"Don't worry!" bellowed the smiling flight attendant over the thunderous din of the helicopter's rotors. "They may have sent the Skybus plane back to Newquay, but we're a helicopter – we're going to try to land by GPS!"
And so we ploughed on into the thick descending fog 20 miles out over the dark Atlantic ocean, praying that the pilot's sat nav was something more sophisticated than the voice of John Cleese repeatedly advising: "In 50 yards do a U-turn." But after 40 minutes in the air rather than the usual 20 minutes, the rocky, rugged shores of the island of St Mary's suddenly and miraculously began to take shape below us as promised. Soon we were safely back on Scilly.
The Isles of Scilly (or "Scilly" but never "the Scilly Isles") always seem to appear magically out of nowhere anyway; it's all part of the bewitching allure that keeps my family and the other Scilly diehards coming back to the islands time and time again. The fog we experienced on our most recent trip may have added a new, buttock-clenching anticipation to our arrival on the islands, but the helicopter's flight from Penzance is always a sign that you're on your way somewhere very special.
In good weather, for 20 minutes you will see nothing but miles of slate-grey water below you as you approach. Then, like a maritime mirage 28 miles out to sea, the islands start to take form as the endless grey dissolves into fertile greens, and bright white sands blend into turquoise waters. Palm trees come into view, nurtured by the warm Gulf Stream, and you could swear you were approaching a Caribbean archipelago or even Tracy Island from Thunderbirds.
The heliport is on the island of St Mary's, which, at nearly three miles long, is the largest of the Isles of Scilly. The island is comfortingly old-fashioned – this is a world where everyone knows each other, front doors are left unlocked, and where the sign outside the tiny police station reads: "This Police Station will be open from 8.30am to 9am whenever possible..."
For the past four years we've been returning as a family (Dylan is 13 now, and Molly 11) to the wonderful Star Castle Hotel that occupies a commanding position on the westernmost tip of the island. The main building really is a star-shaped castle, as the name suggests, but most of the accommodation is in bright, airy garden rooms that flank the lawn and flowerbeds behind.
This is a family-run hotel, the pride and joy of the Francis family. Since we started going, Robert Francis has more or less handed the reins over to his son, James, giving him more time to spend on his boat catching the lobster and crab that grace the hotel's menu every night, or tending the vines he has planted at the heart of the island with a view to producing a first consignment of Scilly sparkling wine within a few years.
The service at the hotel is personal and charming, and the food (with everything locally sourced wherever possible) is absolutely superb. The hotel has two restaurants, with the Castle Dining Room concentrating on meatier dishes and the vine-clad Garden Conservatory specialising in local fish. The conservatory is also where we are fed a monumental English breakfast every morning, and where the comforting rituals of another day at the Star Castle begin; James appearing with weather reports and taking dinner reservations and Tim the boat man touring the tables to let guests know what trips he plans that day.
Exploring the "off islands" – anywhere that isn't St Mary's – by boat is the real business of a Scilly holiday, and Tim the boat man is the ideal guide. His itinerary varies every day according to the wishes of the guests and the influences of the winds and tides.
Each of the off islands has its own, very distinct character and appeal, offering different experiences to the visitor. Tresco, the second-largest island, is renowned for its Abbey Gardens, a magnificent and beautifully tended explosion of sub-tropical colour at the south end of the island. But walk 20 minutes to the north of the island and everything is wild and rugged, the blasted heathland watched over by Cromwell's Castle and the ruins of King Charles's Castle on the hill. (King Charles II hid out at The Star Castle while fleeing from the Parliamentary forces.)
If you're feeling adventurous, you can ask for directions to Piper's Hole – a well-hidden cave at the northernmost tip of the island where visitors have lined the walls with candles and night lights to guide your descent (take a box of matches with you), and where the suffragette and classical composer Dame Ethel Smyth was apparently inspired to write her Cornish opera, The Wreckers.
