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How to Spend St. Pat’s in a Castle

There’s a general misconception how a man should spend St. Patrick’s Day.

Common wisdom says he should find the nearest pub – wherever he may be, from London to Los Angeles – and drain glasses of Guinness until he’s singing voice devolves from English to Gaelic-like gibberish.

For the man with a family who can’t get away to the watering hole, maybe he settles down before a plate of corned beef and cabbage while humming a bit of "Molly Malone."

But, if you’re going to do the holiday right, you need to step away from the flimsy creature comforts of modern life and spend St. Patrick’s Day lobster fishing in the English Channel and sleep St. Patrick’s Eve in a castle high atop the most remote UK Island.

With the Olympics headed to London this summer, and Queen Elizabeth II preparing for a jubilee celebration, UK tourism authorities invited travel and lifestyle writers to England to explore a country about to enjoy more than its standard share of international attention. It was that trip that found me on the Isles of Scilly this March 17.

The idea was to show the press what the England of 50 years ago was like by transporting reporters to the small set of islands 28 miles south of Land’s End on the Cornish Coast. Standing on the quay fishing fort of this quaint, quiet and intimate island of St. Mary’s, you’re as far removed from the English mainland as the UK can send you. There’s only Spain 1,000 miles to the south, and Nantucket 3,000 miles to the west.

You get to The Isles of Scilly via helicopter or Skybus aircraft, though there are ferries running in the warmer months. The planes take off from a grassy field (no runway) at the two-room Land’s End Airport just outside Penzance. Once the tiny two-prop Otter aircraft fires up the buzzing engines and heads for the cliffs, you’re either flying to Scilly or plunging into the sea. But that’s all worth it to experience classic, pain free air travel free of endless delays and the politically correct theater of draconian security hassles.

For tourists and locals like, the prime attraction on St. Mary’s is Star Castle, an Elizabethan fortress built in just 18 months to act as defense against possible invasion of the Spanish and French. These days, the fortification is a cozy, if outwardly imposing hotel owned by Robert Francis (a local and longtime hotelier).

His staff transformed the castle keep into guests rooms, the dungeon into a pub and the one-time officer’s mess into a gourmet restaurant serving up dishes enlivened by local island ingredients.

In fact, Francis is a part time lobster fisherman with his own boat (the Gallos out of Scilly). While enjoying your poached eggs and black pudding for breakfast – should you decide you’d like lobster dinner, you put your order in then and there. Francis will head out and pull his pots that afternoon, and you’ll eat very fresh seafood that night.

But, rather than let Francis do all of the work, I tagged along on that March 17th afternoon fishing, helping to pull the Star Castle’s 15 lobster pots from the cold, choppy Channel and Atlantic waters. The only problem is, while I worked fishing boats when I was a kid, I know nothing about lobster fishing. So, the best help I could serve up was to stay the hell out of the way of the much more competent and quietly tough men working the boat that day.

My presence didn’t bring much luck to the Gallos on that day. It was very early in the fishing season, and we took in only two lobsters and a few decent size crab. Since two lobsters isn’t enough to feed a hungry dining room, the chef transformed our catch into bisque so I could at least taste a bit of my aquatic spoils.

That night, even a British Isle can put the ages old England/Ireland rivalry aside long enough to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. I hit The Mermaid in St. Mary’s harbor – a lively working man’s pub where the locals go for a pint day and night. There’s small brewery on the island – and in addition to a pint of cloudy, dry Cornish cider – I sampled the local Three Sheets Beer from The Ales of Scilly and found it every bit a worthy stand in for the Guinness being downed over in Dublin that night.

Last call sounded a half hour late for the special occasion (11:30), and I returned to the dark castle walls to sleep with the distant sound of cashing waves and seagulls to keep me company.

All things Scilly considered, the journey put a glass of green beer and a dyed river to shame.