St Michael’s Mount is one of Britain’s most stunning coastal locations. It’s the jewel in Cornwall’s crown.
This small island is cut off from the mainland several times every day so it has a character all of its own. A flotilla of small boats carries passengers from one side of the bay to the island during high tide.
At other times this tiny tidal isle can be reached by a narrow granite causeway. It takes only minutes to walk across the ancient cobbles which stretch from the mainland to the island.
St Michael’s Mount provides a gorgeous escape from the mainland even though it’s just a short hop from the small town of Marazion.
I’d recommend taking one of the many small boats to the island rather than walking along the causeway – be sure to check the tide times or you’ll be left high and dry.
Although it’s only a quick journey, the boat trip feels like an adventure with gorgeous views as you approach the craggy island.
Once you’ve disembarked, it’s worth taking time to look around the quaint harbour area, although most visitors head straight up the hill to the castle. The slow pace of life here is great – I could spend a happy hour or two watching boats coming in and out of the harbour.
Close to the harbour, look out for this modern wall painting which re-creates an ancient map of the island which was once famous as a religious and then a military centre.
A short walk from the harbour, there’s a group of interesting historic buildings including the remains of a dairy, a reminder of when the island used to have its very own herd of grazing cows whose milk was churned to make cheese and butter for the locals.
Giants, mermaids and legends
The historic castle dominates this small island, standing proudly on top of a rocky pinnacle. Take a few deep breaths before you climb to the top along a steep, cobbled pathway. High heels are not recommended!
On the way up, you”ll discover the fantastic myths and legends of St Michael’s Mount including stories of giants, mermaids and pilgrims.
The Cornish legend of Jack the Giant Killer is one of the best known stories associated with the island.
Folklore tells that Cormoran the Giant lived on the Mount and was renowned for stealing cattle when he got hungry. Only Jack, a young boy from Marazion, was fearless enough to take on the giant and rid the island of its curse.
The story goes that he made his way across the cobbled causeway to lay a trap one night before luring the monster out with a loud blast on his horn.
Look out for the giant’s stone heart as you venture up the path to the castle. It’s easy to miss so keep your eyes peeled.
There are also tall tales of seafarers lured by mermaids onto the rocks or guided to safety by an apparition of St Michael, the patron saint of fishermen.
Four miracles are said to have happened on the island between 1262 and 1263. No doubt this is one of the reasons why pilgrims were drawn here in earlier centuries.
Tide and time
The island has a rich history dating back to Neolithic times but it’s the tales of its monks and soldiers which have captured the imagination of visitors for centuries.
By 1066 St Michael’s Mount was in the possession of the monks of its sister isle, Mont St Michel in France. In the 12th Century the monks built the church and priory that lie within the heart of the island today.
The Mount was also an important defensive bastion especially in Elizabethan and Napoleonic times. The first beacon was lit to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada in 1588 from the top of the church tower.
Today the castle is the main attraction on the island. It may look like something from one of Grimm’s fairy tales but it dates largely from the late Victorian period.
It’s definitely worth a look inside. Start your visit in the entrance hall with its magnificent plaster work before heading into Sir John’s Room, once a study for The Mount’s owner.
The castle feels surprisingly homely and welcoming although it’s easy to get lost in its maze of rooms and alleyways.
Lovers of armour and weaponry will want to linger in the Garrison Room which boasts an impressive Samurai warrior in full regalia.
Pop outside through a small doorway and you’ll find yourself looking at the defensive Watchtower which has medieval origins.
The impressive Gun Batteries show off the military might of the castle, although the current batteries were installed in the late 18th Century mainly for ceremonial purposes.
The most impressive part of the castle is the Blue Drawing Rooms designed in the 1780s. This is where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert famously came for tea in the 1800s.
One of my favourite parts of the house is the Map Room which boasts a fascinating selection of cartography. The star attraction is an amazing model of The Mount made from champagne corks by a former butler, Henry Lee, in the 1930s. It must have been a labour of love – and bubbly drinking!
Inside the church
The small medieval church provides a contrast to the main castle with its simple stone walls and decoration. It’s still used for Sunday services today.
It was originally built by Bernard le Bec, the Abbot of Mont St Michel in Normandy in 1135 – and was later extended in the 14th Century. It still retains a spiritual and otherworldly feel.
It’s really beautiful to watch the light dancing through the chapel windows, creating a rippled effect on the plain grey stones.
Also worth looking out for are the 500-year-old alabaster carvings of biblical scenes and a 15th Century granite Lantern Cross.
Linger here for a few minutes and you’ll lose track of time and get a feel for what it must have been like to live on the island six centuries ago.
St Michael’s Mount is perhaps most famous for its gorgeous gardens especially in the spring and summer when the terraces which cascade down from the castle are a riot of colour.
It’s amazing that these lush gardens prosper, given the sea pounding the shores and the salty winds which blow in across the island.
