Whether you were first introduced to island life by childhood stories or happy holidays, you’ll know that these small land features exude their own very special kind of magic. Even with the presence of modern ferries, there’s something about being surrounded by water that can leave you feeling happily cut off from the rest of the world and, more importantly, the daily hassle.
Here in Great Britain, we’re lucky that our large island is surrounded by many intriguing smaller ones. From the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall to the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, our islands and the people that call them home are a delight for visitors. And when you’re traveling to an island, the journey becomes part of the adventure.
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Even more so if you choose to travel by public transport. You might associate island hopping with cars and car ferries but there are plenty of mainline train stations that will take you right to ferry ports, and it’s worth remembering that travelling as a foot passenger costs far less than taking your vehicle on board a ferry. Choose a small enough island and you’ll be able to walk across it but many larger ones have local buses as well as bike hire and taxis. In other words, build your island trip carefully and you’ll be able to travel sustainably using both public and active transport.
There are plenty of island train adventures to choose from but we have four suggestions to get you thinking. Read on to find our top suggestions of how to visit an island by train.
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The Isle of Bute makes a great first island adventure. Small enough (5 miles) to walk across but big enough to have a resort town as well as long sandy beaches and a fantastic sense of solitude, ‘Beautiful Bute’ is only a couple of hours away from Glasgow Central station and, as a foot passenger, your combined rail and ferry ticket will cost you a lot less than you might think.
Your island adventure
The best way to get a taste for any place is to explore it on foot. The West Island Way is a 30-mile walking route that takes you mostly off road, across moorland, through farms and along seashores to show you the best of Bute’s wildlife, history and natural beauty.
Area: Scotland’s West Coast
Train station: Wemyss Bay
Station to ferry: 3-minute walk
Departure ferry port: Wemyss Bay
Arrival ferry port: Rothesay
Ferry company: Calmac
How big is the Isle of Bute?
15 miles by 4 miles
Isle of Bute transport:
Isle of Bute accommodation:
From hotels to campsites, Bute offers a wide range of accommodation options. You could even try glamping by the beach at Ettrick Bay.
Life on Bute
Look forward to:
Swimming from long sandy beaches, spotting sea birds and seals, enjoying views of Arran.
Warm clothes if you’re camping, waterproofs if you’re walking and midge repellent (just in case).
Most islands have nearby neighbours. Just along the line from Wemyss Bay you’ll find Largs station where you can catch a ferry to Cumbrae, also known as ‘The Island of a Thousand Bicycles’.
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Travel to Herm once and you’ll be longing to return. On this miniscule gem just off the coast of Guernsey you’ll find turquoise waters, beaches made up of tiny shells and all the relaxation you could want. One thing you won’t find on Herm however is cars, which makes it the perfect location for anyone who loves a peaceful wander.
Your island adventure
Life on Herm is all about relaxing but if you feel like expending a bit more energy, why not kayak your way right around the island with Outdoor Guernsey? It will only take you two hours but on the way keep your eyes open for seals, dolphins and peregrines.
Area: Channel Islands
Train station: Poole
Station to ferry: 10-minute taxi or 25-minute walk
Departure ferry port: Poole Harbour
Arrival ferry port: St Peter Port (Guernsey)
Ferry company: Condor
Once you’ve arrived in St Peter Port, you’ll have one more boat ride to take. It’s just a 2-minute walk from the Condor ferry quay to the Herm quay but the shops and lovely harbour of St Peter Port are well worth exploring if you have time. Once you’re on board the Travel Trident ferry, it’s a quick 20-minute trip over to Herm.
How big is the island of Herm?
1.5 miles by 0.5 miles
Walking or boat but porter services are available if you have lots of luggage.
For such a small island, Herm has a good range of accommodation. The ready-equipped tents are perfect for camping if you’ve travelled by public transport or you might like to book a holiday cottage or treat yourself to a few nights at the popular White House Hotel.
Life on Herm
Look forward to:
Sea dips in crystal clear water, cliff top walks, fish and chips at the Mermaid Tavern.
Suncream and a good book.
Once you’ve made your ferry trip from the mainland, you’ll have plenty of islands nearby. From St Peter Port it’s an hour by ferry if you want to explore the cliffs and bays of Sark but while you’re on Guernsey, don’t miss out on the opportunity to swim in the Venus Pool on the tiny island of Lihou. Check the tides, catch a bus to L’Eree, then cross the causeway on foot.
The Trainsplit app is more than just a way to save money on train travel. It's a great way to explore new places and meet new people.
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It’s exciting enough to travel to Cornwall by train but add in the fact that Penzance is the end of the line, and that you’re about to sail off into the Atlantic, and this might well end up being your favourite holiday transport experience ever.
