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The best island breaks you can have – without leaving the country

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 28/05/2021 Richard Madden
a person in a wet suit standing on a beach holding a surf board: Stand up paddle boarders getting ready to head of from Compton Bay on the Isle of Wight © Provided by The Telegraph Stand up paddle boarders getting ready to head of from Compton Bay on the Isle of Wight

Almost 400,000 holidaymakers are due to head to Cornwall this half-term. For anyone heading south-west to join them, far from leaving the madding crowd behind, a throng of fellow visitors will be there to greet you. There’s nothing wrong with being popular of course. Plenty of us will welcome any sort of escape from the humdrum reality of pandemic Britain. But still, it’s hardly going to be a unique experience. Perhaps this summer is an opportunity to experience a different slice of Britain – and one with a bit more of a bragability factor. And where will you find that elusive, exclusive escape? On one of our great British islands.

Off the coast of Britain, itself the ninth-largest island in the world, there are literally thousands of islands, all with their own unique geography, geology, and wildlife shaped by the sea and the weather patterns that surround them. More than 200 are inhabited, often with a fiercely independent culture, history and local traditions. 

For the visitor, perhaps the one characteristic that binds them together is the sense that you have escaped back in time into a different, slower, calmer, way of life where nature and the outdoors still seem bound into the fabric of everyday life. They range from tropical Tresco in the Isles of Scilly off the (packed) coast of Cornwall, lapped by the warming waters of the Gulf Stream, to the far-flung island of Unst in the northwest corner of the Shetland Islands, famous for its teeming seabird colonies. 

This year, while travel uncertainty due to the pandemic still casts a threatening cloud over returning hard-won freedoms, research suggests that most of us are planning to holiday on home soil in Britain. But rather than hitting the hotspots, a British island break could be the answer for many of us. They afford the opportunity to relax, explore new landscapes, and experience activities that we so often seek out on foreign shores, but which are also ready and waiting in our own backyard.

Seekers of white-sand beaches and turquoise seas soon learn that the coastlines of many of the Hebridean islands offer just such an idyll, with barely a soul in sight. More accessible for most of us, the larger islands off the coasts of England and Wales (Anglesey and the Isle of Man for example) make for the perfect family getaway. And then there’s the Isle of Wight, of course, one of those escapes that delivers everything: culture, cuisine and a buzz of excitement.

As the Channel Islands and Ireland have various restrictions in place for those who can visit, the following suggestions for spectacular island holidays only include those off mainland Britain. All had availability at the time of going to press, but early booking is advised to avoid disappointment.

Go for castles, coast and a drop of Chardonnay

Isles of Scilly

St Mary’s is the largest of the Isles of Scilly, and offers plenty to do, from whizzing around the small roads on an ebike, to adventure-packed RIB rides and a spot of gin tasting. Star Castle is an historic 16th-century hotel built in the shape of an eight pointed star, complete with moat and dungeon. Famed for its historic setting, swimming pool (a rarity on the islands) and stunning views over Hugh Town, the castle is the perfect base to relax and unwind after a day of discovery. Owner Robert Francis also runs the island’s pretty Holy Vale vineyard. Working with Austrian wine producer, Willi Opitz, the site has just produced a Chardonnay. The lobsters that are served in the hotel restaurant each day are also hauled straight from the sea by Robert, meaning you’ll be hard-pushed to find fresher fare.

A garden room costs from £327pn including breakfast in July (01720 422317; star-castle.co.uk).  For more ideas on where to stay, see our guide to the best hotels in the isles of Scilly.

a large tree in a forest: Star Castle vineyard, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly © Provided by The Telegraph Star Castle vineyard, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly

Go for the night

Isle of Wight

Easily accessible by ferry from Southampton, Portsmouth and Lymington, the Isle of Wight’s cultural attractions include Osborne House, Queen Victoria's summer home, and Carisbrooke Castle, where Charles I was imprisoned. When you've had your fill of history and culture, head for one of the island's many excellent pubs (Ventnor's Spyglass Inn is right on the water and something of an icon), tipple rosé with the beautiful people at newly opened The Hut in Colwell Bay, or – if you're going out out – capital city Newport, with its selection of cheesy-but-charming nightclubs. In for the long haul? Plan your visit around 2021's Isle of Wight Festival (September 16-19) to party with the likes of Liam Gallagher and Duran Duran.

