Lonely Planet Writer

Just back from: the Isles of Scilly

James Kay walking along a beach in St Martin's, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely Planet The near-deserted beaches of the Isles of Scilly are a happy hunting ground for shell collectors big and small © James Kay

James Kay, Editor at Lonely Planet, recently returned from a trip to the Isles of Scilly, England.

Tell us more… I spent a week hopping from island to island in this one-of-a-kind archipelago, which lies off the tip of Cornwall in the southwest of England. I’ve visited the main one – St Mary’s – once before, so the focus of this trip was the other four inhabited islands (known locally as the ‘off-islands’).

Honeysuckle in a hedgerow with a view of islands in the background, St Martin's, Isles of Scilly, England, UK Honeysuckle – and more exotic species – riot through the hedges of the Isles of Scilly © James Kay

In a nutshell… Unique is an overused word, but the Isles of Scilly have no true analogue in the British Isles: thanks to the Gulf Stream, they have a Goldilocks climate – never too hot, never too cold – that results in a profusion of plant life. So you end up with a compelling contrast between a culture that feels quintessentially English, traditional coastal architecture, and a natural environment that calls to mind the tropics at times.

An Atlantic grey seal in the Isles of Scilly © James Kay A close encounter with an Atlantic grey seal in the Isles of Scilly © James Kay

Defining moment? When an Atlantic grey seal popped up literally between my fins as I floated on the currents swirling around the Eastern Isles. The award-winning Scilly Seal Snorkelling team had warned us this might happen during the RIB ride out to the seal colony, but it still caught me by surprise – I fumbled with my action cam, nearly dropped it into the seaweedy depths, and then managed to snatch a few seconds of film.

A crab at Crab Shack, Bryher, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely Planet You'll be expected to grapple with one of these king-sized crustaceans at Crab Shack © James Kay

Good grub? If there’s a better place to eat crustaceans in the UK, I’m yet to find it. You can score superb crab sandwiches or dressed crab from pretty much anywhere, but if you want a real feast for all the senses, try Crab Shack on Bryher. They keep it simple: scallops or mussels to start, followed by a crab the size of hubcap, which you’re expected to dismantle with aplomb using a pair of claw crackers and a seafood pick; I struggled enthusiastically.

People attending the Low Tide Event between Tresco and Bryher, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely Planet Twice or thrice a year, the channel between Tresco and Bryher becomes a tiny Glasto-on-sea © James Kay

Fave activity? Easy, this one: the Low Tide Event, a unique mini festival held two or sometimes three times a year when the spring tide retreats to the point where you can walk across the channel between Tresco and Bryher. For a few hours, this patch of seabed hosts pop-up food stalls, prosecco and gin bars and – a first this year – a live band. It’s brief but magical as you stand there, lobster roll in one hand, a gin and tonic in the other, squidging your toes in damp sand amid a litter of scallop shells and bright seaweed to the sound of rock’n’roll. Where else can you experience that?

A boat in St Mary's Harbour, Isles of Scilly, England, UK © James Kay / Lonely Planet One of the regular boats that make life in the Isles of Scilly possible (when the weather allows!) © James Kay

Quintessential experience? Simply catching one of the regular boats that sail between St Mary’s and the four off-islands. The constant toing and froing of these bright little craft, which bear evocative names like Firethorn, Voyager and Lightning, sums up the family-friendly yet buccaneering vibe of the isles. They also force you to adapt to the tidal rhythm of life here, a practical restriction that might frustrate at first but soon becomes strangely soothing.

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James Kay travelled to the Isles of Scilly with support from the Islands’ Partnership. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

Want more behind-the-scenes adventures? Find out what Picture Editor Claire Richardson got up to on her honeymoon to Hawaii.