If you fly from the British mainland to the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, and look out the window of the tiny Twin Otter plane, you might feel like you’re gazing down at a treasure map. The archipelago is a patchwork of green fields, subtropical gardens and white sand beaches in the midst of the ocean. These little islands (total population: 2,203) are well-known as a wonderfully peaceful, slow-paced place to relax by the sea – but they also make the perfect destination for an adventurous long weekend.
Plan your own trip to the Isles of Scilly using our active travel guide, including coastal walking, paddleboarding and swimming with seals.
I’m up bright and early one morning to meet the perfect person to introduce me to the islands’ potential for adventure. Bryony Lishman and her husband Nick run Adventure Scilly offering guided sea swims, outdoor yoga sessions and trail runs around their home island of St Mary’s, the largest of the Scillies, as well as the other four off-islands. The duo also help to organise some of the biggest adventure events in the archipelago’s calendar – the Scilly Swim Challenge and the Scilly 360 Race. Bryony and I meet on the coast path that encircles the island. It’s only 8am but the island is already bathed in bright sunshine as we set off to hike along the trail, flanked on one side by the calm sea. Bryony, like many Scillonians, holds down multiple jobs, and is a marathon runner, a sea swimmer, a yoga teacher, a hiking guide and a B&B owner. It’s clear she loves the islands that she calls home. “I’m originally from the Scillies, and moving back here to run Adventure Scilly has been magical – I get to be outdoors every day. Scilly is our nature playground!”
We follow the coast path until we reach a wild rocky outcrop, where we spread out yoga mats to overlook the ocean. Bryony leads me through a flowing yoga session, the ocean brushing against the rocks below us and the smell of the clover rising into the air as the day begins to warm up. This is definitely one of the most idyllic places I’ve ever attempted a tree pose.
Well stretched, we continue along the coast path that encircles all of St Mary’s. “It’s ten miles long, perfect for trail running” says Bryony. She leads me down to Old Town Bay, explaining that this is one of her favourite places for her daily sea swim. “It’s reliably sheltered, and I love to swim a lap around Gull Rock. And we do sometimes see seals here.”
Does she swim every day of the year? “Yes, but as the sea is so close when you live on the Isles of Scilly, sometimes I’ll just rush straight into the water from my front door!” We change into swimsuits, don swim caps and goggles and clamber down the rocks to the sea. The water is pretty fresh, but Bryony is fearless, so I follow suit as she quickly strides in. We wade through fronds of seaweed, Bryony teaching me to glide through them to avoid getting tangled, then we swim out into open water and up to Gull Rock, which stands like a sentinel in the bay. Clambering up on its barnacled surface, we can look back at St Mary’s. I watch for seals, but the sea is calm and critter-free. We dive back in and swim back to land, and it feels amazing to be back in Hugh Town in time for breakfast with both a calming yoga session and a magical sea swim under my belt.
Once you’ve walked or run the islands’ outer coast paths, the perfect way to explore their interiors is by bike. All of the islands except St Mary’s are car-free, and St Mary’s doesn’t exactly have any busy traffic – the few cars you’ll encounter go slow, and are well used to cyclists. In the balmy afternoon sunshine I rent a bike from St Mary’s Bike Hire in Hugh Town and cycle a circuit of the island, stopping at Holy Vale vineyard to sample their Cornish wines and then pedalling along to Watermill Cove, one of my favourite spots on the island for a swim. The water looks as clear as the Caribbean here, and despite being rather less warm, I still think it’s one of the loveliest spots in Britain for a sea swim.
There’s so much to do on St Mary’s that it’s tempting to stay put, but the tiny ‘off-islands’ of Tresco, Bryer, St Agnes and St Martin’s are just as rewarding to explore, and are easily reached by catching a lift on one of the island-hopping daily boats. The off-islands are car-free, making them perfect for hiking and cycling at a laid-back pace. And there’s plenty to see offshore as well as on, including something that waits beneath the waves to delight lovers of wild swimming and wildlife alike.
On St Martin’s, Scilly Seal Snorkelling offer swimmers the chance to don a snorkel and make friends with the inquisitive Atlantic grey seals who call the waters around the island home. Owner Anna speeds us out on a rib to the uninhabited Eastern Isles, where we don snorkels and unceremoniously jump in off the side of the boat. Beneath the surface of the water we can make out silky grey seals flitting between fronds of kelp, and they prove to be so curious by nature that they soon swim up to and around us, darting up close and even nibbling gently on our flippers. It’s a little like swimming with playful aquatic puppies, and they swim along with us for almost an hour before heading off to loll over some nearby rocks. I can’t think of a more wonderful or immersive (quite literally) way to see wildlife in its natural habitat in Britain.
Anna (another Scilly local with multiple jobs) also hires out kayaks and paddleboards as St Martin’s Watersports, and when we’re back on Par Beach she hands us paddles and sends us out to sea. We kayak across the bay, the water so clear that I can see metres down to the sandy bottom below. Across the water, we reach Little Arthur, an uninhabited islet home only to wild birds – and today, to a population of two. We pull the kayaks up on the sand and go for swim around the islet, looking back to St Martin’s. From this perspective, the Scillies again look like treasure islands – ones that I now know are jam-packed with adventures.
Best activities to do in Scilly
Adventure Scilly offer yoga sessions, guided sea swims, yoga retreats, swim challenges and open-water swimming holidays. Rent bikes on St Mary’s with St Mary’s Bike Hire (stmarysbikehire.co.uk). Rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards on St Agnes from St Agnes Watersports (agneswatersports.co.uk). On St Martin’s, St Martin’s Watersports offer kayak and stand-up paddleboard hire, and owner Anna also runs Scilly Seal Snorkelling (scillysealsnorkelling.com), offering confident swimmers three-hour snorkelling adventures with seals off the uninhabited Eastern Isles.
Where to stay on the Isles of Scilly
Tregarthens Hotel, St Mary’s
Charmingly old-fashioned, Tregarthens Hotel is just a steps from St Mary’s quay, from which boats depart to the off-islands. The sunny outdoor terrace overlooks the sea and is perfect for a spot of afternoon tea. tregarthens-hotel.co.uk
Mincarlo B&B, St Mary’s
Bryony and Nick of Adventure Scilly’s charming guesthouse sits right by the sea in Hugh Town, and makes the perfect base if you’re joining one of their swimming or yoga adventures. Sandy feet encouraged. mincarloscilly.com
Star Castle Hotel, St Mary’s
The Star Castle has towered over Hugh Town on St Mary’s since its first incarnation as a garrison, built in 1593. Despite the rather imposing fort exterior the hotel is friendly and relaxed, with traditional rooms inside the castle and smart motel-style rooms arranged around the sunny garden. star-castle.co.uk
Troytown campsite, St Agnes
This charming beachside campsite is part of Troytown dairy farm, which means campers get to sample their famous clotted cream ice-cream as part of a stay here. The nearby cove, just steps away from the tents, is perfect for exploring by kayak or paddleboard. troytown.co.uk
Bryher campsite, Bryher
Peaceful Bryher, the smallest inhabited island in the archipelago, is home to an equally chilled-out campsite that overlooks the artillery fort that stands guard out to sea. bryhercampsite.co.uk
How to get to the Isles of Scilly
Reach the Isles of Scilly by plane from Land’s End, Exeter or Newquay or by ferry from Penzance with Isles of Scilly Travel.