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The Isles of Scilly’s Tresco

Find one of the U.K.’s best-kept secrets just off the coast of Cornwall.

When the wind dies, the Isles of Scilly turn into the Caribbean,” says Robert Dorrien-Smith of the tiny English archipelago off the coast of Cornwall. His family estate, the privately owned Tresco, is the second-largest island in the cluster. In the drizzling rain, his statement is hard to believe. Tresco’s windswept heath is a bleak dun color, the dark Atlantic revealing strips of silver only when a momentary shard of sunshine strikes the surface of the sea. It’s later, during a complete breach in the cloud cover, that I see what he means.

The rocky coves turn into curls of cobalt, the sand turns from gray to gold. Colored buoys stud the water like emerald pinheads, and red-hulled gigs and fishing skiffs appear a ravishing crimson against the inky blue. In poor weather the shipwreck-strewn outcrops of rock, wrapped in sea kelp, seem menacing; in sun it’s hard to recall seascapes so compellingly beautiful, which is why Roman Abramovich’s super yacht has been known to cruise these waters, why Jude Law holidays in the Scillies and why artists Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth frequented Tresco when they were living in the Cornish fishing village of St. Ives. Charles and Diana took a family holiday here in 1989. The week I stay, a British rock star casually cycles past and wishes me good day.

There are visitors who reach the Scillies by private charter. But the vast majority put up with the awkwardness of getting to Tresco by scheduled carriers—small planes from provincial British airports, or a three-hour boat crossing from the mainland to the principal Scilly Isle of St. Mary’s, followed by a ten-minute speedboat ride. “Nowadays the most beautiful places left in the world are the most difficult to get to,” says Dorrien-Smith, who in 1973 was the fifth generation to take on Tresco and his family’s feudal responsibility to the island’s 150 permanent residents.

Once upon a time, Tresco was home to a 19th-century philanthropist’s experiment in utopian living, just after the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars. Its transformation into a chic, 21st-century vacation destination mirrors the transformations of Marbella under Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe-Langenburg, the Costa Smeralda under the Aga Khan and Mustique under Lord Glenconner, where the owners invited a few wealthy friends to stay and started a trend. Unlike Marbella and Mustique, Tresco’s evolution was typically English and understated. The scene today is less about caftans, suntans and talk of winters in St. Moritz than sailing in Cowes, wellies and yellow windbreakers, or, in summer, white shorts and striped tees.

Tresco’s 19th-century visitors comprised the educated exploring classes who came to visit the family’s world-famous Abbey Garden, which thrived in the clement Scillonian climate. (The winters are warmer than the mainland average, and frosts are rare.) “To accommodate these friends,” says Dorrien-Smith, “my predecessors added on lumps to the original five-bedroom family home, Tresco Abbey.” In the 1950s, the pace quickened. House-party guests began to want a bigger piece of the Dorrien-Smiths’ bucket-and-beach family summers, and more of the same tribe followed—from London, the Home Counties and farther afield. A few of the Tresco estate cottages that were struggling with the agrarian economy of old—at the time, islanders relied on the farming and export of narcissi—were turned into holiday time-shares as Tresco’s tourism concern grew. Rooms were added to the island pub, and then in 1961, Dorrien-Smith’s father built the 29-room Island Hotel, which for the next half century functioned as an important address on the West Country Riviera. “My father’s brief to the architect was very clear,” says Dorrien-Smith: “‘I want a hotel that’s a joy to look out of, but I don’t want to see it.’ It’s a rule of thumb I try to retain.”

Sure enough, arrivals were mostly of the “right sort,” owing to the cost of getting to Tresco. The time-share model and rental prices also sustained a clubby feel. Today taking a cottage on Tresco is more expensive than its equivalent on the mainland, with prices more in line with other pockets of wealth such as the fashionable West Country resort towns of Rock and Salcombe. Still, more than 80 percent of Tresco’s guests are regulars, with a new generation targeted by the estate’s latest incarnation: the 25 Sea Garden Cottages, sleeping two to ten, on the footprint of the original hotel, which was torn down in 2011 when the owner recognized that the market for a posh seaside resort with bad heating was over. Decorated by Dorrien-Smith’s wife, Lucy, the cottages display some 350 pieces of the family’s collection of Cornish art, which is deemed one of the world’s most comprehensive, featuring artists from Hepworth to Alfred Wallis.

All the development hasn’t altered the slow pace that defines the car-free island; you get around entirely by foot or by bicycle. There are three outdoor and two indoor pools, a fairly run-of-the-mill spa, a pub and three restaurants (one of which, the new Ruin Beach Café, is open for all three meals)—all under Dorrien-Smith ownership. There are old-style granite and slate cottages on the water, farmhouses deeper into the gorse-covered hinterland and New England–inspired, cedar-clad beachfront houses—all serviced by hotel-level staff. One can pick and choose, and like the late Queen Mother (who sent canary birds to Tresco as a thank-you gift, only for them to be blown out to sea in a gale), one needn’t carry any cash. Any bill, from ice cream in the pub to dinner of wood-roasted sea bass at the café, can be put against one’s account to be settled at departure. As to room keys, I was provided with some but didn’t lock up once.

