ONLY a few Americans seem to find their way to either of the two granite archipelagoes in the English Channel, clusters of tiny windswept islands that lure vacationing Brits by the thousands. Situated on the edge of the Atlantic as if they'd been kicked southwest by the sharp toe of Land's End, the Isles of Scilly--chiefly, St. Mary's, Tresco, Bryher, St. Martin's, and St. Agnes--belong to the Duchy of Cornwall, which is to say, to Prince Charles. The Channel Islands--principally, Jersey, Guernsey, Alderny, Sark, Herm, and Jethou--huddle in a French gulf eight miles off the Cherbourg peninsula and are loyal to the British Crown but self-governing. Bathed in relative warmth by the Gulf Stream, both groups of beach-ringed islands boast more-temperate climates and longer growing seasons than mainland (as it were) Britain. And because they lie beyond casual reach (the Scillys are twenty-eight miles off the English coast, the Channels a hundred), they aren't as trampled or as commercialized as many of England's seaside resorts have become.
I've seen a lot of the English countryside by car, from the Devonshire moors east to the hops fields in Kent, from Cumbria's scree-scarred mountains south to the orchards in Dorset--mostly by meandering at random. It's quite different getting to the Channel's holiday islands (and off again). You have to plan, to book a crossing by water or air. In olden days, with limited navigational aids and in seas rife with marauding cutthroats, either trip was risky business. Always politically vulnerable, the Channel Islands have suffered foreign invasions forever, from bloody Viking attacks to a five-year occupation by the Germans during the Second World War. With a walloping 800 shipwrecks on record, the Isles of Scilly are just plain a geographical menace. (On one stormy night in 1707 more than 1,500 men, from a merchant fleet, were dashed to their deaths off the islands' westerly shoals.) Even as we weighed our options for travel to the Scillys last year, my mother cautioned, "Helicopters don't glide, dear. They plummet."
COUNTING on the Scillys to be awash in yellow and white daffodils, the islands' uniquely early export to international flower markets, my mother and I planned a late-February trip. As I rode the train five hours west from London to Penzance, snow dusted the fields, shrouded church steeples, and glinted off Cornwall's towering mounds of china-clay waste. In my hand luggage I had stuffed gloves, a scarf, and an extra sweater at the last minute, and I carried a heavy-duty windbreaker, even though the guidebooks promised a balmy welcome. (The Isles of Scilly Standard Guidebook and an informative history, The Fortunate Islands, both by R. L. Bowley, are available from the Isles of Scilly Tourist Information Centre; call 44-1720-422536.) I met Mom at the Penzance heliport for the noisy forty-two-mile, twenty-five-minute hop to St. Mary's over opal-green seas. The air was indeed soft when we stepped out into the salty breezes, but billowing purple clouds gathered in a gray sky.
At not even three miles long, St. Mary's is the largest of the five inhabited islands among fifty-some rocky spurs that peek above a rising sea. Toward the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, rivers sliced the edges of Europe and Britain on the way to meet a swelling ocean that, over the years, flooded coastal valleys and marooned the highest reaches of ground. Thus were the Scillys and the Channel Islands shaped. By modern calculations, nine inches of the Scillys' shoreline are swallowed every hundred years. Some islanders say it's only a matter of time before the capital, Hugh Town, is swept away, settled precariously as it is on a sandy isthmus between two raised plateaus.
Our taxi driver gave us a quizzical look when we asked to be dropped at the inn where, a week earlier, we had confirmed a reservation for two nights. It was boarded up, not a soul in sight, and we never did find out why no one was expecting us. The cab carried on to the single open hotel on the island; this was adequate as a stopover before ferrying to Tresco. The Scillys' population numbers just 2,000, with many Scillonians being employed by the tourist industry in the warmer months. From November to March, though, everyone is busy picking and packing daffodils. More than 400 tons of boxed flowers (is it easier to picture 30 million blooms?) are readied to fly to Covent Garden, Scandinavia, Europe, even Japan. When we were in Hugh Town, keys dangled in shop doors all afternoon beneath signs that read BACK LATER.
A daffodil-based economy certainly sounds charming, but in order to make a living in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scillonians gathered a sinister harvest: cargo from wrecks. According to island rumor, the trick was to entice ships into seeming safe harbors. Farmers hung lanterns around their cows' necks, intending the swinging lights to be mistaken for boats swaying at anchor at night. Jagged reefs greeted the bewildered skippers instead. While splintering hulls spilled cargo into the waves, local plunderers helped themselves from their longboats. A gasping sailor was more likely to get a blow to the head than a helping hand. At the Bishop and Wolf pub one night I was told that a man on Bryher was completing an extension to his house with lumber that had recently floated ashore. The bounty keeps rolling in.
For visits to the dentist, bank, drugstore, library, or clothing store, residents of other islands must ferry to St. Mary's. Mom and I sought sandy beaches, heather-covered moors, surf-sprayed cliffs, and golden fields fragrant with soleil d'ors--walking country. We found it on Tresco, a private estate leased since 1834 to the Dorrien Smith family. Rent for the island, once measured in plump little puffins, is paid into Prince Charles's deep pocket. Robert Dorrien Smith, the present incumbent, oversees the management of upscale time-share vacation apartments, including garden-enclosed stone cottages lulled by the waves; a cozy old inn; and a chic seasonal hotel. Also open to visitors (some 30,000 a year avail themselves of the privilege) are the Abbey Gardens, the remarkable terraces next to the manor house. Here twelve acres of subtropical plants thrive at an unlikely latitude. The 120 year-round residents of Tresco make up a friendly community in the off-season; one Sunday noon we drank a pint with the Abbey Gardens' curator, his wife and two daughters, the primary school teacher, and a fisherman.