Seven nights on half-board basis in a double room at the Royal Hotel (01983 852186; royalhoteliow.co.uk) in Ventnor on the south coast costs from £2,291 in July, including the cost of a car ferry. For more ideas on where to stay, see our guide to the best hotels in the Isle of Wight.

a group of people on a rock near the ocean: kids walking on rocks in sea - VISIT ISLE OF WIGHT © Provided by The Telegraph kids walking on rocks in sea - VISIT ISLE OF WIGHT

Go for Highland hospitality 

Scotland’s west coast

The west coast of Scotland is so breathtaking that it’s worth cramming in more than one island. A three-night cruise follows the sheltered coast, visiting local communities, passing ancient castles and historic relics, and revealing interesting facts about the fascinating culture of the area. Gourmet meals are served up in between – this is highland hospitality afloat. The cruising area stretches from Loch Linnhe to the Sound of Mull, Tobermory, and Loch Sunart, exploring many hidden coves and inlets on the way.

Three nights aboard the MV Glen Etive (01369 707951; themajesticline.co.uk) costs from £1,375 (Aug & Sep), including full board accommodation.

Go to relive your childhood adventures 

Eilean Shona, Scotland

All it takes is faith, trust, and a little bit of pixie dust to get to Neverland. Maybe that’s not quite all you need to reach the island of Eilean Shona in tidal Loch Moidart off the west of Scotland, the inspiration for one of Britain’s most beloved children’s stories, but a world of adventure awaits those who make the journey. Stay in the same historic house – now a combination of luxury boutique hotel and much-loved family home – that J.M. Barrie resided in during the 1920s and where he wrote the screenplay for his children’s classic, Peter Pan. Outdoor activities include kayaking with seals (and maybe mermaids), wild swimming, wildlife watching, and open-fire feasts at the water’s edge.

A five-night Eilean Shona Experience break in September costs from £1,700pp including all meals, house wine, activities, and return boat transfers to the mainland (01967 431249; eileanshona.com). Max group size: 12 people in six bedrooms. Read more: The best hotels in Scotland.

a group of people sitting at a table in a room: Eilean Shona house's colourful dining room © Provided by The Telegraph Eilean Shona house's colourful dining room

Go for gold

Inner Hebrides 

Knock of some of those lockdown pounds on a ride around the roads of Skye, Mull, Raasay and Iona – part of the Inner Hebrides along Scotland’s West Coast. Here, the superb bicycle touring takes you through landscapes as rich in wildlife, culture, and heritage as they are in dramatic views and postcard-perfect beaches. Along the way you can visit Iona’s ancient abbey, the famous ‘Calum’s Road’ on Raasay, Loch Scridain on Mull, and historic Dunvegan Castle on Skye.

A six-night adventure with Wilderness Scotland (01479 420 020; wildernessscotland.com) costs from £995pp including breakfast, accommodation, some dinners, support vehicle and luggage transfers. The cycling is graded as easy. Bicycle hire is available. Read our complete guide to the best hotels in Skye.

a bicycle next to a body of water with a mountain in the background: Mountain bikers alongside Loch na Creitheach, Isle of Skye, Scotland © Provided by The Telegraph Mountain bikers alongside Loch na Creitheach, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Go to stretch your legs

Outer Hebrides

The Outer Hebrides are a diverse set of interconnected islands off the west coast of Scotland. The best way to explore? In the company of an expert, of course. A guided walking tour will first take you to the island of Lewis and Harris – the largest in Scotland. Divided by mountains, its contrasting landscapes vary from sweeping white-sand beaches to heather-covered mountains, boulder-strewn hillsides, peatlands, and both sea and freshwater lochs.

