster of islands from the comfort of your Skybus plane. Flights from Land’s End take just 15 minutes or half an hour from Newquay, and operate all year round from Monday to Saturday.There are scheduled flights from Exeter Airport between March and Nov six days a week which reach Scilly in under an hour. Prices start from £125 return from Land’s End Airport. From March through to Nov, the Scillonian lll passenger ferry sails up to seven days a week between Penzance and St. Mary’s. Prices start from £48 return. To book your journey, phone 01736 334220 or visit www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk