This is my second trip to the Isles of Scilly and it definitely won’t be my last.
The first was an idyllic holiday on Tresco. This time, me and my mum decided to embark on a day trip to St Mary’s. Here’s how we spent our time on the island, plus 13 ideas for your day trip to this wonderous archipelago.
People often ask if it’s worth visiting St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, for a day trip or a holiday. As someone who initially thought the Isles of Scilly were too close to Cornwall for a mini break, I can’t recommend it enough! They may be a mere 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, but whether you visit one of the islands for a week away or hop over to St Mary’s for the day, it truly feels like a getaway.
The Isles of Scilly are jaw-droppingly beautiful, with each island having its own personality and selling points. Island life emulates relaxation; I can’t imagine high blood pressure is a problem here. Plus, with the Isles of Scilly having its own microclimate, you feel like you’re in the tropics.
Getting to the Isles of Scilly
There are 3 ways to get to the Isles of Scilly – Helicopter, Skybus, or the Scillonian ferry. If you’re intending on having a day trip to St Mary’s, the Skybus leaves Lands End airport at regular intervals (conditions permitting) and takes about 20 minutes. Flights can also be booked from Newquay and Exeter, with the Newquay flights departing less frequently compared to Lands End.
Having previously flown to St Mary’s, I can vouch for it being a fantastic experience. The plane’s are small and there’s an open cockpit. Approaching the island is pretty interesting too, with epic aerial views on offer.
The helicopter is a relatively new way of getting to St Mary’s. You can fly with Penzance Helicopters and land at St Mary’s or Tresco. Helicopter flights leave at various times throughout the day, meaning that you could arrive around 9am and stay until teatime.
The other way of getting to the Isles of Scilly’s main island is to hop aboard the Scillonian ferry, like we did. Taking just under 3 hours, it’s the most cost effective way of travelling to the Scilly Isles. If you’re planning on getting the Scillonian for your day trip, you’ll have almost 4 hours on St Mary’s.
Some people fly out and return on the Scillonian, so it’s possible to mix it up. Travelling this way will afford you a longer day on St Mary’s as well. It’s more likely to allow the time to island hop to one of the neighbouring islands, like Tresco or St Agnes.
Our day trip to St Mary’s
With the UK in the midst of a heatwave, me and my mum totally lucked out with the weather. Our day trip to St Mary’s was spent basking in intense sunshine, with the bright white sandy beaches offering an almost luminous quality against the exotic coloured sea.
We packed light for our time on St Mary’s. Money, bathers, a towel, some water, our cameras and something to read on the Scillonian. We planned to visit the galleries, walk, sea swim and have a late lunch.
We disembarked the Scillonian at about midday and headed for Porthcressa Beach. I was keen to go to Dibble and Grub for our late lunch and wanted to check availability. As tempting as it was (it’s on the seafront and looks really good!), we decided to head out to a different part of the island and explore further afield, meaning we’d eat elsewhere. When it comes to a day trip on St Mary’s, try and plan what you want to do and in what order. You’ll maximise your time on the island and squeeze more in.
Shopping on St Mary’s
As you’d expect for a small island, there are some excellent independent retailers on St Mary’s. However, it’s not a massive shopping destination. Expect a small collection of outlets, including art galleries, homeware and clothing retailers.
Me and mum were happy with this. She remembered an industrial estate with lots of outlets from her last visit so this was our first destination. Admittedly, it wasn’t as she remembered with only one creators space, Phoenix Craft Studio, open to browse. This is a shared space for local creatives, including artists, ceramicists and textile makers. It’s definitely a good place to pick up some unique gifts and cards.
Later on, in the last hour of our day trip to St Mary’s, we went to Tamarisk Gallery in Hugh Town and picked up some prints. We also checked out the clothes for sale at 49 Degrees and The Sandpiper.
Sea Swimming on St Mary’s
One bucket list item for us was a bit of sea swimming. Walking along the coast path, past Porthmellon Beach towards another art gallery, we decided to stop and bathe at Porthloo Beach. I think any beach or cove would’ve been good though, they’re all stunning. The gin clear sea is incredibly inviting but was a little cooler than the Cornish water we experienced the day before!
Even so, it was refreshing and wonderful to experience. In the distance we could see the boats and busy quay in Hugh Town. With only a couple of people on a SUP boards to keep us company, we felt like we’d escaped.
Eating on St Mary’s
The walking and a sea swim meant we’d worked up an appetite. We opted to try The Beach for a late lunch but it was closed for some reason. As we had to go back to Hugh Town for the ferry, we settled for lunch at The Atlantic Inn. We ate burgers and chips and enjoyed the sea view from our outside seat.
While this is how we spent our day trip to St Mary’s, there’s plenty of other activities and things to do. If you’re wanting some more inspiration, check out the ideas, below.
13 Ideas for you day trip to St Mary’s
Have a beach day
There’s no disputing the beauty of the beaches and shores on the Isles of Scilly’s. The coastline is laced with violet agapanthus in summer, offering a contrast to the almost white sand. The scenery is vibrant!
If the weather’s on your side, why not spend your day on one of St Mary’s quiet secluded beaches? If you’ve got children, they’re bound to enjoy playing in the sea and exploring the rock pools. In fact, Scilly Rockpool Safari offer guided safaris for all the family, exploring the wonderful world of sea creatures and underwater wildlife and vegetation.
Kayak or SUP
Head to the Sailing Centre, at Porthmellon Beach, if you fancy hiring a SUP or kayak. There are some uninhabited islands near St Mary’s that could be worth exploring, although I’d check with the Sailing Centre for guidance and advice about this.
