Globe and Mail
It’s 11 a.m. off the sharply-cragged Isles of Scilly coastline – 45 kilometres from the Cornish mainland – and I’ve just discovered I don’t get seasick. Which is just as well: the tiny fishing boat I’m on is tossing like a cork in a filling bathtub and my energy is fully deployed clinging to a rail to avoid toppling overboard.
Skipper Robert Francis slows the boat and hauls a seaweed-covered lobster pot onboard while crewman Graham – not holding onto anything except a cigarette – reaches inside, tosses back three undersized crabs and deposits a single spotty lobster into a tall bucket behind him.
That’ll be dinner for someone tonight at Robert’s hotel, located on the 140-island archipelago that’s often described as the UK’s most exotic destination. The label refers to the Scillies’ balmy climate – the Gulf Stream fosters abundant palm trees and subtropical plant life – but it also defines the rare, slow-paced way of life enjoyed by its 2,200-strong community.
Empty roads, red telephone boxes and small farms striped with winter-flowering daffodils, a visit to the tranquil islands – where no-one locks their cars or front doors – is like time-travelling to 1950s Britain. Everyone knows each other and life is far more “social” than “social media,” hence the daily queue for air-freighted newspapers at the islands’ only newsagent.
Basking in the sun on the now-horizontal deck, a few minutes later I’m dropped off on St. Agnes – with a population of 90, it’s one of the smallest of the five inhabited islands – where I stroll the jetty to the whitewashed Turk’s Head pub. Cozily lined with maritime knickknacks and chatty locals, I tuck into an Ales of Scilly beer plus an armadillo-sized Cornish pasty that fuels a drowsy, Sunday afternoon vibe.
But instead of napping, I return to Hugh Town – the islands’ capital on St. Mary’s – for an early afternoon wander. Home to the majority of Scillonians (the name for locals, rather than a race of Doctor Who baddies), its cottage-lined streets include 14 bow-windowed shops and three busy pubs – suggesting that face-to-face meetings also trump Facebook here.
Before partaking of some beery interaction, though, I hop another boat to Tresco, the day’s third island. First planted by Augustus Smith, who took over the archipelago’s lease in 1834, its idyllic 17-acre Abbey Garden is bursting with carefully cultivated flora from Burma, Mexico and beyond. And unlike London’s Kew Gardens, they’re all growing outside.
Accompanied by a wandering guard of brightly-plumed golden pheasants, I’m soon immersed in walkways bordered by flowering aeoniums and isoplexus, many of which have also colonized unlikely nooks across the islands. And when I reach a hilltop promontory, I’m suddenly treated to a camera-loving 360-degree panorama of the whole region: a Mediterranean-style azure ocean shimmering with verdant islands studded with deserted sandy coves.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else. You’re never too rushed and there’s not too much hassle,” craggy-faced Scillonian Fraser Hicks tells me when I return to Hugh Town’s boat-bobbling harbour just as the sun is setting. “But it’s not for everyone – some people can’t handle the isolation,” he adds, not recognizing the appeal for outsiders like me of occasionally unplugging from the digital world.
Soon pushing through the doorway of the wood-beamed Atlantic Inn, tucked into a row of nearby cottages, I sup a swift Tribute Ale before weaving up the road to the Mermaid Inn. It’s a bit quiet until I teeter down a narrow staircase and find a large room heaving with well-aled locals. A ribcage-juddering band is strutting on stage while the dancefloor is crammed with twenty-somethings, some hotly enwrapped. It seems online dating isn’t required here either.
Next morning, I require two hangover-busting remedies: a cooked breakfast – including essential fried bread – at the Star Castle Hotel, a 16th-century hilltop fortress converted into the islands’ most popular sleepover, and a long, brain-restoring Scilly walk. Built to defend the islands’ from Spanish invasion, the castle is the starting point for walled fortifications that curl around St. Mary’s clifftops and are ideal for some wind-whipped hiking.
Accompanied by the sound of crashing waves, I follow the hulking crenulations under a cloud-free blue sky before finally resting on a grassy bank, the grey stone wall at my back. Beady-eyed seabirds and skittish rabbits pop up as I consider the rest of the day. Realizing I haven’t been on the Internet for 48 hours – for the first time in years – I decide to head down to Hugh Town for a newspaper. I wonder what’s happening in the rest of the world?
If you go:
St. Mary’s is a 15-minute flight from Land’s End via Skybus (www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk; from £60). From Penzance, there are also British International helicopter services (www.islesofscillyhelicopter.com; from £100) and Scilly Steamship Company ferry services (www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk; from £42.50). Star Castle Hotel rooms are from £96.00 per night (www.star-castle.co.uk). Boats run between the five inhabited islands throughout the day. Visitor information: www.simplyscilly.co.uk.