When living in the UK several years back, I couldn’t get enough of extended weekend trips to the many islands surrounding the main one. Each one has different attractions, culture, and landscapes, a great surprise to encounter only a few hours distance from a metropolis like London. From the fat cows and glorious dairy products of Guernsey to the breathtaking landscapes of the Isle of Skye, including the Old Man of Storr, to the tropical vegetation of the Scilly Isles with their 20,000 exotic species in Tresco Abbey Garden. Getting there, either by boat, ferry, or, if you dare, helicopter, is an added thrill. It practically feels as if every island is a different country just with no change in language or driving rules. No passport needed, either.
The bailiwick of Guernsey, its official name, is the second-largest of the Channel Islands, located in the English Channel, just 30 miles north of St. Malo, Normandy. The largest city is Saint Peter Port. You can reach Guernsey from the UK by ferry. One runs from Poole to Saint Peter Port, the other from Portsmouth. The journey takes 3 or 7 hours respectively and, calculating that you have to return, too, plan to spend two or three days on the island. Everything is close together, so you can easily drive from one place to the next in a short time. Bring your car on the ferry, hire one or for the more environmentally conscious, ride a bike.
Saint Peter Port is a pretty town with many steep hills, yellow houses, narrow streets, lots of bunting, and cute shops, all before the backdrop of Castle Cornet. In fact, due to Guernsey’s history, there are many fortifications and remnants of the Nazi occupation during WWII, like the Guernsey Island Occupation Museum. On a more pleasant note, Guernsey is full of beaches, coves, and yes, cows. Visit Ladies Beach or Cobo Bay among others. As for the cows, they are famous for their rich milk which is turned into butter with a distinct yellow color. A must is an afternoon tea anywhere on the island with huge sandwiches, cakes, and scones with clotted cream and jam. Guernsey ice cream is equally delicious.
Artists have been drawn to Guernsey, too. French painter Renoir came here in 1883 and painted no less than 15 scenes of the bay and beach of Moulin Huet on the south coast. Writer Victor Hugo spent 25 years here in exile from France. A lot of the time, he lived in Hauteville House in Saint Peter Port, but the house and garden are currently closed. And here is a little jewel: The Little Chapel, a work of love built by Brother Déodat in 1904 entirely decorated with pieces of pottery, glass, and china.
Depending on the length of your planned stay, you might want to take a ferry to the other islands of Sark and Herm.
2. Isles Of Scilly
The isles of Scilly are an archipelago of five inhabited islands in the Atlantic Ocean, off the southwest tip of Cornwall. St. Agnes is in fact the most southerly point of Britain. Other popular islands are St. Mary’s and Tresco. The location of the islands and the influence of the Gulf Stream account for a mild and favorable climate — it is the warmest place in the UK. On the other hand, the northern side is exposed to winter storms which also makes for an interesting “split” vegetation. Spring comes early and allows flowers to bloom and be exported mostly daffodils.
There are three ways to travel to the Scilly islands: Skybus, a fixed-wing plane from Newquay or Land’s End, Scillonian ferry, or by helicopter from Penzance, Each way is an adventure all its own to the colorful and tranquil world of the Scilly Islands.
St. Mary’s is the island where you arrive. Enjoy 30 miles of hiking paths, beaches, horseback riding on the beach if you like, and a tiny island museum that explains the history from Roman times to the present. You’ll want to move on to the other islands, too, which is easy. Just go down to the quay, look at the chalkboards and take your pick of transportation.
Tresco is the location of the fabulous Abbey Garden, a 19th century garden with over 20,000 subtropical plants. This is the most sophisticated of the islands with trendy cafes, galleries, and shops but also a peaceful beach at Pentle Bay.
If it’s beaches you are after, St. Martin’s is the island for you. You’ll find coves and beaches all around the island, gently sloping into the sea. In addition, there is a winery and a flower farm where they grow the aforementioned daffodils.
