The Isles of Scilly is an incredibly special place to visit, and a perfect family holiday destination. They’re friendly and safe, with very few cars, and fantastic for outdoor adventures. We recently spent a few days exploring here, sampling the wonderful variety of experiences across the different islands, and we can’t wait to go back for more.
The Isles of Scilly and how to get there
The Scilly archipelago lies 28 miles off the tip of Cornwall. It’s a scattered group of over 140 islands, of which just 5 are inhabited. Even getting there feels like an adventure: you can go by passenger ferry – the Scillonian III sails daily from Penzance and takes around three hours – or fly from several mainland locations. Full travel information can be found at https://www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk/
St Mary’s is the largest of the islands and the first stop for most people arriving on Scilly. It has a bustling town with plenty of shops and restaurants, plus great beaches and bike hire. For rainy days there’s a soft play centre and the excellent Kaffeehaus Salbei has a big box of Lego, great coffee and amazing apfestrudel.
Tresco is the second-largest island, and the only one that’s privately-owned – the others are leased from the Duchy of Cornwall. It’s an island of two halves – to the north, the coastline is wild, rugged and adventurous, whereas in the south you’ll find manicured villages and the famous subtropical Abbey Gardens.
St Martin’s is famous for its beaches – regularly voted among the best in the UK. It’s also home to the Polreath Tea Room and the Island Bakery, both perfect for a post-adventure cake stop.
St Agnes and Bryher are the smaller, quieter islands where you’ll find the really wild adventures. Scramble, swim, kayak, snorkel, camp with a view of the sea – and don’t forget to sample Veronica Farm Fudge on Bryher and Troytown ice cream on St Agnes.
Transport between the islands is organised by independent services and ferry times are widely advertised. We camped on Bryher and were well-looked-after by Tresco Boat Services who accommodated the four of us and our sizeable double off-road buggy throughout our stay.
Family Adventures on Scilly
We wanted to experience as much as we could while we were on the islands and were lucky to have good weather on all but one of the days. Even in wet, windy weather, it’s a great place to be though, with exciting big seas crashing on the rocky shores. It’s a great destination for kids of all ages, as long as they’re happy to be outdoors and active. The larger islands are very buggy-friendly, but you’ll need a good off-road model to get out on the coastal trails.
There’s very little organised entertainment and, particularly if you’re on one of the off-islands (ie not St Mary’s), mobile phone reception can be patchy. Perfect! If you need to catch up with the internet from time to time you’ll find most cafes, restaurants and pubs do have wifi.
There’s so much to see and do on Scilly but we have picked our top 10 favourite family adventures that you have to try if you visit:
1. Go Seal snorkelling
The award-winning Scilly Seal Snorkelling has been running trips from its base on St Martin’s for over 20 years.
This is an experience like no other, taking in the views of the clear Scilly seas with inquisitive seals swimming around you – and even nibbling at your fins!
No snorkelling experience is required as full instruction is provided, however you do need to be confident swimming in open sea.
A trip costs £46 per person, which includes wetsuits, snorkelling equipment and a hot drink on the boat, and lasts for around 3 hours. You can also borrow an underwater camera to record your experience. Suitable for children aged 8+ accompanied by an adult – children age 5 and over can come along to watch.
2. Explore by kayak
A kayak has to be the perfect way to explore the uninhabited islands around Scilly.
Skimming over the water, powered only by your own paddles, watching crabs scuttling around on the ocean floor and weed swaying in the clear water.
It’s incredibly peaceful, yet exciting too – why not head over to a deserted beach and make the first footprints in the sand? Kayak hire is available across the islands, along with guided sea kayaking tours. We hired sit-on-top kayaks and buoyancy aids for us and the kids (aged 3 and 5) from Bennett Boatyard on Bryher.
3. Swim in the sea
Swimming in the sea on a calm day, rising and falling with a gentle swell, is pure joy. But it can be hard to find a safe place to do it, particularly with younger children and those still finding their sea legs.
Many of the beaches around the Isles of Scilly are perfect for swimming, with clear water and large, shallow areas that shelve gently. Many are also in sheltered coves, with very little swell, particularly in fine weather. Bear in mind this is the Atlantic and it stays cold all year, so a wetsuit is a good idea – especially for smaller children who get cold quickly.
The seas around the islands can get busy with boats, so beware of swimming out into the open sea as you may not be visible. Older children may enjoy a guided swim – the friendly, experienced guides at Adventure Scilly will take you out exploring the sea in safety.
