Isles of Scilly
While only 28 miles west of the mainland, in many ways the Isles of Scilly feels like a different world. Life on this archipelago of around 140 tiny islands seems hardly to have changed in decades: there are no traffic jams, no supermarkets, no multinational hotels, and the only noise pollution comes from breaking waves and cawing gulls. That's not to say that Scilly is behind the times – you'll find a mobile-phone signal and broadband internet on the main islands – but life ticks along at its own island pace. Renowned for its glorious beaches, there are few places better to escape.
Only five islands are inhabited: St Mary's is the largest, followed by Tresco, while only a few hardy souls remain on Bryher, St Martin's and St Agnes. Regular ferry boats run between all five islands.
Unsurprisingly, summer is by far the busiest time. Many businesses shut down completely in winter.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Isles of Scilly.
Tresco's key attraction – and one of Scilly's must-see gems – is this subtropical estate, laid out in 1834 on the site of a 12th-century Benedictine priory by the horticultural visionary Augustus Smith. The 7-hectare gardens are now home to more than 20,000 exotic species, from towering palms to desert cacti and crimson flame trees, all nurtured by the temperate Gulf Stream. Admission also covers the Valhalla collection, made up of figureheads and nameplates salvaged from ships wrecked off Tresco.
While Neolithic settlers probably only visited Scilly sporadically, by the Iron Age settlers had arrived and made a life here, eking out a living by fishing and farming. The remains of one of their villages can still be seen on the edge of Halangy Down, consisting of one large courtyard house and several smaller roundhouses dating from around 200 BC, complete with hearths and exterior walls.
On the remote north side of the island, this large expanse of sand is aptly named – it's great indeed, both in size and scenery. It feels wonderfully unspoilt, and the quality of the water is incredible. At low tide it joins up with its neighbour Little Bay, and from the western end you can cross to White Island.
Bryher is fringed by fabulous beaches, but Rushy Bay is the largest – and many would say the loveliest. South-facing and sheltered by the hummock of Watch Hill, it has powder-soft sand and super swimming.
One of the best-preserved Neolithic chamber tombs in the Scilly Islands, on the northwest side of the island on the edge of Halangy Down. It's still largely in its original form, covered with a grassy mound, with a hobbit-sized entrance – and an interesting comparison to the exposed tombs you'll find on the mainland around the Penwith Peninsula. It dates from between 3000 BC and 4500 BC, and was probably the burial site of an important chieftain or notable family.
This tiny island really is for Robinson Crusoes. It's been abandoned since 1855, and now the only signs that anyone ever lived here are a few crumbling cottages, all but swallowed up by the bracken and gorse. It feels fantastically isolated, and is a great location for bird-spotting. Day trips to the island can be arranged through the boatyard on Bryher.
For the best views on the island, hike up to the top of Watch Hill, from where you can drink in a panorama right across the archipelago. It's a truly glorious spot to sit and watch the sunset, but – in the words of the locals – it can be hellish windy up top.
The small Isles of Scilly Museum explores the islands' history, with an eclectic mix of archaeological finds and artefacts from shipwrecks. Among the collection are Neolithic remains such as tools and jewellery, clay pipes left behind by generations of sailors, a couple of sailing boats and a small exhibition on Edward Heath, the British prime minister who loved Scilly so much he was buried here.
Pronounced goo, this small island can be reached from St Agnes via a sandbar at low tide. It's famous for its Bronze Age remains and the slanting 3m-high menhir known as the Old Man of Gugh. Take care not to be cut off by the rising tide, which comes in fast and is too strong for swimming.