The Isle of Wight certainly punches above its weight. Measuring just 23 miles by 13, this small island off the Hampshire coast is bursting with a history that goes back to the age of dinosaurs, and along the way has been called home by wealthy Romans and Queen Victoria.
Even the wildlife sets it apart – last year the island was named a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in an effort to conserve its astonishing natural habitats, and it is one of the few places in Britain where native red squirrels thrive, safe from American greys that have largely wiped out the population on the mainland. It’s also where I grew up and where I return to visit my parents.
Getting there is part of the adventure. There are ferry services from Portsmouth or Southampton to choose from, taking from about 20 minutes to an hour, and the world’s oldest commercial hovercraft service operates between Southsea and Ryde, with journeys of just ten minutes. It’s a fantastic spot for a break, so here are my top recommendations.
FOLLOW THE TENNYSON TRAIL FOR VIEWS THAT ARE SHEER POETRY
Farringford near Freshwater Bay was the home of Alfred Lord Tennyson and now has several onsite cottages for rent
Arguably the best walk on the island is on Tennyson Down, named after the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who frequently walked there and to whom a memorial has been erected.
It’s a great spot for a picnic, looking down over the white cliffs of Freshwater Bay. Tennyson lived in adjacent Farringford, and it was there in 1854 that he composed The Charge Of The Light Brigade. The Grade I listed house is open to visits. His friend and neighbour was the portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and her house, Dimbola, can also be visited (dimbola.co.uk).
Stay: Farringford has several onsite cottages, including the beautifully converted stone stables cottage for four, which starts at £869 for a week in September (farringford.co.uk).
TAKE TO THE WATER – OR SPOT CELEBS BY TUK-TUK
The Hut at Colwell Bay is the cool place to tuck into local fish, sip wine, take in the sea air and maybe spot a celebrity
In full sail: Yachts in the annual Round the Island Race passing the iconic Needles chalk stacks
You can walk from Tennyson Down all the way to the iconic Needles chalk stacks, but a different view can be had on a boat trip from Alum Bay (needlespleasurecruises.co.uk). A chairlift can take you down the west coast’s soaring cliffs to the seafront, which is famous for its multi-coloured sands. It is very touristy but worth a visit.
Back on land, take a tuk-tuk tour of the area from Yarmouth (£55 for two hours for two people), including pretty Colwell Bay, with great views of Hurst Castle. The Hut at Colwell Bay (thehutcolwell.co.uk) is the cool place to tuck into local fish, sip wine, take in the sea air and maybe spot one of the many celebrities who go there, including singer Michael Bublé.
Stay: The seaside George Inn at Yarmouth has 17 elegant rooms as well as a relaxed beach bar, The Fin And Tonic, with alfresco grill and pizza oven. B&B doubles cost from £225 a night (thegeorge.co.uk).
RAISE A GLASS TO THE MASKED CRUSADERS
The 32-mile Red Squirrel Trail, from Cowes in the north all the way down to the south coast, takes in Godshill known for its miniature village (pictured)
The island is criss-crossed by disused railway lines. Some of them have been converted into pleasant cycle routes, including the 32-mile Red Squirrel Trail, from Cowes in the north all the way down to the south coast.
Named after the endangered native, the trail takes in Godshill, with its miniature village, and the Appuldurcombe Estate with a landscape designed by Capability Brown. There are plenty of food stops en route, including Pedallers Cafe (pedallerscafe.co.uk) in Newchurch, which sells good sandwiches and jacket potatoes. You can hire bikes too (redsquirreltrail.org.uk).
For a nature walk, try Newtown, once a busy port but now a sleepy backwater with boardwalks, ancient salt pans and a lovely harbour and copse walk. Not surprisingly, it’s a birdwatchers’ paradise, with Canada geese and grey heron aplenty. It’s also home to a 17th Century town hall given to the National Trust in 1933 by a group of masked women, called Ferguson’s Gang, who were intent on buying up and saving important historic buildings. Raise a glass to them in nearby Shalfleet’s New Inn (newinniow.co.uk), which also serves local gins.
Stay: Pedallers Cafe also has its own B&B, with simple rooms and bike storage in the garage. Rooms in August cost from £80 a night (rosemarycottagebreaks.co.uk), or the National Trust has a rustic cabin in Newtown, with two nights in September for four from £318 (nationaltrust.org.uk).
SECRET BEACHES AND JURASSIC GIANTS
Fossil-finders’ paradise: Beautiful Compton Bay is famous for its dinosaur remains
There’s no road to Steephill Cove, which gives it a beach-that-time-forgot feel, where huts and deckchairs jostle for space with fishing boats and lobster pots.
Earn your ice cream and walk there on the 20-minute coastal route from Ventnor. Be sure to book a table at The Boathouse Seafood Restaurant – the platters are delicious (steephill-cove.co.uk).
Along the coast are a number of scenic chines, or narrow river gullies, leading to bays. Avoid the touristy Shanklin Chine and instead try the 12-mile walk along the coastal path from Chale to Brook, where, at low tide, fossilised forest trees appear out of the waves.