4. A local picnic
One of the best things about adventuring on Scilly is working up an appetite to enjoy the wonderful local produce afterwards. There’s something for everyone to enjoy, from freshly-caught crabs and lobsters (Island Fish on Bryher is a great place to try this, and they’ll show you how to prepare it) to Scillonian tatty cake, locally-made fudge and ice cream.
There’s freshly-baked bread from the island bakeries, locally-reared meat and vegetables grown on the islands’ farms. Traditional Cornish fare such as pasties and cream teas are also worth sampling.
With so much choice it’s easy to throw together a locally-sourced picnic to enjoy on the beach.
5. Walk around an island
Walking around any of the islands is achievable by most in a day, from 3-4 miles around Bryher to about 10 around St Mary’s.
We made a circumnavigation of Tresco, a walk of around 6 miles, letting the kids explore and scramble around the rocky northern half of the island in the morning, stopping for lunch at The Ruin Beach Café, and then popping them in the buggy for an afternoon stroll around the quiet lanes and paths in the south.
There’s so much to explore, from castles and forts to caves and coves.
Keep an eye out for the local wildlife too, including seals, oyster catchers and stone chats.
6. Explore by bike
Exploring St Mary’s is best done by bike. As well as being the largest of the islands it’s also crisscrossed by a network of quiet roads and lanes, perfect for cycling.
St Mary’s Bike Hire has a great selection including adult and children’s bikes, a tandem, tagalongs, child seats, trailers and electric bikes. They will deliver bikes to anywhere on the island and also offer guided rides.
A full circumnavigation of St Mary’s is around 10 miles and includes some off-road riding, suitable for those with reasonable bike-handling skills.
Expect to spot wildlife, follow nature trails, discover archaeological sites and take in some incredible views.
There are plenty of cafes, restaurants and beaches dotted around the coast, perfect for a well-earned break or doing some on-foot exploring.
7. Go on a wildlife sea safari
Shooting over the sea in a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) is a thrilling experience, especially when you’re heading out to some rocky, uninhabited islands surrounded by rolling blue seas. Expect to see seals bobbing round the boat, puffins skimming across the waves and fulmars, guillemots and razorbills perching on the rocks.
Susie and Mark Groves of Island Sea Safaris are experienced and knowledgeable guides and Susie’s commentary throughout the trip is fascinating. She’s also great with small children! The boat does travel at speed and isn’t enclosed so children do have to sit fairly still, however there’s so much to keep them interested that this isn’t usually a problem.
Life jackets are provided and there’s secure seating. A two-hour trip costs £34 for adults and £25 for children.
8. Visit the Abbey Gardens
Tresco’s Abbey Garden is internationally renowned for its collection of subtropical plants.
There’s an estimated 20,000 different species here from 80 countries across the world. It’s also a fantastic place for a family adventure, with miles of buggy- and toddler-friendly paths winding between intriguing flowers and trees.
The atmosphere is relaxed and inviting and, although extremely popular, it never feels crowded.
Aside from the plants there are some fascinating creatures to spot, and – as with many of the wild creatures on Scilly – they’re often tame enough to be able to get quite close.
Look for red squirrels scuttling about in the trees and brightly-coloured golden pheasants strutting along the paths. There are shell mosaics that younger children seem to find fascinating, a collection of figureheads salvaged from nearby shipwrecks and a café serving the local Troytown ice cream.
9. Go camping
In our opinion camping is the best way to stay on Scilly.
Bryher Campsite is nestled in a peaceful valley with great views of the island and the sea. There are no dogs or cars on the site, so it’s a great place to take younger children.
It’s a short, picturesque walk to the beach, shops, café and pub, yet staying there feels wild and adventurous with the sounds of nature all around.
If, like us, you’d struggle to fit everything you need for a family camping holiday into your available hold luggage you can hire a pre-erected bell tent. These are well-stocked and come with a selection of comfortable air beds to suit your family’s requirements. There are also phone charging points (although no signal at the campsite – wonderful!), fridge, freezer, washer/drier and a spotless toilet/shower block.
10. Explore a ruin
The Isles of Scilly have the greatest density of historical sites in the UK – 239 scheduled monuments to be precise – some of which date back 3,000 years to when the islands were one large land mass.
Many of the ruins make for great exploring with kids, as well as making history feel a bit more real and exciting!
One of the best for children of all ages is Cromwell’s Castle on Tresco, perched on a rocky headland with breath-taking views in every direction. Cross the narrow footway and climb the stone steps to discover the canons, then scramble up the spiral staircase to the airy top of the tower for an even better view.
For full details of all of the islands and adventures go to https://www.visitislesofscilly.com/
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