The best things to do on the Isles of Scilly
Tempted by the thought of empty beaches and a slower pace of life, this summer I dragged my extended family to one of Britain’s most remote but alluring destinations: the Isles of Scilly. We stayed on the main Scilly Isle of St Mary’s on the edge of its “capital” Hugh Town (population 1,000). We rented a house just a stone’s throw (literally) from lovely Porthcressa Beach. So, do the islands live up to their reputation as a holiday destination of yesteryear, where the pleasures are simple, crime is non-existent and the beaches are of Caribbean quality? Should you visit the Isles of Scilly with kids? Read on to find out about Isles of Scilly things to do.
Isles of Scilly beaches
It’s all about the beaches on the Isles of Scilly. There are 35 beaches across the Isles so visitors are pretty thinly spread out. When we visited Great Bay on St Martin’s, the real poster boy for the Scillies, we shared it with just three or four other people. We visited several empty beaches on St Mary’s less populated east coast.
Most of the beaches on the Scilly Isles were great for young children: plenty of sheltered bays, huge stretches of sand and lots of rock pools.
Here’s a list of our favourite Scilly Isles beaches:
Porthcressa, St Mary’s
We stayed just a stone’s throw from Porthcressa Beach so we wandered over to it regularly during our stay on the Scilly Isles. The beach is a wide arc of sand with a great cafe at one end. We enjoyed evening drinks at Dibble and Grub cafe while the kids played on the sand – it made for a very enjoyable end to a day. In the evenings, there’s a fish and chip van plus a Thai takeaway van parked near the beach so these were both popular for evening picnics. There’s also a decent play area at the far end of the beach which we frequented several times.
Pelistry Bay, St Mary’s
This beach is reached via a rocky track next to Carn Vean Tea Rooms. It was vast and empty when we visited – it’s hidden away on the north east coast. There are lots of rocks and pebbles as well as plenty of sand.
Porth Hellick, St Mary’s
This beach, a big enclosed bay, was another hidden gem. We reached it via a long winding track through a nature reserve. The tide was out during our visit to Porth Hellick and there were hundreds of rockpools to explore.
The airport is close to Porth Hellick so the kids enjoyed watching the tiny aircrafts coming into land over the beach.
Porthmellon Beach, St Mary’s
We loved this beach for the win-win combination of its excellent café, the sand for the kids to play in and the water sports on offer. We spent a whole day here eating, drinking, playing, paddle boarding and kayaking.
The Bar, St Agnes
My brother and his family had a great day out on the island of Agnes. A highlight was visiting the sand bar at low tide which joins Agnes to neighbouring uninhabited Gugh. The waters are shallow and perfect for swimming when the tide is out but there’s a strong current when it comes in.
Great Bay, St Martin
Great Bay on St Martin’s was the most picturesque of all the beaches on the Scilly Isles we visited. It was quite a journey to reach it – a boat trip from St Mary’s, a 30 minute walk from the harbour across the island – which made it all the more rewarding when we finally arrived.
Great Bay is a wide sweep of sand bookended by rocks and backed by heathland. There are no facilities except for the sea. We picked up some provisions from the island bakery on our arrival to St Martin’s and then enjoyed a morning playing at the beach before heading to one of the island’s pubs for lunch.
Enjoy a multi-generational holiday in the Scilly Isles
We visited the islands with my parents and my brother’s family. My parents enjoyed the slow pace of the islands, visiting Tresco Abbey Gardens and exploring St Mary’s on a golf buggy. The kids loved playing at the beaches every day. The middle aged parents enjoyed properly relaxing at the numerous beach-side cafes where beers and gins could be sipped within view of the children.
Isles of Scilly bike hire
If you’re staying on St Mary’s, bike hire is one of the most essential things to do on the Scilly Isles. Our boys, aged six and four, are keen cyclists so the quiet roads, once you leave St Mary’s main hub, Hugh Town, were perfect. Tourists cannot bring cars to the islands.
St Mary’s is a bit hilly in places but the promise of an ice cream or cream tea was sufficient incentive to power the kids up the steeper stretches. On such a small island (less than 2.5 square miles) you’re never far from a cafe to refuel in or a beach to cool off at.
We brought our boys’ bikes over on the ferry from Penzance but hired bikes for the grown ups from St Mary’s Bike Hire which has a good range of cycles to choose from along with child seats, trailers and tag-ons.
Hire a golf buggy on St Mary’s
If you’d rather have four wheels than two, hiring a golf buggy is great fun, these can seat from two to eight people. If you plan to hire a golf buggy on St Mary’s for the duration of your stay, it is best to book ahead.