But the mild Gulf Stream provides warmth so frosts are rare and the rocks acts as a huge radiator, absorbing heat during the day and creating a micro climate for many exotic-looking plants.
I love the many rocky terraces where succulents peek out of the crevices, blooming with distinctive flowers in the summer months.
It’s hardly the first place where you’d expect to find agapanthus, agave and aloe which normally I’d associate with an arid climate in countries like Mexico, South Africa and the Canary Islands.
It’s also a hot spot for herbs like rosemary and lavender which thrive on the East and West Terraces as well as in the Walled Garden.
From the Laundry Lawn at the entrance to the gardens, there are great views across Mont’s Bay to the Lizard on a clear day. This is also a great spot for a picnic so don’t forget your basket.
Look up to the steep banks surrounding the castle. The granite wall was once part of the castle’s defences during the English Civil War.
You’ll also see the historic ‘Mackerel Bank’ where local fishermen once left their fish to dry out on the granite bedrock.
But the biggest attraction is the gardens themselves which are thought to have been created by the ‘Four Misses’ of the St Aubyn family in the 1780s.
It must have required a monumental effort to build the gardens, with the steep banks around the castle presenting the biggest challenge to the novice gardeners.
Terracing was the key to making an impact with the gardens. They created a terraced wall of colour and winding paths leading up to the castle through the gorgeous blooms and plants.
You have to be something of a mountain goat to clamber to the top of the terraces but it’s worth the dizzying experience… and coastal views.
The ‘radiator’ effect of the stony terraces means that many exotic-looking species thrive.
Spring time and summer are the best seasons to capture the gardens at their colourful best.
The West Terraces are renowned for their profusion of amazing succulents and beds of colourful blooms craning their heads to the skies.
I love the names of these exotic-sounding plants. Safari Sunset, Society Garlic and Cyclops are three of my favourites.
One stunner is the Fascicularia Bicolor, a native of Chile, which is a member of the pineapple family. It blooms in the autumn when metallic blue flowers appear surrounded by bright red leaves.
The West Terraces boast some of the hottest spots in the gardens, with temperatures reaching 40C+ in summer as the granite pumps out heat and the sun beats down.
Amidst the exotic array are some scary-looking plants including the Echium Pininana which can grow up to 20 feet high with a strange conical shape. It looks like something the island’s mythical giant might have planted.
I was fascinated by the Aloe Polyphyllas with their spiral shapes and perfect, swirly geometry. They’re great for practicing close-up shots of plants, if you’re keen on photography.
There are also many odd-looking trees including a hairy-barked tree that looks like something from a sub-tropical paradise.
There are garden tours for those who are keen to learn more, but my tummy was rumbling so it was time to head to the island’s Sail Loft Cafe. This turned out to be a great choice with its excellent crab platter and fish specialities.
St Michael’s Mount is a perfect island destination. It’s small, perfectly formed and easy to explore on a day trip.
Island hopping is easy here because it takes only eight minutes to travel to this idyllic spot.
Today, around 30 islanders call the village their home. But you can imagine yourself living on this dream island, even if it’s just for one day.
St Michael’s Mount reminds me of being abroad. Perhaps it’s because of its similarity with its French counterpart, Mont St-Michel in Normandy, France?
Take the trip and you won’t be disappointed. It’s a great place to chill out.
What else could be better than visiting this picture-perfect island escape on a sunny day?
Tammy’s Guide to St Michael’s Mount
St Michael’s Mount is located near Marazion on Cornwall’s south-east coast.
Plan your visit carefully because timing is crucial. At high tide the island’s causeway is cut-off from the mainland so you’ll need to take a short boat trip.
At high tide during spring, summer and autumn, frequent motorboats leave from landing points along the shore at Marazion for the island’s harbour.
The Castle and Gardens are open during the main seasons but close during the winter months of November, December and January. Weather can be variable so check the forecast.
One word of warning – expect to pay for your delightful island adventure. If you’re not a National Trust member, you’ll be expected to pay entrance fees to both the castle and gardens. The boat trip is extra too.
Car parking in Marazion does not come cheaply with several designated parking areas close to the launch beach. There are very few other places to park, especially if you have a motor home or camper van.
Don’t forget your camera. The island is extremely photogenic and offers opportunities for great shots of seascapes, castles and the plants.
Be aware that the Gardens have steep drops so you’re advised to wear sensible shoes. I had to help a woman in distress who was wearing fashion heels so she got back to the harbour without breaking her neck.
Dogs are not allowed in the gardens. Leave Fido at home or with friends.
Don’t miss the many oddities scattered around the gardens including World War Two pill boxes from the 1940s which were used in case of a German invasion.
From inside these tiny boxes there are great views of the bay and surrounding coastline.
If you’re in the vicinity of the historic harbour, look out for free tours and special events.