Tresco offers a very literal mini break: although it’s the second-biggest of the Isles of Scilly, it measures just 3.5km long by up to 1.75km wide. However, the tiny numbers are deceptive. Somehow, like a TARDIS fashioned from Cornish granite, Tresco expands once you step ashore. Long walks are possible; there are activities aplenty; castles, coves, real ales, weird plants, seals and sunshine are abundant. The island’s lush undulations seem to hide its diminutive size.
That said, Tresco’s teensy-ness is one of its biggest draws. Privately owned by the Dorrien-Smith family, the island is home to around 150 permanent residents and no cars; hired bicycles come without locks – there’s no need for them. This is a place out of time, basically free of crime and traffic accidents (unless you have a run-in with a golf buggy). And with the Scillies being officially the warmest place in the British Isles, visiting Tresco is like reliving one of those idyllic childhood summers we all misremember – only here it’s made real.
Neolithic field systems suggest people visited this rock, 45km west of Land’s End, up to 10,000 years ago, though permanent settlement came much later. Christianity arrived around the tenth century; the Benedictine priory was built in 1120. Subsequently, the Scillies were beset by smugglers and shipwrecks and Civil War battles – King Charles’ Castle and Cromwell’s Castle, constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries, can still be explored. In 1834, the Duchy of Cornwall leased the Scillies to wealthy Hertfordshire squire Augustus Smith – known as The Emperor -who became Lord Proprietor of the islands. He moved to Tresco, built schools, completely restructured the farming industry and brought prosperity to the archipelago. While the rest of the islands have returned to the Duchy, Smith’s descendants still own Tresco.
They still live in his house, Tresco Abbey, too, rendering it offlimits. But Smith’s glorious garden is open to all; this is where – thanks to the Scillies’ clement climate – The Emperor was able to grow eye-catching species from around the globe. Amid the ruins of the 12th-century priory there are now South African king proteas and spiky Caribbean furcraea among the 20,000 other plants surviving the Atlantic gusts – many of which can’t be grown anywhere else in the UK. So Tresco is dash of exotic mixed with the oh-so English. Its waves are the colour of the Mediterranean – that beautiful segue from duck-egg to turquoise to Prussian blue (though the water’s a bit chillier). It feels like a little utopia, yet still has a wild, end-of-England edge. A tiddly British island? You fear you might get bored. But you’ll end up wanting to stay.
Day 1: CYCLE THE SITES – Catch an early flight and you can be through the airport (on main island St Mary’s), driven to the quay and jetboated over to Tresco in time for breakfast. Tractor-trailer transfers meet new arrivees at Tresco’s jetty -or you can walk. Not far from Carn Near Quay, at the island’s south, is Abbey Garden (£12, under-16s free). Roam avenues of exotica – even in mid-winter, more than 300 plants will be in flower. While you’re here, walk though Abbey Wood to the Smith family monument, for views across to the islands of Bryher and Samson. Next, get some wheels from the Bike Shed, next door to Tresco Stores & Deli.
You can cycle alongside soft sandy beaches, ride to The Old Blockhouse (a ruined 16th-century gun tower) or stop for a drink at the lively New Inn. You can also cycle to footpaths that lead into the island’s wilder reaches, particularly the far north-west. Here, two ruined castles sit amid heather and wildflowers. For more informed strolling and wildlife spotting, join a guided walk with a Wildlife Trust ranger. The birdwatching is good too, with many migrants using the archipelago as a last stop before heading across the Atlantic. Spring and autumn see the greatest avian diversity. For puffins, sail to Annet (the birds nest April-July).
Day 2: TAKE TO THE WATER – Thirty sq km of inshore Scillonian waters have been designated a Marine Conservation Zone in order to protect the area’s exceptionally high diversity of species and habitats. One of the best ways to take in these special waters is to hire a kayak from the Scilly Sailing Centre (Ravensporth, Old Grimsby) which rents out easy to use sit-atop kayaks – some with ‘peekaboo’ glass panels in the hull (from £28/half-day). The sheltered bay provides possible grey seal sightings. If the sea further out isn’t too choppy, paddle over to uninhabited St Helen’s.
The island’s only 0.2 sq km but is a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to historical finds dating back to the Bronze Age. An easy climb to St Helen’s summit provides sweeping views back to Tresco, while the beach is a good picnicking spot. The Centre also offers sailing instruction, from one-hour tasters to multi-day courses, as well as windsurf and stand-up paddleboard hire. Afterwards, retreat to the Ruin Beach Cafe (above); a veranda and big windows make the most of the views. The food is high quality: top picks include afternoon teas, pizzas from the wood-fired oven (from £10) and the locally sourced seafood.
Day 3: GO ISLAND-HOPPING – Dial down to local pace and you could lose weeks on Tresco, especially if you time your trip to coincide with a local event: Beer Festival (16-20 May), Tresco Fete (17 Aug) and the Tresco & Bryher Food Festival (13-14 Sept). But it would be a shame not to visit some of the other Scillies – there are five inhabited islands and around 120 islets and outcrops. Regular boat services link the main islands, though times and departure points vary daily due to the big tides; timetables are posted on noticeboards. Bryher Boats runs daily services between Tresco and rugged Bryher, the smallest of the inhabited islands. Make the trip here to circuit its wild coast on foot, take a craft workshop at the studio of local artist Richard Pearce (rpearce.net) and sink a pint of Scilly Ale in the Fraggle Rock Bar. Bryher Boats also connects Tresco to St Martin’s (£9 return; Monday, Wednesday, Friday) and St Agnes (£9 return; Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday). Head to St Martin’s to taste a tipple at the island vineyard.