What you won’t find are crowds, even when the island is running at 100 percent occupancy in July and August. Or any kind of golf course. Tresco is more subtle than that—more a community of like-minded families than a sleek, American-style resort island, with its own shop, art gallery, ruined Cromwellian tower, wild dunes, vertiginous cliffs and endless opportunities for snorkeling, swimming and island-hopping to the other 140-odd islets that make up the Scillies, five of which are inhabited (St. Mary’s and the four “off islands” of St. Agnes, St. Martin’s, Bryher and Tresco). A week here is just right, because of the numerous diversions both on and off the water (see “The Details”), including vibrant offshore populations of seals and puffins, dramatic wreck sites and a garden of extraordinary subtropical diversity. For toddlers, it is bucket-and-spade paradise. For young children, shrimping in the rock pools provides endless pleasures, along with collecting limpets, mussels and crabs. For teenagers, there are other teenagers. For everyone else, it is England’s best-kept secret, populated by woodchats and wagtails, with plants from Papua to Peru. Which leads to an admission: I live in the West Country, close to the Cornish border. This summer I visited Tresco for the first time—and returned ashamed. For 15 years I have been flying to the ends of the earth reporting on private islands while, right on my doorstep, there was this unlikely slice of paradise. Sure, the weather isn’t as predictable as that of the Seychelles, but if it were, the gardens wouldn’t exist. Last January, when the mainland was under snow, there were more than 230 species and varieties of plants in flower—and this in the middle of an Atlantic winter. How fabulous is that?

Isles of Scilly Details

Getting There: The Isles of Scilly can be accessed only from the UK mainland: on the 19-seat Twin Otter Skybus, which operates out of three small airports (Newquay Cornwall, Exeter International and Land’s End), or by The Scillonian III, which has daily sailings (except Sundays) from Penzance in Cornwall. The ferry drops passengers on the neighboring isle of St. Mary’s, where a Tresco-bound transfer boat awaits. Frequency is at its highest from May to October (44-845/710-555; ios-travel.co.uk). Those staying on Tresco can have the island reservations team make all the necessary transport arrangements, including flights and boat transfers, while advising on direct trains from London to Penzance. Tresco also has secure moorings for those sailing in on their own yachts.

Where to Stay: The newest, smartest accommodations on Tresco ($ tresco.co.uk) are the 25 self-catering Sea Garden Cottages. Nine one-bedroom cottages are available on a nightly basis (from $240 a person), while the rest, available weekly (from $2,405), sleep six to ten. All sea-facing, they are within a minute’s walk of the Ruin Beach Café, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The 12 Flying Boat Cottages, less polished than the Sea Garden lodgings, sleep six to ten (weekly rentals, from $2,190). They are on the other side of the island—close to the tourist hub comprising the island office, store, Flying Boat Restaurant, spa, main pool and principal port of New Grimsby (where inter-island boats come in). The New Inn pub, within view of New Grimsby quay, is a traditional B&B with non-sea-view rooms (from $80 a person per night). Finally, there are some 80 traditional self-catering Tresco Holidays Cottages, many of which have limited availability due to time-share owners taking priority for about 80 percent of the properties. These range from a cottage that sleeps two (from $895 a week) to Dolphin Cottage, which sleeps ten ($5,420 a week in July and August).

At Sea: Island Sea Safaris operates an open-top Firebrand IV rib, which can be chartered privately by the hour. The boat and a skipper meet you on Tresco, and the weather- and tide-dependent tours include visits to bird and seal colonies and wreck sites ($ seal and wreck tours, from $50 a person per hour; 44-7747/615-732; islandseasafaris.co.uk). Bennett Boat Yard ($ 44-7979/393-206; bennettboatyard.com), which delivers vessels to Tresco by prearrangement, rents small outboard motorboats, sailing dinghies and kayaks by the hour, half day, full day or week (day rates, from $40). A 14-foot motorboat allows up to five passengers to cruise between the islands for beachside picnics, fishing and snorkeling (wet suits and fishing gear can be supplied for a small fee), while a regular patrol boat keeps novices in line. Snorkeling with seals ($ 44-1720/422-848; scillydiving.com) is a popular and unusual excursion on the Scillies. The three-hour trip costs $60 a person and includes a diving instructor. An alternative two-hour snorkeling safari led by a marine biologist reveals the abundant riches of the Scillies’ shoreline, including anemones, sea squirts and starfish.

On Land: Tresco’s Abbey Garden is so highly regarded that it now appears on the itineraries of the more sophisticated small cruise lines. The 17 acres of garden are open every day of the year from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Constructed first in 1834 on the grounds of a ruined 12th-century abbey, the garden features some 4,000 species of trees, ferns and flowers, from palms to bamboo, King Proteas to exotics from California. Be sure to visit the family croquet lawn, which is now flanked by a display of original, colorful figureheads taken from shipwrecks. For those staying on Tresco, the garden can be built into a half-day hike or bike ride. If there’s one downside to Tresco, it’s the fact that the island doesn’t keep horses—so riders who want to get out and gallop on the Scillies’ golden beaches need to hop on a boat to the main island for the St. Mary’s Riding Centre ($ horsesonscilly.co.uk). These are good, local stables with quiet horses. The center offers guide-led treks ($45 per hour) over moors and beaches suitable even for young children.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.

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