A seven-night adventure with Ramblers Holidays (01707 819380; ramblersholidays.co.uk) costs from £1,595, including accommodation, some meals, a tour leader, return flights to Glasgow, transfers and entry fees. Departs June 27 and September 26. For more inspiration on where to stay, see our guide to the best hotels in the Outer Hebrides.

a couple of people on a beach near a body of water: White-sand beach at Luskentyre, Isle of Harris © Provided by The Telegraph White-sand beach at Luskentyre, Isle of Harris

Go for that feeling of freedom

Isle of Barra

Bored of walking and cycling? Take to the water instead with a seven-day paddle adventure exploring the Hebridean island of Barra and its neighbouring islands. There’s something freeing in the itinerary being decided each day depending on the weather and tides. Options include neighbouring Castlebay and the white-sand beaches and ruined cottages scattered along the headland beyond; the tiny adjoining island of Vatersay with its colonies of guillemots; the towering cliffs of uninhabited Fuday in the Sound of Barra; and the magnificent Blue Lagoon between two nearby uninhabited islands.

A seven-day trip with Clearwater Paddling (07960 217168; clearwaterpaddling.com) costs from £800pp including full-board accommodation, tuition, guides and equipment. Departs June 19, July 24, August 21. Suitable for novice and experienced paddlers.

a group of people on a beach near a body of water: Kayakers © Provided by The Telegraph Kayakers

Go for friends reunited

Isle of Man

Enjoy a relaxing break with friends once more in a cottage on the Isle of Man. With its dark skies status, there are few places better suited to late-night chats in the wee hours, with stars wheeling overhead. The island is also renowned for its spectacular scenery, ranging from the rugged cliffs of the south to the beautiful plains and mountainous uplands of the north. Its unique heritage railway system includes both a steam railway and the Snaefell Mountain Railway, while popular outdoor activities include walking, mountain biking, sea kayaking, diving, coasteering, sailing and paddleboarding – perfect for a spot of post-pandemic bonding.

Mainland residents will be allowed to visit the island once more from June 28. The Lodge in Glen Vine (sleeps eight) in the centre of the island costs £1,400 for seven nights in July (01624 830200, islandescapes.im). 

Go for the great outdoors

Anglesey

Anglesey, off the north coast of Wales, is still relatively unknown compared to other parts of Britain, but with more than 120 miles of coastline to explore, there are many ways to enjoy  the island’s natural beauty. As well as activity adventures from kayaking and coasteering to walking and mountain biking, its famous beaches include the sweeping golden sands at Newborough surrounded by a nature reserve that is home to red squirrels and wild ponies. Also along the south coast are the excellent surfing beaches at Aberffaw and Rhosneigr.

A seven-night stay at Shore Cottage (sleeps six), a beautifully designed luxury coastal home on the water's edge of Red Wharf Bay with uninterrupted sea views, costs from £1,725 in June (01348 837871; qualitycottages.co.uk). Read more: The best hotels in Anglesey.

a body of water with a mountain in the background: Wind surfer enjoys the beach at Newborough Warren © Provided by The Telegraph Wind surfer enjoys the beach at Newborough Warren

Go for a taste of the wild

Outer Hebrides

Between Lewis and Harris – the largest island in the Outer Hebrides archipelago – and the north-west mainland of Scotland lies a body of water known as The Minch. As the water warms during the summer months it offers rich feeding grounds for fish, birds and sea mammals, including a number of whale and dolphin species like Minke whale and Risso’s and Common Dolphins. Sailing aboard the M/V Monadhliath, you will also visit the Shiant Islands with their huge seabird colonies of puffin, fulmar, razorbill, kittiwake and great skua.

Naturetrek (naturetrek.co.uk; 01962 733051) offers trips from £2,395pp including transfers, ferries, a hotel on Stornoway, full board accommodation at sea, and guides. Departs July 3.

Go to make your friends jealous

Shetland Islands 

There’s something a little appealing about exploring a part of Britain that your friends and family are unlikely to have seen before. Designed by a native Shetlander, this seven-day wildlife tour showcases the cultural heritage and natural environment of the Shetland Islands, the most northerly islands of Britain. Highlights include a visit to Hermaness National Nature Reserve with its great skuas and 25,000 pairs of puffins, encounters with wild otters, rare birds on the island of Fetlar (the ‘Garden of Shetland’), and possible sightings of minke whales, orcas, Risso’s, white-sided and white-beaked dolphins, and porpoises.