Eating out in the Scilly Isles
I was impressed by the range of places to eat and drink on the Scilly Isles. There are some good pubs in the capital Hugh Town and we enjoyed some really memorable meals at a couple of cafes.
The beach café, Porthmellon Beach, St Mary’s
We enjoyed exceptionally good food at the Beach cafe overlooking Porthmellon Beach. We spent around three hours eating (I had delicious monkfish kebabs) and drinking at the cafe while the kids played contentedly on the beach.
Dibble and Grub, Porthcressa Beach, St Mary’s
Our other favourite cafe was Dibble and Grub, a converted fire station (love the connection in the name) on the promenade above Porthcressa Beach (handily just 10 seconds from our house), where the grown ups enjoyed an evening drink while the kids (see a theme developing here?) messed around in the sand.
Ruin Beach Café, Old Grimsby, Tresco
We enjoyed delicious pizzas at this rather trendy restaurant overlooking the beach at Raven’s Porth beach.
Juliet’s Garden Restaurant, St Mary’s
If you’re after dinner with a view, Juliet’s Garden Restaurant is the place to go on the island of St Mary’s. My husband and I enjoyed an evening out without the kids at this lovely little spot. It’s position on top of a hill affords lovely views over the island. We drank Scilly gin and ate locally caught fish.
Seven Stones Inn, St Martin’s
After a long walk across the island with very hungry tummies, it was very satisfying to arrive at the Seven Stones Inn for a slap up pub lunch. It’s in a handy position close to the quay.
Longstone Lodge and Café, St Mary’s
We stopped here during a bike ride through St Mary’s. It’s a good place for a light lunch or morning coffee and cake.
Carn Vean Tea Rooms, St Mary’s
If you need an agapanthus hit, the gardens of the Carn Vean Tea Rooms won’t disappoint. This is a great place for lunch before heading to the nearby beach at Pelistry Bay.
Eat Scilly Ice cream
On the remote island of Agnes, you’ll find Troy Town Farm. There’s a campsite, holiday cottages and – crucially – a dairy farm where ice cream, clotted cream and other milky produce from their herd of just 9 milking cows. There’s 30 flavours of ice cream to choose from.
Perfect play areas on the Scilly Isles
Fancy a playground with a view? We found the one overlooking Porthcressa Beach hard to beat. And if your kids fancy a game of footie while the grown ups indulge in a cream tea, Longstone Lodge and Cafe can cater for all the family: there’s a football pitch and a small play area plus distant sea views to admire from the terrace.
Visit the most south westerly vineyard in the UK
We cycled deep into the centre of St Mary’s to seek out the island’s one vineyard, Holy Vale. Unfortunately we discovered someone else had got there first – there was no wine left to buy. The vineyard grows mostly Pinor Noir grapes along with Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.
There’s also a vineyard on the Island of St Martin’s – St Martin’s Vineyard – producing two whites: Seyval blanc and Orion plus a rose wine made from a blend of grape varieties.
Explore lush gardens
The Abbey Gardens on Tresco are the famous ones in the Scilly Isles, but on St Mary’s we found a delightful little community garden hidden away in the centre of the island. Carreg Dhu is located close to Holy Vale vineyard. It’s a lovely spot for a moment of contemplation or for a quiet wander.
Horse riding in the Scilly Isles
Although we didn’t do this during our Scilly Isles holiday, I’d imagine horse riding across the beaches of the Scillies would be great fun. There’s one outfit on the islands, St Mary’s Riding Centre, located near Pelistry Bay.
Visit a Scilly art gallery
We browsed some lovely art galleries on the Scilly Isles. Unsurprisingly, the islands attract many artists, drawn no doubt by the ever-changing sea and sky vistas. Each of the islands has at least one art gallery and there’s a particular concentration of galleries to visit on the main island of St Mary’s.
Shop local in the Scilly Isles
Although much of what you buy has been imported to the Scillies, there is plenty of local produce to seek out across the isles. There’s a local Scilly gin, locally produced ice cream and of course lots of locally caught fish.
The agapanthus plant grows everywhere on the Isles of Scilly and you’ll find the bulbs for sale in various locations.
We found honesty stalls all across the islands selling Scilly chillies, local eggs, honey and jewellery. On St Martin’s you’ll even find a shoemaker, his tiny workshop is just the place I could imagine elves creeping into in the dead of night…
Scilly Isles open air history lessons
Despite their remoteness, the Isles of Scilly have been inhabited for over 3,000 years. Our boys enjoyed exploring the scenic Iron Age settlement at Halangy Down in the north west of St Mary’s and particularly liked the Garrison above Hugh Town.