Across from Tresco lies the island of Bryher, with wild ponies ambling around on the hill and a rocky, dramatic west coast (the ominously named Hell Bay was a graveyard for shipping for hundreds of years). The islands have been the scene of many shipwrecks, and there is a wonderful and eerie collection of salvaged figureheads at "Valhalla" next to the gardens back on Tresco. Wilder still is St Agnes, the rugged home to the Turk's Head, the most westerly pub in England. At low tide you can walk across the short, sandy bar on to the adjacent island of Gugh (population, three; rhymes with Hugh) in the middle of which you will find "The Old Man of Gugh", a Bronze Age standing stone jutting up from the weather-beaten land like a defiant reminder of Scilly's ancient history. The dolmens and burial chambers dotted across this tiny island complete its spooky aura.
My personal favourite "off island" is St Martin's – deposited at Higher Town Quay, we often walk the 40 minutes of white sandy beaches totally and blissfully alone, collecting shells and gazing across the bluest waters of the islands.
Some days we forgo the pleasures of boating and just enjoy the coastal and rural paradise of St Mary's. While on St Mary's we do a lot of walking, but this is walking with a lower-case "w": lazy, rural rambling that always has some kind of edible treat at the end of it. The moment that you wander eastwards out of Hugh Town, you find yourself in tranquil countryside and near-total silence – birdsong and the occasional distant thrum of a helicopter being the only interruptions.
The locals know this side of the island as "up country", and it almost feels like a purpose-built, idealised exhibit of rural England, as though the winding lanes, marshy nature trails and gentle rolling hills had been designed by Disney for the Epcot theme park.
At the heart of the island, the Carreg Dhu garden symbolises its appeal – it's a haven for the many plants that thrive in this sub-tropical paradise, from massive purple echiums to shockingly pink Madeira geraniums. The garden is free and cared for by volunteers; there is not a hint of graffiti or vandalism on any of the many seats and benches that dot its quiet and shady lawns.
If you can drag yourself away from this idyll, then you're only a 15-minute walk from a stupendous home-made apple strudel in the café at the Country Guesthouse. Walk this off with a ramble westwards down to Pelistry Bay, where the bobbing seals eye you with interest, or instead head 20 minutes eastwards to the other coast of the island, marvelling at the remains of the Iron Age village on Halangy Down before settling down at Juliet's Garden Restaurant to gaze back towards the harbour at Hugh Town and the imposing Star Castle and blow your diet with cake and crab sandwiches. You get the picture.
On our last day, Dylan went off to crew on Tim's boat as usual and Nick and Molly hired the only tandem on the island to go exploring. I was left to mooch in and out of the little craft shops looking for gifts and thoroughly enjoying the fact that Scilly is still a place where you can boot the kids out after breakfast and barely see them until tea time without being in a constant state of panic. We all came together in the evening, when Nick and I shared a bottle of superb English sparkling wine with Robert and his wife, dreaming of the day when a similarly delicious bottle will bear the name of the Star Castle on it.
The simple old-fashioned pleasures of Scilly seem to attract simple, old-fashioned people. I'm sure a lot of travellers would find the prospect of being constantly surrounded by hand-holding elderly couples and families coming back again and again absolutely hellish. Well to us, it's absolutely heavenly. And yes, before you ask, we have already booked our week at the Star Castle for next year.
Travel essentials: Isles of Scilly
* British International (01736 363871; islesofscillyhelicopter.com ) offers helicopter flights from Penzance to Tresco or St Mary's (adult returns £175, children £105). *Isles of Scilly Travel (0845 710 5555; islesofscilly-travel.co.uk ) operates the Scillonian ferry from Penzance to St Mary's (adult returns £95, children £49.50) or flights on Skybus from Land's End, Newquay or Exeter to St Mary's (adult returns £165, children £100).
* The Star Castle Hotel, St Mary's (01720 422317; star-castle.co.uk ). Garden rooms start at £81 per person, half board. The hotel currently has a special offer for stays any time in August for three nights' dinner, bed & breakfast and return helicopter flights from Penzance for £419 per person.
Isles of Scilly Tourist Board: 01720 424031; simplyscilly.co.ukReuse content