The cost of a seven-night trip with Shetland Nature (01595 760 212; shetlandnature.net) costs from £1,595pp including all meals, accommodation, guiding, excursions, and ferries. Departs July 24. 

a body of water with a mountain in the background: Great skua in flight and spectacular coastline with sea stacks and cliffs, home to breeding sea birds at Hermaness © Provided by The Telegraph Great skua in flight and spectacular coastline with sea stacks and cliffs, home to breeding sea birds at Hermaness

Go to the edge

St Kilda

This Scottish island-hopping holiday combines the remote Outer Hebridean island of Lewis and Harris with an adventurous day trip to experience the magic, mystery and austerity of long-abandoned St Kilda. The islands are a Unesco World Heritage Site, National Nature Reserve and Ancient Monument. Spectacularly rugged, yet teeming with rare species of plant and bird life, the remote archipelago of St Kilda has long-fascinated explorers, naturalists and adventurers keen to discover for themselves its unique human history, landscape and wildlife.

The cost of a six-night tour with McKinlay Kidd (0141 260 9260; mckinlaykidd.com) costs from £865pp (June-September) including breakfast, ferry crossings, and a day-trip to St. Kilda.

a large body of water with a mountain in the background: The precipitous rocky cliffs and steep green slopes of Boreray, the remote uninhabited island in the St. Kilda archipelago far off the western coast of the Outer Hebrides, Scotland © Provided by The Telegraph The precipitous rocky cliffs and steep green slopes of Boreray, the remote uninhabited island in the St. Kilda archipelago far off the western coast of the Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Go for the ancient insight

Orkney

Anyone fascinated by the Neolithic peoples who left behind the thousands of stone circles that are to be found in some of Britain’s wildest and most beautiful locations will want to visit the Orkney Islands, off the north-east coast of Scotland. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, the island of Mainland is home to the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, the massive chambered cairn of Maeshowe, the twin stone circles of the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. You can also visit other Stone Age sites in this ancient landscape, part of a story stretching back five thousand years.

Rooms at the four-star Lynnfield Hotel (01856 872505; lynnfield.co.uk) in Kirkwall with breakfast start from £100pn.

a close up of a lush green field: The Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic stone circle or henge in Orkney, Scotland © Provided by The Telegraph The Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic stone circle or henge in Orkney, Scotland

Go for the booze

Islay & Jura

The Isle of Islay is renowned for being the home of Scotland’s finest single malt whisky, produced here since 1779. Visit the famous distilleries and discover the water sources that lend their flavour to the single malts of both Islay and Jura while walking their coastlines and enjoying their white sand beaches. You will  learn about the islands’ whisky-producing past while visiting distilleries that include Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Bruichladdich – a trip that’s perfect for both whisky-tasting amateurs and connoisseurs.

A seven-night self-guided tour with Macs Adventure (0141 530 1667; macsadventure.com) costs from £950 including accommodation, breakfast, detailed tour notes and baggage transfers. 

Go for the cool factor

St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly

At just one mile in diameter, St Agnes is one of the smallest and most beautiful of the Isles of Scilly, 26 miles to the west of Land’s End. There are only a handful of b&bs, and no hotels, so most people make a beeline for Troytown Farm, England’s westernmost campsite. Here, there are pristine views over the Atlantic Ocean and seals can be spotted from your tent flap each morning. The farm has a small dairy herd and also rears pigs and grows vegetables, so most essentials are available at the on-site shop. Nearby is the island’s only pub, the Turk’s Head, where the scampi is never a bad option. Everything here is effortlessly simple and the vibe eminently chilled.

There are five bell tents to rent and around 40 pitches. There is still availability in June, early July and September (coolcamping.com). A pitch for a week in June costs from £147.

a tent in a body of water: Troytown Farm campsite © Provided by The Telegraph Troytown Farm campsite

Go for tiny Scotland

Isle of Arran

With its combination of highlands, lowlands, castles, mountains, lochs, glens, burns, heather-covered moorlands, prehistoric monuments, bays, beaches and stunning 56-mile coastal road, the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde off Scotland’s west coast is often referred to as ‘Scotland in Miniature’. Near the tiny hamlet of Kilmory in the south, comprising a pub, a cheese shop and a half-mile track to the beach, the former church grounds are now home to three Mongolian yurts, each sleeping up to six people.

Walk to Torrylinn Beach or visit the 4,000 year-old stones of Machrie Moor. The yurts cost from £420 for a three-night stay (sleeps four; glampingly.co.uk).

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