Your island adventure
The Isles of Scilly are perfect for both walking and swimming so why not take part in an adventure, which combines both? The Wild and Scilly Mermaids are passionate sea swimmers and offer a swim hike adventure. Pack your kit into a specialist tow float, swim 2.5 km around the coast then enjoy a 3 km walk back.
Train station: Penzance
Station to ferry: 10-minute walk
Departure ferry port: Penzance
Arrival ferry port: St Mary’s
Ferry company: Isles of Scilly Steamship Company
How big is the island of St Mary’s?
At only 2.5 miles by 1.75 miles, you might be surprised to hear that St Mary’s is the largest of the Isles of Scilly. Hugh Town is your arrival point from Penzance but it’s also the launching point for trips to several stunning off islands.
There are cars on St Mary’s but most people choose to walk or cycle. There are other choices though. Why not book a pony for a beach trek, hire a bike or hire a golf buggy for a new experience. On the off islands, you’ll most likely be walking.
You can camp on St Mary’s, St Agnes, Bryher or St Martins and all four of the campsites offer stunning views and beach access. If you don’t want to carry your camping gear on the train, why not opt for hostel-style accommodation at Longstone Lodge or book a lodge at Peninnis Farm.
Life on St Mary’s
Look forward to:
Stunning sunsets, tiny island tours, white sand beaches and gin and tonic overlooking the sea at Juliet’s.
Pack a jacket to wear on your boat trips to the off islands.
You don’t need a boat for all island adventures. If ferries aren’t your thing, why not take a stroll along the seafront from Penzance station and walk over the causeway to St Michael’s Mount; where you can explore, climb to the summit and enjoy afternoon tea at the Harbour Loft.
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Whether you’re walking alongside it or crossing it by bridge or boat, the Bristol Channel is a fascinating place to be. With high tides that regularly top 10 metres and an interesting human history, Flat Holm is a unique environment for wildlife lovers and island explorers alike.
Your island adventure
You can visit Flat Holm Island on a short 3-hour day trip but you’re almost certainly going to want to stay longer. Once you’ve enjoyed the unusual flora such as rock sea lavender and wild leek, as well as sea birds and unusually marked slow worms, why not discover the island’s fascinating history, which includes coastal defences, Morse code, smuggling and cholera.
Area: Bristol Channel, South Wales
Train station: Cardiff Bay
Station to ferry: 7-minute walk
Departure ferry port: Cardiff
Arrival ferry port: Flat Holm Island
Ferry company: Cardiff Cruises
How big is Flat Holm Island?
Flat Holm Island is almost a circle and its diameter is only 620 metres, only a third of a mile.
Flat Holm Island transport:
You’ll be walking around this rugged island so bring a sensible pair of shoes or boots.
Flat Holm Island accommodation
There is a farmhouse field centre on the island, which has shared dormitory rooms. Camping may also be available but tents are not provided. If you fancy a more comfortable stay, why not opt for self-catering accommodation at Fog Horn Cottage.
Life on Flat Holm
Look forward to:
Locating the lighthouse, gun batteries and cholera hospital. Watching the large colony of lesser black-backed gulls. A pint in Wales’ most southerly pub, the Gull and Leek.
This is a cash-only island so bring a £5 cash landing fee and a bit to spare for the small shop and pub. You’ll need your own food if you’re staying and a rubbish bag to take your waste home with you.
Even the Bristol Channel has more than one island. Less than a mile away but across the border in England, Steep Holm is Flat Holm’s taller sister. If you like collecting unusual trig points, you’ll love the one right in the centre of this rocky island. Take your time to discover walks, views and The Barracks. Because of the massive tides, you’ll have a whole 12 hours.
When it comes to visiting an island by train, it’s worth doing your research. Some providers offer combined ferry and train tickets, for example if you’re travelling to the Isle of Wight by train or visiting the Outer Hebrides, but this might not be the cheapest option.
Travelling to an island by ferry and train might sound expensive but ticket splitting really can help your travel budget go further. Believe it or not, when you book your train trip as one journey it can often cost more than if you book it as separate tickets for each leg.
This might sound complicated but it’s easier than you think. When you book your train tickets through the Trainsplit app, it does all the ticket-splitting work for you and lets you know where you’ve saved money. All the tickets you need will appear on your mobile device and Trainsplit can even deal with some combined ferry and train tickets.
You can download the Trainsplit app from either Google Play or the App Store. It’s free to download and very simple to use. Once you’ve added your travel dates and times, Trainsplit will show you all the ticket options. All you’ll need to do is choose the one that best suits you.
What are you waiting for? It’s time to get island hopping!
Living in Devon, Fi is an outdoor writer, blogger and children’s author. She is also an Ordnance Survey Champion and a keen walker and outdoor swimmer. Fi tries to enjoy as many of her outdoor activities as possible by train instead of by car.