With its magical beaches, fresh fish and seaside cottages, the island of Tresco is the ultimate escape.
Exotic plants and palm trees at Abbey Gardens
If I had five pounds for everyone who mistook my photos of Tresco for somewhere swanky and Caribbean-based, I’d be retiring quite soon. Tresco is one of those places that you want to keep secret. One of five inhabited islands that lie in an archipelago 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall; sub-tropical with proper white, Mustique-style beaches, shimmery, sparkly turquoise seas, exotic plants and palm trees. And no cars. It’s real life heaven on earth – too good not to share.
Aerial view of Tresco Island
Tresco has been part of my life since I was five and really, 32 years later, not a lot has changed. For us, it’s always been very family focused. It’s wholesome, sandy and salty – think wetsuits, cashmere, sliders and Frizz-Ease. Days start early on the Old Grimsby quay, where we like to have caught most of the island’s crab population by 10am (upsettingly too small to eat). After crabbing there’s cockling and sand-castling, shrimping and shell hunting. The island, run by the Dorrien-Smith family, is tiny – two-and-a-half miles long and one mile wide – and there are no cars. You either bike or you walk (possibly one of the reasons I love it most). It feels safe to leave your children to their own devices, circling around on their bikes, gleefully charging hot chocolates to the house account. I’m not sure where else in the world I’d feel relaxed letting my children under the age of 10 run free. For water babes, it’s dreamy; sailing lessons, paddle boarding, wind surfing, kayaking, swimming with seals – you name it, you can do it. On a calm, hot day, paddle boarding around the Ruin and Green beaches is definitely something to have a go at. And if you’re into boats, hire one and take a picnic and head for the uninhabited Samson or the White Isles (visit bennettboatyard.com for more, and book way in advance in busy times).
Beachcombing features high on my to do list. Specifically, looking for the elusive tiny, pink, cowrie shell. We’ve competed to see who can find the first one since before I can remember – it’s an addiction I still can’t shake. The beaches are exquisite; white sweeping, icing sugar style sand, with rarely another person in sight. Pentle, Appletree and Blockhouse beaches are my favourites and very good for shelling.
Beautiful terrain and landscapes
Flowers are a big part of my Tresco love. The hedgerows are a florist’s dream and I struggle to restrain myself from whipping out secateurs to create something wayward – there are zinging fuchsias, fiery crocosmias, wild agapanthus, scented geraniums and hydrangea clouds to play with. In fact, the first thing I notice on landing is the smell. It’s as if someone’s lit hundreds of Diptyque geranium candles. The flowers in the Abbey gardens are in another league, as is the shell grotto decorated by doyenne Lucy Dorrien-Smith. Each time I go there, I feel like I’ve been transported to the tropics – think Kew Gardens with no glass. You can book a private tour with the head gardener, Andrew Lawson, if you’re a real gardening keen bean.
Our days revolve around what we’re going to eat. For me, dream holidaying means minimal cooking and cleaning. So lunches are either out at the Ruin Beach Cafe (the crab linguine is another level) or it’s DIY baguettes on a beach; supplies are brought from the Tresco Stores (think Harrods food hall for choice and price). Take out fish and chips from the New Inn pub is a Friday treat, eaten sitting on the sea wall watching the Tresco Czar gig boats heading out to race. My culinary highlight though is my husband’s BBQ lobster night. Every Tuesday afternoon, local fisherman Mike Pender sets up shop on the harbour selling the freshest, (alive) local crab and lobster. Don’t panic if you miss him, you can order on the phone and he’ll meet you on the harbour (visit islandfish.co.uk for more).
WHERE TO STAY
There are 100 cottages on the island. 30 of them, the Sea Garden Cottages, are available to rent, while the other 70 are timeshared (the same people own the same cottage for the same week each year). We only have 8 years left on our timeshare and I am already dreading the end. What’s genius is that there’s no house hierarchy – décor wise, they’re all the same; same sofas, same tv, same fridges. The only thing that differs is which side of the island they’re on. We’re on the New Grimsby side and get the evening sun, whereas Old Grimsby gets the sunrise. My favourite houses are all bang on the beach; Tern, Sandy Lane, Puffin, Baywatch and Sea Breeze. Dean Willis is the man to suck up to if you’re wanting to go. But be prepared to bribe, as post-Corona, demand is even higher.
The view of the sea from Seabreeze Cottage
There are rooms at the New Inn pub if you can’t get your hands on a cottage. Failing that, there’s the very gorgeous Hell Bay Hotel across the bay on Bryher, also owned by Robert and Lucy Dorrien-Smith. It’s worth a trip just to look at their collection of Modern British art.
You can fly to Tresco from Exeter on a tiny plane, which takes an hour. Pros – nice café at the airport (with a great toastie); Cons - planes don’t fly brilliantly in the fog, so there’s often delays (although this could be good news if you’re toastie fan like my husband). The planes land at St Mary’s and you then take a boat to Tresco (15 minutes, seamlessly arranged by the estate office). If you have five minutes to spare on St Mary’s, the Foredeck has excellent St James Breton T-shirts – essential Tresco get up.
The public ferry
There was huge excitement at the news of the helicopter re-launching this year, which means you can now fly straight from Penzance to Tresco. The helicopters are brand new and seriously posh and crucially, better at flying in the fog than the planes. Brush up on your fog/weather chat before you go, as there’s a lot of it.
The Scillonian is a huge white ferry that goes every morning from Penzance to St Mary’s. It takes two hours and 45 minutes. Pros – it’s cheaper than flying and there’s no baggage limit; Cons – not great if you haven’t got your sea legs.
- An Ila Ananda facial at Island Spa
- Follow the Gig racing on a Wednesday and Friday evening
- Find the Pharrot (Elusive, celebrity golden pheasant that looks like a parrot) hiding out somewhere on the Abbey Drive
- Clotted cream on everything
- Quay jumping at Old Grimsby
- Lots of great walks – look out for Cromwell and King Charles’s Castles and Piper’s Hole
- Befriend a nice fisherman and go lobster potting
- Swimming with seals on St Martins
This article written by Willow was first published in Tatler in August 2020.