The island is one of the richest sites in Europe for discovering dinosaur remains – among recent discoveries was a relative of tyrannosaurus rex. Would-be palaeontologists might spot a dinosaur footprint or even find a tooth at Compton Bay. Dinosaur Isle, a purpose-built museum in Sandown, even offers family-friendly fossil hunts (dinosaurisle.com).
Stay: The Spyglass Inn in Ventnor has four sea-view apartments costing from £90 B&B a night in August (spyglassinn.co.uk), or Gotten Manor at Chale is near another lovely walk by St Catherine’s Lighthouse and has B&B rooms and self-catering cottages. A cottage for four for a week in August costs from £850 (gottenmanor.co.uk).
SEE A QUEEN’S RETREAT – AND A KING’S PRISON
Osborne House was Queen Victoria’s ‘palace by the sea’. Check out her bathing beach, the children’s play cottage and the bedroom where she died in 1901
Queen Victoria loved Osborne House, her palace by the sea. Visitors can check out her bathing beach, the children’s play cottage and the bedroom where she died in 1901.
Another Royal spent a less fortuitous spell on the island – Charles I was imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle during the mid-1600s.
Prisoners used to work its 16th Century treadwheel to raise water 161ft from the castle’s well, but today you can watch donkeys doing it. For more donkey action, visit the Donkey Sanctuary between Shanklin and Ventnor (iowdonkeysanctuary.org).
Stay: Osborne House has a pavilion and gatehouses cottages, with four nights for four in August from £1,310 (www.english-heritage.org.uk). The Royal Hotel in Ventnor, where Queen Victoria used to take afternoon tea, has B&B doubles from £170 a night (royalhoteliow.co.uk).
TODAY’S MENU… A CRAB FEST AND GARLIC GALORE
Visitors to Bembridge can look around the lifeboat station before tucking into hearty crab sandwiches or salad at The Beach hut
The most chi-chi part of the island is around Bembridge, which also happens to be a great beach for crabbing at low tide. There’s a lifeboat station to look around before tucking into hearty crab sandwiches or salad at The Beach Hut (isleofwightbeachcafe.co.uk). Stretch your legs on Bembridge Down, with its sea and chalk cliff views, as well as a Victorian fort, which offers pre-booked guided tours on Tuesdays (nationaltrust.org.uk). Just a few miles away is Brading, the site of a Roman villa.
If crab isn’t your thing, head to the Garlic Farm at Newchurch – it doesn’t just produce the stuff, it also serves such delicacies as whole roasted garlic bulbs and garlic houmous in its restaurant. There’s even garlic beer for sale in the shop.
Stay: The Crab & Lobster Inn at Bembridge has five comfortable rooms, some with sea views, from £95 a night in August (characterinns.co.uk), or The Garlic Farm has cottages to rent as well as four yurts on site, with four nights for four in August from £789 (thegarlicfarm.co.uk).
STEAM TRAINS AND A THEME PARK FROM ANOTHER TIME
All aboard: Head back in time with a ten-mile ride on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway
Head back in time with a ten-mile ride on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway (iwsteamrailway.co.uk).
Although Havenstreet is the central station, if you board at Wootton you can also walk down the old railway line to Whippingham, then refuel at Briddlesford Lodge Farm’s Bluebells Cafe, which specialises in island produce, including its own cheese (briddlesford.co.uk).
For another traditional family day out, Blackgang Chine (blackgangchine.com) is the UK’s oldest theme park, having opened in the 1840s. It’s less about big rides and more about imagination, with a cowboy town, fairytale section and huge models of dinosaurs.
Stay: Keep to the theme by booking one of the 13 Airstream caravans on a small working farm near Ryde (vintagevacations.co.uk). One night for four costs from £110 in August.
COWES, THE PORT THAT’S ALWAYS SHIPSHAPE
Cowes is home to the the world’s oldest and largest sailing regatta, which attracts about 8,000 competitors and 100,000 spectators each summer
Cowes Week, the world’s oldest and largest sailing regatta, which attracts about 8,000 competitors and 100,000 spectators each summer, may have been cancelled this year, but you shouldn’t miss a stroll along the town’s seafront before delving into its independent boutiques.
For seriously nautical types, the Classic Boat Museum (classicboatmuseum.com) has 75 vessels on display, including the 2017 America’s Cup test boat used by Sir Ben Ainslie, one of the most successful sailors in Olympic history. For a day on the waves, Salty Sailing (saltysailing.co.uk) has crewed-boat charters for eight from £350 in July, and hopes to bring back its taster days, at £100pp.
From Cowes, it’s about an hour’s walk around the headland to Gurnard and The Little Gloster (thelittlegloster.com) with its fresh lobster, scallops and views of the Solent.
Stay: The Little Gloster also has three Scandi-chic bedrooms, costing from £130 a night B&B. In Cowes old town, North House has 14 stylish rooms from £195 a night in August (northhousecowes.co.uk).