3. Isle Of Skye
The isle of Skye is the largest of the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. It’s reached either by the Skye Bridge or the Mallaig-Armadale ferry. The capital is Portree. This island is famous for its spectacular landscape, a paradise for enthusiastic hikers and walkers who don’t mind a challenge, wildlife watchers, and medieval castles. Both the clans Macdonald and MacLeod have their castles here. For hiking and climbing, there is the Cuillin Range and the Old Man of Storr, a pinnacle that is visible from far away. At the Cuillin mountains, you also find the Fairy pools, a succession of rock pools with crystal clear (and very cold) water. Have a relaxing stroll around Portree’s streets, shops, and pubs. If you are lucky and visit at the right time, this is also a place to watch the northern lights.
4. Isle Of Wight
This is the largest of the UK islands, located 5 miles off the coast of Hampshire and separated from the mainland by the Solent strait. A popular tourist destination since Victorian times, it’s also the location of Queen Victoria’s summer residence and final home, Osborne House at East Cowes. The island is reached by hovercraft between Ryde and Southsea and car ferries to Southampton, Lymington, and Portsmouth. The island features nine major towns, with Ryde being the largest. This is where the hovercraft and ferry terminals are located. Others are Ventor and the well-known seaside resorts of Shanklin and Sundown on the south coast, famous for many sandy beaches. Newport sits in the middle of the island and is the location of a fun attraction: Monkey Haven. As the name indicates it is actually a primate rescue center and a great opportunity for kids and adults to learn all about these primates.
Near Newport, you’ll find another impressive castle: Carisbrooke Castle. Another must-see is The Needles, a lighthouse that stands boldly on a high cliff over Alum Bay. Every seaside town has a lovely promenade and a pier and you’ll find arts and crafts shops to buy souvenirs such as sculpted glass and woodcarvings.
Plan two days for your visit to the Isle of Wight to see it all. Wouldn’t you like to spend the night in a luxury hotel called Seabiscuit? It’s here in Newport.
5. Isle Of Man
The Isle of Man is a self-governed British Crown Dependency located in the middle of the Irish Sea, halfway between the UK and Northern Ireland. The hills of the north and south are divided by a valley in the middle. The Isle of Man is another Dark Star site, which means stargazing is a major tourist attraction. There are two ferry routes from the UK to the island, the fastest being Liverpool to Douglas in approximately 3 hours. There are also flights from several UK cities.
The pretty capital of Douglas sits around a bay and has a 2-mile-long promenade. If you don’t feel like walking, there are horse-drawn trams. Much of the landscape is moorland and heath with several walking paths across the island. Douglas Head is the beginning of a drive along the seaside.
Lovers of history will want to visit Peel Castle, as well as for the picturesque location. One day is enough to explore the island, so maybe catch a flight back to the UK in the evening.
6. Isle Of Anglesey
This island is located off the northwest coast of Wales and connected to the mainland by the Menai Suspension Bridge. The capital is Holyhead, an important port for ferries from Ireland. Nature and history lovers will be in their element on Anglesey. Take a look at the impressive Beaumaris Castle, with a moat around it and following the wall-within-a-wall design.
Kids of all ages will enjoy the Anglesey Sea Zoo, Wales’ largest marine aquarium. British sea life, sea horses, and other creatures await as well as talks from marine biologists throughout the day.
Holyhead mountain deserves to be explored with a walk to the top to see an old Roman watchtower and then down to the South Stack Lighthouse.
Finally, take a walk in the Dingle Nature Reserve where you can see wildlife and forests. In the spring, the floor is carpeted with a sea of bluebells.
7. Isle of Mull
The small isle of Mull and the neighboring isle of Iona lie off the west coast of Scotland. The island got the nickname “Eagle Island of Scotland” because that’s what you will experience there. White-tailed and other species of eagles inhabit the island and the green slopes of Mull Mountain. Several ferries run to the islands. Another thing to enjoy is the colorful houses of Tobermory. The island makes a nice day trip from Glasgow if you stay on the Scottish mainland.
There are many places in the UK to take an extended weekend vacation: