Imagine a sun-kissed island, where vast sandy beaches are washed by the bluest of seas and the air is so clean that it is intoxicating. If it was anywhere near home, it would practically disappear under the weight of summer visitors, wouldn’t it?
But this island is very close: just 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, in fact. It is one of the Isles of Scilly, and somehow it seems to have remained a holiday secret.
Just a hundred people live on the little island of St Martin’s, which is about two miles long, half a mile wide, and a short boat ride away from the main island of St Mary’s. And as practically the only place to stay on the island is its single hotel, you can be certain that those huge beaches never get crowded on even the loveliest of days.
Not long ago, it looked as though St Martin’s – where practically the only industries were fishing and flower-growing – might become a ghost island. People were moving away, and the solitary school was threatened with closure.
Building a luxury hotel right beside one of the best beaches was a controversial move, but it has had a remarkable effect. Seasonal workers at the hotel, having discovered their own little piece of paradise, have stayed on and settled on St Martin’s, raised families, and brought the place back to life.
As there is virtually no traffic, it is the perfect place for a family break. Children can run free, and it is impossible to get lost. “There are a hundred honorary uncles and aunts always keeping an eye on visiting children,” says the hotel manager. “If anxious parents say their offspring are missing, we invariably find them in the sweet shop.”
The Isles of Scilly (they don’t like being called the Scilly Isles, for obvious reasons) are not exactly overflowing with formal holiday attractions. There are no excursions apart from mini-coach tours around St Mary’s or boat trips to neighbouring islands, and the nearest they come to a night life is a few rounds of drinks in one of the friendly pubs.
If that’s true of St Mary’s, it is even more true of St Martin’s. A couple of shops, a vineyard, a couple of art galleries, the hotel’s excellent restaurant, a solitary pub….and that’s your lot. Pack the suntan cream (visitors can burn quickly in the island’s clear air), a mackintosh in case it rains, and a couple of good books.
But, whatever the weather, it is hard to get bored on an island packed with good walks and containing a hundred new friends. And there is always the excitement of a boat ride to one of the neighbouring islands. A dozen or so shops beckon on St Mary’s; privately-owned Tresco boasts the sub-tropical Abbey Gardens, which are perhaps the finest in Britain; while Bryher and St Agnes repay a little exploration with some surprising treasures.
Or, for a return fare of about £10, an island boatman will be happy to take you to one of the many uninhabited islets making up the rest of the group, and leave you there for a day of sunshine and sandwiches. Choose carefully, and you will have only the seabirds for company.
If there is one place in Britain where you can be guaranteed to unwind, then the Isles of Scilly in general – and St Martin’s in particular – is it.
On St Martin’s, the hotel manager always strolls down to the jetty to meet arriving hotel guests. It is no surprise that many of them are returning visitors who he greets as old friends.
St Martin’s is an island to come home to. And there’s nothing Scilly about that!
The Isles of Scilly can be reached by air from Newquay, Exeter, Bristol and Penzance, but a far cheaper option is the daily ferry boat, Scillonian, from Penzance to St Mary’s. Local launches connect St Mary’s with the smaller islands. St Martin’s on the Isle Hotel: 01720 422090 (firstname.lastname@example.org)