I’ve kayaked from Tresco to 2 uninhabited islands before, Teän and St Helen’s, and it’s well worth it. I remember feeling like we’d discovered our own private beach. Perfect for picnics and lazing in the sun.
Private hire a rib
If you fancy being out at sea but don’t want the effort of paddling, you can hire a private rib. Brilliant fun and guaranteed to get you speedily to different parts of the island, and maybe further afield.
We love a rib ride and had a great one in St Ives a few years ago!
Hire some bikes and ride around St Mary’s
If you want to see more of St Mary’s, one way of getting around is to hire some bikes from St Mary’s Bike Hire. St Mary’s is perfect for exploring by bike, and I suspect you’ll be able to see the whole island in time to catch the Scillonian back to Penzance.
There’s a good cycle route that goes towards Old Town before heading to the north of the island. Expect quiet, unspoilt Caribbean-esque beaches that you’ll want to stay on forever.
If you prefer, you can take your own bikes on the Scillonian, and these need to be booked in advance.
Explore St Mary’s on a Scilly Cart
If you fancy a more relaxing day trip exploring St Mary’s, you can easily see the whole island by hiring a Scilly Cart. These golf buggies look a lot of fun and can be found at Porthmellon. They seat up to 6 people.
Soak up the vibe in Hugh Town
Hugh Town is small, but there’s no reason why you can’t while away the time, soaking up slow, island life. Stroll between the houses and cottages and wander in and out of St Mary’s local, independent shops. There’s several pubs and coffee shops too. Hugh Town and St Mary’s boasts some excellent eateries, many of which offer a sea view. Can’t ask for more really.
Discover artists and get creative
It’s hardly surprising that the Isles of Scilly is home to some talented creatives, with island scenery offering endless inspiration for artists and makers. There’s several art galleries on St Mary’s to stumble upon and browse. We found a few on the coast path, just past Porthloo Beach.
If you’re partial to sketching and painting, take some art tools with you. You can roam the coast path, find a spot and get some beautiful views in your sketchbook. I’ve certainly returned home with many photos of St Mary’s that I’d like to paint. You can find my collection of Cornish coastal art and prints here.
Personally, I’d love to spend time on the Isles of Scilly, painting and drawing. If you like the sound of a painting holiday on the Isles of Scilly, check out the offerings from the Newlyn School of Art.
Obviously, the wildlife you’ll see will depend on the time of year. Over 50% of the islands are protected for nature so you’ll find an abundance of natural habitats. Expect to see a diverse range of birds, plants and other wildlife. Grey seals are easy to spot (I’d highly recommend snorkeling with seals if you’re able to), and some birds seen on the Isles of Scilly cannot be found anywhere else in the UK.
You’ll find the Holy Vale Vineyard in Maypole, St Mary’s. They offer wine tasting and a Story of Wine exhibition. 7000 vines were planted here over 10 years ago, including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. You can learn about the English winemaking process and taste fine wines from all over the world.
Visit the site of Ennor Castle
The remains of Ennor Castle can be found in Old Town. Believed to be built in the 12th Century, Ennor Castle was originally used for military purposes but was used less in the 16th Century. Only the castle mount remains and is now classed as a Secluded Monument due to tree growth.
Check out Bronze Age burial chambers
If you’re into history big time, you’ll find some old Bronze Age burial chambers on St Mary’s. There’s Innisidgen and Bant’s Carn, both on the north west corner of the island. They give a sense of early settlers on St Mary’s. You can find out more at the Scilly Museum in Hugh Town.
Find Garrison Walls
The walls, which protected the Garrison peninsula on St Mary’s from attack, are dubbed as one of the most impressive coastal defence systems in England.
Now belonging to English Heritage, Garrison Walls can be reached by foot or bike. Even though it was first built in the late 1590s, it was used in both World Wars. Some cannons remain on display at different points of the batteries.
Have a refreshing sea swim
I couldn’t resist a sea swim during our day trip to St Mary’s. The water’s enticing enough but there are so many benefits to spending time in or near water. Why not make the most of it while there? In case you’re in need of further inspiration to swim during your time in Scilly, check out the Wild and Scilly Mermaids on Instagram for daily Scilly swimming escapades.
For Those Who Like Events and Festivities
There are a few other things that happen on the Isles of Scilly that readers of The Great Cornish Outdoors may be interested in.
World Pilot Gig Racing Championships
The Isles of Scilly are famous for their annual World Pilot Gig Racing Championships which take place at the end of April, beginning of May. I’m not sure if day trips are possible during the weekend of the Championships due to the number of gigs, but it’s definitely an event worth experiencing. The islands are very busy during this period. I’d advise booking restaurants well in advance.
You can find out more about the World Gig Racing Championships here.
Scilly Swim Challenge
A swimming event around the islands? Now you’re talking!
The SwimQuest Scilly Swim Challenge takes place in early September, kicking off with the 2 day event, followed by the one day challenge. The distance and route covered are the same for both, with the 2 day challenge splitting the 15 km distance. Leisurely, moderate and fast swimmers are welcome to take part in either.
Obviously, the organisers cannot guarantee you’ll be back at St Mary’s in time for your boat or flight home. I’d imagine it’s an excellent event to spectate if you’re visiting St Mary’s for the day.
Personally, I think that’s one for the bucket list!
Have you had a day trip to St Mary’s, or are you planning one? It’s truly special and memorable experience. Whether you go for the day or more, the Isles of Scilly leaves you wanting more and wishing you could stay a longer.
We’ll definitely be back.
A 9-mile swim?! You can do it!! Can’t be a more beautiful place for a challenge like that – are the waters generally colder than Cornwall though? Great post, reminds me of a lovely birthday spent there. X
I’d be like Mr Tickle at the end of it!