43km (27 miles) SW of Land's End
Off the Cornish coast, the Isles of Scilly, a cluster of small granite masses, are warmed by the Gulf Stream to the point where semitropical plants thrive. In some winters they never see signs of frost. They're the first landfall most oceangoing passengers see on journeys from North America. Charles, the Prince of Wales (who is the duke of Cornwall as well), makes regular visits to Scilly.
Five inhabited and more than 100 uninhabited islands are in the group. Some are only a few square miles, whereas others, such as the largest, St. Mary's, encompass some 77 sq. km (30 sq. miles). Three of these islands -- Tresco, St. Mary's, and St. Agnes -- attract visitors from the mainland. Early flowers are the main export and tourism is the main industry.
The islands experience some of the harshest winds of winter, raging in from the Atlantic, but in summer they are the fairest isles in the queen's kingdom. Unlike the rest of Britain, there is subtropical vegetation here, a mass of flowers from early spring to fall. Some are cultivated, as the English do so well, but others grow wild.
The Isles contain the best and most unspoiled beaches in Cornwall, and there are so many of them that you are likely to have a beach for yourself. We'd go to the Isles just to enjoy the swarms of seabirds flying in here from the Atlantic, perhaps enjoying a well-deserved rest.
The Isles are relatively flat. On any island, we'd recommend a stroll along the coast. In fact, we've walked around many of these islands, which are small enough so this can be easily accomplished.
The islands were largely shaped by a turbulent Atlantic. Lashing waves created natural "sculptures" out of the granite. The farms remaining on these islands evoke small holdings of the late 19th century in Britain. Fields are protected from the winds by hardy trees introduced here, which grew in a climate warmed by the Gulf Stream.
Fishing is a big activity, especially lobster, crayfish, and crabs pulled up in traditional "inkwell pots." The islands are studded with burial chambers, standing stones, and a few remains of former windmills, lighthouses, deserted cottages, and smugglers' hide-outs.
The Isles of Scilly figured prominently in the myths and legends of ancient Greece and Rome; in Celtic legend, they were inhabited entirely by holy men. More ancient burial mounds are on these islands than anywhere else in southern England, and artifacts have clearly established that people lived here more than 4,000 years ago.
St. Mary's is the capital, with about seven-eighths of the total population of all the islands, and it's here that the ship from the mainland docks at Hugh Town. However, if you'd like to make this a day visit, we recommend the helicopter flight from Penzance to Tresco, the neighboring island, where you can enjoy a day's walk through 297 hectares (735 acres), mostly occupied by the Abbey Gardens.