Their name sounds as if it came straight out of a Monty Python sketch. But the Scilly Isles (pronounced "silly") are not home to the comedy troupe's Ministry of Silly Walks. They are a string of islands off Cornwall, with exotic palms, rare seabirds, and some of the most beautiful beaches in Britain.
The Scillies, comprising 200 or so rocky islands, remain a closely guarded secret. Some British families have vacationed there for generations. Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson had a bungalow there, and members of Britain's Royal Family have retreated to the islands as well. The Scillies' appeal lies in a combination of English comforts, Mediterranean-like weather--its average January temperature is similar to Cannes'--and a landscape blessedly free of cars, tourism, and crowds.
Even though they're only 28 miles from Land's End at the western tip of Cornwall, the islands feel far removed from the rest of Britain. Only five are inhabited, and they're not easy to get to. My husband, our toddler, and I took a five-hour train ride from London to Penzance in Cornwall, followed by a 20-minute helicopter ride to St. Mary's, the biggest island, and then hopped into a motorboat for the short trip to St. Martin's, where we spent five nights. Altogether, the journey took eight hours and cost each adult about $200 round-trip.
IN BLOOM. But it was well worth it. We stayed at the St. Martin's on the Isle, the only hotel on the island and one of the nicest in the Scillies. The rooms, including breakfast, range from $98 to $164. Our room, which was spacious and comfortable, overlooked the ocean, and we spent mornings on deserted white beaches and afternoons splashing in the heated pool. Dinner came from the kitchen of chef Patrick Pierre Tweedie, who trained at the Michelin two-starred Le Gav-roche in London. When we visited in May, the island was bursting with blooms. Thanks to the Gulfstream, the air felt balmy.
High season on the islands, though, is in July and August. Accommodations are booked up early, so it's a good idea to plan well in advance. Most of the big hotels offer packages that include the fare from London. But if you prefer to make your own air or rail arrangements, a travel company, the Isles of Scilly Inclusive Holidays (011-44-1720-422-200), provides a hotel package that includes helicopter and boat transfers from Cornwall. (For help in planning a vacation, check out the Scilly Tourist Information Centre's Web site at www.scilly.com.)
The highlight for us was island-hopping aboard the Genesis, the hotel's 45-foot sailboat that is available free to guests. Our amiable captain was happy to accommodate our whims. The bird sanctuary of Annet was where puffins flock in the spring to nest. (Prince Charles' Duchy of Cornwall owns the islands--so the Prince is entitled to an annual gift of puffins as part of the rent.) The Norrad Rocks are home to colonies of gray Atlantic seals. A diving school on St. Martin's can arrange trips to these and other uninhabited islands, including the area around the Western Rocks, which is famous for shipwrecks.
The Genesis also took us to the island of Tresco, home to one of the most magical gardens in Britain. Built on the site of an old priory dating back to the 10th century, the 17-acre Abbey Garden was created about a century ago by Augustus Smith, an ancestor of the Dorrien-Smiths, the family that owns Tresco. A visit there is like wandering through a subtropical jungle, with proteas and aloes from South Africa, Burmese honeysuckle, and other unusual plants. In a corner of the garden is a collection of shipwrecked figureheads.
In Tresco, as in the other inhabited islands except for St. Mary's, there are no cars. Locals use bikes, golf buggies, and three-wheeled motorized vehicles called "ants." But the islanders' favorite sport is racing gigs, or rowboats. On our last night, we watched oaring teams from Tresco and St. Martin's compete. The peaceful Scillies were about as far as we could get from the inane urban world parodied by Monty Python.