The Garrison, complete with castle (now a hotel) and clifftop cannons, was originally constructed to defend against a possible second Spanish Armada and was later used during the English Civil War. We only explored the history on St Mary’s but there’s plenty to learn on the other islands too from early Christian chapels on St Martin’s to castle ruins on Tresco.
Isles of Scilly water sports
We took the kids kayaking and paddle boarding at Porthmellon beach on St Mary’s. There’s also sailing and windsurfing available along with wetsuits for hire. Visitors can try snorkelling with seals off St Martin’s (book weeks in advance in high season as this activity is very popular) as well as diving. Back on St Mary’s coasteering is also on offer.
On Tresco there’s a sailing school with tuition for kids and adults. Tresco also offers kayaking, paddle boarding and windsurfing and there are guided kayak trips available too. Tresco has RIB experiences where passengers can enjoy a high-speed trip across the waves and water taxis are also available.
Swimming pools on the Isles of Scilly
With so many incredible beaches, it’s hard to imagine retreating to a swimming pool but if the weather is against you and you’d prefer an indoor swimming experience, there’s a public pool – Normandy – on St Mary’s. On the private island of Tresco, visitors to the Tresco Island Spa can make use of the indoor pool.
On the tiny island of Bryher, guests at the Hell Bay Hotel can enjoy use of an outdoor swimming pool while back on St Mary’s, there’s an indoor pool at the Star Castle Hotel.
Let the kids run free
One of the locals I chatted to explained that young people who grow up on the Isles of Scilly are able to have a very independent childhood. Kids can walk or cycle in relative safety and children living on the four off-islands board on St Mary’s for their secondary school education. Crime seems to be restricted to the odd local “borrowing” your bike to get home after a heavy night at one of Hugh Town’s pubs, we were told evenings were the only time we needed to lock our bikes up.
Isles of Scilly accommodation
You can camp, glamp, stay in a hostel, a hotel, or self cater as we did. Prices are higher than the mainland but if you book early there are some relatively affordable options (Longstone Lodge is particularly good value). This isn’t the place for a last minute holiday: many of the holiday properties are block booked by returning guests who are given first refusal before the accommodation is released to the general market. The ferry and aeroplanes our family took to reach the Isles were fully booked for many of the days we were there.
Scilly Isles boat trips
We stayed on the main island, St Mary’s, and visited St Martin’s and Tresco. Ferry boats run throughout the day between the islands and some trips allow you to take in three islands in one day. Typically, visitors take a boat out to a neighbouring island in the morning and return mid-afternoon, most inter-island journeys take 10 to 20 minutes and cost £9.50 per adult return, £4.75 per child. Extra boats are laid on if they fill up so you aren’t left stranded with nowhere to stay if the boat you planned to catch is full. There are also wildlife trips, glass bottom boats and dive boats. Note, the boats are very popular so there isn’t space to take an adult cycle on them although kids’ bikes are permitted.
Walking in the Isles of Scilly
Nothing is ever very far away when you stay on the Isles of Scilly but heading inland and exploring the nature trails and walking along some of the coastal paths, the islands did feel wild and remote. I loved the rewarding Holy Vale walk on St Mary’s which culminated in an isolated arc of sand with the Atlantic stretching off into the distance. On St Martin’s, it’s quite a walk from the harbour (via a well placed bakery for provisions) across the island to Great Bay but the wild flowers, sea views and gently rolling heathland make it an enjoyable ramble. There are also themed guided walks available covering the history, flora and fauna of the islands.
What to do in the Scilly Isles when it rains
There’s no doubting that going to the Isles of Scilly with kids during bad weather wouldn’t be ideal, the Scillies are very much a beach holiday destination. We had a few wet and windy days at the start but we used these to explore and get our bearings. My parents hired a golf buggy which was an excellent mode of transport for the kids on rainy days.
There’s an impressive museum on St Mary’s full of tales of ship wrecks and World War heroics with plenty of model ships and lighthouses to engage little visitors. We also enjoyed exploring the windswept Garrison which seemed all the more atmospheric for the inclement weather.
So, would we visit the Isles of Scilly again? Absolutely.
More on the Isles of Scilly:
Have you visited the Isles of Scilly with kids? Let me know in the comments below.
If you’re driving in the UK, make sure you take a look at my post about family-friendly places to stop just off the motorway. It covers everything from play areas to picnic spots, castles to nature reserves.
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