19 July 2022

Sail, Moor, Eat - A cruising guide to the Scilly Isles

By Paul Knox-Johnston Sales & Marketing Manager (Marine)

If you are looking for a new challenge but still want to stay close to home, then consider the Scilly Isles as your next big sailing destination.

This archipelago of 140 plus islands, islets and rocks is at the south-westernmost point of the UK, 50 nautical miles off the coast of Cornwall and is a unique micro-climate full of white sand beaches, abundant wildlife, endless starry skies and even some tropical palm trees.

On a good day, it might even fool you into thinking you have arrived in the South Pacific, admittedly with slightly colder water and a touch more temperamental weather.


What you should know

It’s a fairly challenging route, with an open sea crossing.  In good conditions (and we heartily recommend you wait for them) it’s 12 hours of good sailing from Falmouth (50 nautical miles) with the opportunity to race against the pods of dolphins or basking sharks. Or take a longer, more leisurely route of 94 nautical miles from Plymouth using the outstandingly beautiful Helford River for a stop-off – and some oysters – along the way!

Atlantic swells and south-westerly winds can make the seas treacherous, so look out for a spell of good weather and although there are deep channels for most of the route, the shallow submerged rocks really do require daylight hours to navigate. We really don’t want to put you off, but Scilly is known as the shipwreck capital of the UK, as testified by the 1000+ shipwrecks and the 30 mast figureheads you will find in the Valhalla Collection in the world-famous Tresco Abbey Gardens (more information on this below).


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Where you should go

Out of the 140 plus islets, only 5 are inhabited and each has its own distinctive character, and all are well worth a visit.

St Mary’s is the main island, at 2.5 miles long and housing 75% of the population, a grand total of 1800, it is as bustling as Scilly gets. Visit the old harbour town, browse the galleries and shops and soak up the history at Garrison Walk; the civil war fortifications.

Tresco is the stylish sister. Leased from the Duchy of Cornwall in 1834 by Augustus Smith it is still family-run and privately leased and the whole island has the whiff of a relaxed, private beach club. Chic restaurants, a theatre, a luxury spa and the world-famous Tresco Abbey Gardens (one of the finest collections of sub-tropical flora and fauna in the world ) and Tresco Stores, which is decidedly more upmarket than its closest namesake.

St Martin’s has some of the most beautiful beaches in the UK with unspoilt clear waters, don’t miss the opportunity to snorkel amongst the resident colony of seals; just don’t forget your wet suit!

Bryher is an island of two halves; sheltered and idyllic on one side, carpeted in wildflowers in Spring and displays of migratory birds, it also has the aptly named Hell Bay (and namesake Hotel) on the other side to face out over the dramatic elements of the wild west coast of the Atlantic.

Southernmost St Agnes is the untouched beauty with incredible walks, hidden coves, flower farms and the UK’s most westerly pub, The Turk’s Head. Hunt for glass beads in Beady Pool, the result of a 17th Century shipwreck.  At low tide, cross the sandbar and reach Gugh Island, just don’t leave it too long to get back. And whatever you do, don’t leave without a visit to Troytown Farm, apart from producing wonderful home-grown produce its homemade ice cream is the stuff of legends and with over 30 flavours to choose from including homegrown rose geranium it would be rude not to sample at least 5 of them.


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Where to moor

It is important to note that no anchorage or mooring anywhere in the Scilly Isles offers complete all-round shelter, it’s literally as the wind takes you so keep an eye on the conditions and use it as an excuse to do a ‘wild sailing’ expedition and move from place to place.

St Mary’s main harbour is St Mary’s Pool with 38 moorings, 10 for boats up to 60ft and a visitor pontoon for tenders. It is protected bar any west/north westerlies. They charge a small fee for bringing yachts alongside the quay for electricity and water. The quay facilities with free wifi, shower and toilets are open 24 hours a day.

Porthcressa is an ‘in the know’ anchorage point; a bay that is protected bar a south/south-westerly wind, it has no moorings and is free to anchor. There are shower and toilet facilities, laundry, local fuel, available Wi-Fi and fresh drinking water at Schiller Shelter.

Tresco has 20 moorings around New Grimsby Sound, which is well protected, 2 are available for yachts up to 80ft. Old Grimsby Harbor has 7 deep water moorings. There are shower and toilet facilities at New Inn, laundry facilities and the Tresco Stores for food and goods. The fee is £30 a night, which includes fresh water and refuse disposal, and is collected on the water.

Outside of the harbours, as long as you avoid the main channels and the ferry’s turning route there are no restrictions on where you can drop anchor but with large tides and grand swells common, make sure you choose a sheltered spot, have a reliable anchor and ground tackle onboard.

Good to know: The most settled anchorage is St Helen’s Pool between Tresco and the island of St Martin’s.


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Where to eat

The isles of Scilly have a growing reputation as a real foodie destination; wonderfully self-sufficient the local produce thrives in the mild climate. From the island-made Troytown ice cream (as previously extolled); fresh and flavoursome home-grown vegetables and salad; to micro vineyards (the Holy Vale and St Martin’s); a Women’s Institute 1945 Cornish pasty recipe (and other delicious baked goods) at The Island Bakery and even a German Kaffehaus with fresh apple strudel and a tiny outlet in the local hairdressers; the culinary food and drink scene is thriving. They even have their own distillery to produce the tangy Tresco Gin. However, it should come as no surprise that the real food stars of these islands are the fish and seafood taken directly from the surrounding sea. John Dory, mackerel , pollock, plaice, haddock, mussels, scallops, crab, lobster and shrimp, all are in glorious abundance and in the summer, shacks often pop up serving them simply cooked and incredibly delicious.

Our Must Eats

Take Robert’s wine and lobster lunch at the Holy Vale Vineyard on St Mary’s at £24.50 per person.

Try the Ales of Scilly beer, even just to appreciate that wonderful pun on the name.

The Hell Bay Hotel on Bryher hosts a pop-up crab shack in the summer with only crab, mussels and scallops on the menu and fries, salad and bread to dip, it is a wonderfully rustic and a gloriously messy-handed affair.

Like every good British seaside destination, the title of best fish and chips must be awarded and for us, it belongs to Adam’s Fish & Chips in Higher Town, St Martin’s. Housed in a simple log cabin, that sits behind the beach. It’s a real family affair with Adam hand-catching the fish that is served and his brother supplying the spuds from his local farm. Only open 3 days a week in Summer, to allow for fishing time. Don’t just take our word for it, the queues speak for themselves!

On stylish Tresco, beachfront Ruin Beach Café offers a wood-fired, laid-back Mediterranean vibe.

Iconic lunch spot Juliet’s (St Mary’s) has been serving customers for nearly 40 years, a beautiful affair with sweeping views you sit amongst the gardens on the couple’s former flower farm.

For something a little different, Dibble and Grub is housed, beachside (complete with terrace for those sunset views) in the island’s former fire station. They make use of the local produce to create wonderful Spanish Tapas style small plates.

Try a huge doorstop crab sandwich at scenic Coastguards Café on tiny St Agnes, by night it transforms into a high-end seafood restaurant, High Tide and has a growing reputation as the best restaurant on all the isles.

Lastly, don’t miss the opportunity to drink at the (self-proclaimed) world’s smallest bar,  Fraggle Rock on Bryher, if nothing else it is a superb location for a sundowner.


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