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 is often described as Britain’s “most exotic” destination. The epithet 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. A visit to the tranquil islands is like time-travelling to 1950s Britain. No one locks cars or front doors here. Everyone knows each other. And although there is Internet access, life is far more “social” than “social media” – witness the daily queue for air-freighted newspapers at the islands’ only newsagent.
After basking in the sun on the now-horizontal deck, 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. I tuck into an Ales of Scilly beer plus an armadillo-sized Cornish pasty that fuels a drowsy, Sunday afternoon vibe in a room cozily lined with maritime knickknacks and chatty locals.
I resist the urge to nap and 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), Hugh Town’s 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 and home to the idyllic 6.8-hectare Abbey Garden. First planted by Augustus Smith, who took over the archipelago’s lease in 1834, it’s bursting with carefully cultivated flora from Myanmar, 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 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, unaware that outsiders like me are drawn to the chance to unplug from the digital world.
I pop into the wood-beamed Atlantic Inn, tucked into a row of nearby cottages, for a swift Tribute Ale before weaving up the road to the Mermaid Inn. It’s a bit quiet until I descend a narrow staircase and find a large room heaving with well-aled locals. A ribcage-juddering band is strutting onstage and the dance floor is crammed with twentysomethings, 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 my Star Castle Hotel sleepover (a 16th-century hilltop fortress converted into the islands’ most popular visitor accommodation), and a long, brain-restoring 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, 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 (islesofscilly-travel.co.uk; from £60 or $95). From Penzance, there are also British International helicopter services (islesofscillyhelicopter.com ) and Scilly Steamship Company ferry services (islesofscilly-travel.co.uk ). Star Castle Hotel rooms are from $153 a person a night (star-castle.co.uk) and range from cozy quarters in the thick-walled castle to larger contemporary units, many with ocean views, nearby. Rates include both dinner and breakfast. Boats run between the five inhabited islands throughout the day. For more information, visit simplyscilly.co.uk.