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Wednesday 21 August 2013

Sluttery Travels: The Hell Bay Hotel, Scilly Isles

At Exeter airport, a propeller plane stands dripping on the runway.

'Alright,' grins the pilot, squatting in front of the open cabin, 'there's a great in-flight movie called "clouds", see you in an hour.'

The Scilly Isles are 28 miles south of Cornwall, and that's about all I've been able to find out on Wikipedia before dashing off to the airport. We're heading to an island called Bryher, home to 80 people, a goat called Dobby and the rather ominously named Hell Bay Hotel.

We swoop to a halt along a grass runway and I get my first impression of the Scilly Isles: bright blue sea, pastel coloured houses, crashing white waves and agapanthus flowers EVERYWHERE. On the largest island of St Mary's there is one road, five pubs -  including the awesomely named 'Bishop & Wolf' - a museum and a harbour full of boats.

"Richard is a hell of a chef," our friendly driver tells us, wedging the minibus through side-streets, when I tell him that we’re heading for Hell Bay. "You're in for a treat".

If the Hell Bay's latest venture, the Crab Shack, is anything to go by, he's right. There we meet Philip, the general manager, who greets us enthusiastically and introduces us to the (already legendary) head chef Richard. The Crab Shack was their joint idea, created in an old stone outbuilding.

“It's sharing, in every sense,” he explains, pointing out the large Portuguese dishes hanging along the stone walls. Fresh mussels, scallops and crab are served communally, along with bread, olives and drinks. Guests are treated to a unique experience, swapping coats and jumpers for special aprons and squashing up elbow-to-elbow on the wooden trestles.

“In 20 minutes this place will be the loudest thing you've ever heard,” says Philip, “we love seeing people leave together, laughing and joking like new friends.”

It smells so good I'm already plotting how to grab a dish of scallops and leg it, but am eventually persuaded back to the hotel.

I needn't have worried. One of the first things guests at Hell Bay realise is that the hotel isn't just a pretty face. True, the views are stunning from every angle, restaurants, balconies, terraces, but so is the FOOD. If Richard is a hell of a chef, then it must have rubbed off on his kitchen team.

The menu at Hell Bay changes daily, using seasonal and local produce, and apart from this, the staff have to work with what has been delivered from the larger island or the mainland that day. No popping down to the shops here: if it's not on the boat, from the sea or dug out of the ground, then it's not going to be on the plates.

Despite this - or maybe because of it - the kitchen are more than happy to improvise on the spur of the moment, creating  alternative dishes for all dietary requirements. With a bit of notice, they can create a whole menu, but even with my last-minute demands, they produced some amazing food.

A newly-invented starter of grilled peach, mozzarella and caramelized walnuts has me swooning Jane Austen style, while across the table, a terraine of confit duck and pistachio on brioche is resulting in sobs of delight. Fresh fish is - of course - a big part of the menu here, so expect the menu to feature anything from pan-fried wild seabass fillet, to sea bream with smoked haddock risotto. When they say fresh, they mean claw-wavingly fresh. There's plenty of choice for carnivores too, with herb-crusted fillet of beef, or Nicoise-style lamb with a tapenade jus. 

Full of good food, you can retire to the bar for cocktails and to enjoy the night breeze on the terrace, or, like me, fall face first onto the temptingly squishy looking bed. Waking up to the sight of a sunny cove, a gently waving palm tree and the white breakers of the Atlantic in the distance is something which would be VERY easy to get used to. With teapots, cafetieres and extra blankets in all the rooms, it's quite a strain to get up and venture out in search of breakfast. Luckily, there's also a heated pool and steam and sauna room to help you on your way.

Once you've finally managed to amble in the direction of the dining room, striped jumper and boat shoes in tow, you'll find another assault on any diet plans you might have. Locally sourced yoghurt, cheeses, fruit, and fresh pastries are laid out, along with cooked options like smoked kippers with lemon butter, full English, porridge... The eggs come from the hotel's own chickeys, who live in a pen near the drive. Children (or big children, hmm hmm) can go in search of stray eggs in the morning, write their names on the shells, and eat their finds boiled for breakfast. You're never too old to have egg and soldiers, right?

If you get bored of eating, sleeping and gazing at the view with a glass of wine in your hand (surely impossible) then you can indulge in other activities, like walking, sea-kayaking and boating between the other islands. Tresco is all of a two minute boat jaunt - walkable at low tide - and has its own cafes, shops and an art gallery to explore.

We chose the most intrepid option of strolling-around-the-island. With paths running north and south, following the coast, the whole island can be covered at a hiking pace in around three hours or less. Of course, if you're rambling at a pace where you're being outstripped by passing butterflies, then it might take you an easy morning and afternoon. I'd recommend the latter, obviously. There are rugged patches of hilly moorland to wander through, springy dune grass to explore, beaches to comb for sea glass, dune sand to sunbathe on, and coves to swim in.

In case you get peckish along the way, honesty boxes and stalls crop up along the roads, selling home-grown produce, like jam and fudge, fruit, vegetables and flowers. I have to have a bundle of agapanthus bulbs wrestled out of my hands, but can't resist a big jar of strawberry jam. The path towards the north side of the island eventually  leads to town, past grazing cattle to the Fraggle Rock Bar, where of course, you should stop for a pint of cold cider in the sun, and to observe the antics of Dobby, the long-haired goat, who holds court next to his house and an old red phone box.

If you need a bit of retail therapy, there is the local (and surprisingly well-stocked) village shop-post-office-pharamacy-deli, and a small gift shop with local artworks. Throw in a boatyard or two, a pretty church, two quays and an artist's studio, and you've completed the full tour of Bryher.

The peacefulness is absolutely intoxicating. No road signs, no phone signal, no streetlights: before you know it, you'll find yourself staring in amusement at a single goose for a good ten minutes, or gazing out to sea motionless to spot the seals which play amongst the rocks.

And when the sun is going down, you can retreat to the terrace of the Hell Bay to watch the sunset and relax into the deep wicker chairs (if more relaxation is even possible) with a bottle wine before dinner.

With rates starting at £135 per person, per night in the low-season, and £190 per person, per night in high-season, the Hell Bay may not be the most budget-friendly option. However, with all tariffs including bed, breakfast and dinner, you'll be hard pushed to find a more relaxing break, where you can truly feel a hundred miles away from everyday worries. (Especially since whilst you're on the island, the most expensive thing you're likely to buy is a box of fudge). The flights, also, are about so much more than just getting there: these are no quick-and-dirty budget airline seats, flying by propeller plane is an experience, and once you see the coast of Cornwall floating away beneath you, the extra cost is definitely worth it.

By the end of my visit I am seriously considering barricading myself in the room and refusing to leave. I am also entertaining the notion of hitting Richard, the chef, over the head and kidnapping him back to the mainland to be my personal kitchen slave.

Hell Bay has managed to pull off something remarkable; on a tiny island at the edge of the Atlantic, they have created a boutique hotel that combines rugged beauty, fantastic food, a family-friendly yet sophisticated atmosphere and absolute, blissful, glorious relaxation. And chickens. And a goat called Dobby.

Fly to St Mary’s with Skybus from Exeter, (from £120 one way) Newquay (from £85 one way) or Land’s End (from £70 one way) or take the Scillonian III ferry from Penzance Quay (from £37.50).

I was a guest of the Hell Bay Hotel who also supplied the first and fifth photographs for this post.


  1. Beautiful review, sounds wonderful :)

  2. It was Dawn, we want to go back this minute!

  3. You're living my life... I've been wanting to go there for ages... You lucky thing.


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