Hell Is The New Heaven: Hell Bay Hotel, Scilly Isles
Scilly is great for all ages but particularly fun for families who have finished the chapter of chasing after runaway toddlers. Friendly little gangs of plucky children, un-awed by the opportunity to create their own adventure, spring up all over the islands. And so each morning, before you can say ‘where did the whales go?’ the children have jumped out of bed, hurriedly dressed and assumed character names with a mission to explore. And there’s plenty to discover whether you’re a walker, birder, sailor, artist, gardener or sunbed seeker. What’s more, there’s no crime, no danger and generally speaking, no rush. Houses are left open, bicycles are never padlocked and children of all ages can roam around un-chaperoned. Hell in this case is certainly heaven.
Arrival, more often than not, is on one of the eighteen-seater, twin otter, propeller planes that leave from the basic-but-efficient regional airports such as Bristol, Exeter or St Mawes. When the passengers have chosen their seats, the pilots clamber aboard, shut the door and excuse themselves as they squeeze past to reach the open-view cockpit. Then it’s chocks away and up into the headwinds.
Journeying in this manner is a good indicator of what a visit to Scilly is all about; a sort of friendly travellers’ bond is formed – a rare occurrence in a world often too busy to care. Everyone seems automatically to adopt a kind of old-fashioned concern and politeness that so typifies the hospitality of the islands. So it’s no surprise that the driver from the one-storey terminal on St Mary’s waves to every passer-by, on the way to catch the boat across the channel to Bryher, as everyone seems to know everyone.
Of the 120 islands, only five (St Mary’s, Tresco, Bryher, St Martin and St Agnes) are inhabited – the rest remain an untouched landscape and a sanctuary for wildlife. To holiday here is like returning to a charming episode of adventure from the last century. The islands are run as a self-governing unitary authority reporting directly to a political Dias with a chief executive – as a result it has a finite number of beds – so when it’s full, it’s full. The wind-worn ruggedness of Bryher is very different from the closeted protection of Tresco; it comes as quite a surprise. While Tresco remains by far the best known of all the islands (mainly because of its fabulous Abbey Gardens), Bryher acts as a windbreak for Tresco, protecting her from the ferocious prevailing currents that sweep across the Atlantic.
New kid on the block
If the Island Hotel on Tresco is the old lady of Scilly, the new kid on the block is Bryher’s Hell Bay Hotel – of the one-island, one-hotel variety. Robert Dorrien- Smith inherited the bankrupt, worn-out, mile-square island at the age of twenty-three with a vision of, ‘turning it into a diamond’. He has succeeded. Today’s fine balance between encouraging low-impact tourism and maintaining traditional daily life means the sixty-strong community is thriving.
I couldn’t track down an authoritative source on why it’s called Hell Bay but the number of ships that have sunk on the dramatic granite crags along the shoreline has captured the minds of many an author and at night the rock is lit up by a roaming searchlight from the lighthouse across the bay.
The relaxed informality and the personal care of the staff add to the overall feeling of wellbeing at Hell Bay. Each of the hotel’s twenty-five suites, named after an island gig, has its own sea-facing balcony or terrace and is comfortably decorated with local paintings, sculptures and Lloyd Loom furniture in a nautical-cum-Ralph Lauren style. Bleached clapboard exteriors merely add to Bryher’s New England ambiance. During the summer months, the heated outdoor pool is a popular spot, although nothing beats the thrill of the beach.
Food, served by antipodeans (shipped in to help during the busiest months), is healthy, hearty and based on top quality ingredients that don’t need tarting up. So long as the weather permits, the Lioness Lady docks into St Mary’s three times a week to deliver provisions for all the islanders and their guests. ‘We’ve never let anyone starve,’ jokes manager Euan Rodger. Most diners choose fish – the fresh crab, lobster and shellfish are handpicked from the daily catch and taste exquisite.
Ideal Age: 4–16
Top Tip:Your kids will love it if you take a copy of Why the Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo. Ignite their imagination and set off their creative explorations.
For the Thrill Seekers: Climb onto the mighty Cyclone, a 24-foot rib complete with 500-horsepower engine. With the agility of a ballet dancer the skipper can make the rib pirouette around the rocks and lighthouses a mere arm-length from gannets, cormorants, seals and if you’re very lucky, dolphins. It gives a better understanding of the islands, their vulnerability to the elements and their sheer unspoilt beauty.
N.B: Interconnecting rooms available. No kids’ club but the RYA recognised sailing school that caters for all levels and ages of sailor