A Glamorous Getaway on The Isle of Wight By Alison Jane Reid
Where can you go for a glamorous, life-affirming, getaway weekend, without jumping on a jet plane, but still feel as if you have left the country?I’m heading to fashionable, quirky, Victorian Ventnor on the south coast of Isle of Wight, only three hours from London, and once the haunt of the Victorian glitterati. There’s a real buzz about this flamboyant, quirky hilltop town, hanging rakishly off a geological fault line – with a Mediterranean microclimate, cathedral views, a twinkling, elegant Victorian gem of a hotel – The Royal; and Robert Thompson’s eponymous Michelin-starred outpost – The Hambrough. Ventnor is just the place for a latterday Daisy Buchanan – pure, 21st Century Great Gatsby. I swear no one would bat an eyelid if you wafted down the high street in an impossibly beautiful evening dress and baby tiara – a girl can dream; but first we have to get there!
One moment I’m standing on the platform at Piccadilly Circus after covering a very busy press briefing for Downton Abbey; the next instant I feel like Lara in Doctor Who, transported to a parallel universe. After a quick dash down the A3 – my man and I are happily playing I Spy on the deck of the Wight Sky, our car ferry gliding out of Lymington Harbour to the island. Colourful yachts bob and flutter past my view, like fragile moths, and I can feel my entire body sigh and relax. Before we can blink we’ve landed in the cobblestoned seaside town of Yarmouth – where a fugitive king, Charles 1, once took refuge at what is now the elegant George Hotel.
The George is a great place to sample local fish and game n season, transformed into dishes of delicate invention and intense flavours by Irish chef, Liam Finnegan. His granny’s recipe for dense, treacle-style soda bread is a special treat. For now it’s the gateway to our exciting literary and gourmet adventure on the island, just thirty-five minutes away across the Solent.The idea that there is no culture outside London is just plain wrong. We are taking the scenic route from Yarmouth to Ventnor, and our first pit stop is one of the best and quirkiest museums I have ever encountered; anywhere. The Dimbola Photographic Museum in Freshwater is the former home of Victorian portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. She famously dreamt up the modern celebrity portrait and was a confidante of Alfred Lord Tennyson, poet laureate, and the rock star of his day.This time we are here to see the recently discovered black and white images shot by the late enfant terrible of film, director Ken Russell. His black and white images of Teddy boys and girls in fifties, bombed out London are highpoint of our trip. They show London after war, and they are fascinating, poignant and laced with his trademark wicked black humour. After wandering around the museum, and seeing images from the mother of all pop festivals – we retire to the friendly museum café for homemade broccoli and Stilton soup with organic bread, which was pretty good too.Then it’s back in our car for the scenic road trip drive along the Military Road – one of the great drives anywhere in the world – a sort of mini Big Sur – beautiful, empty and desolate. Don’t forget to bring some great road trip music as you soak up the views over the English Channel, which are huge and hypnotic. We admire the medieval style fortress house where the celebrated writer JB Priestly lived and held court; we stop to watch the surfers at Compton beach and examine the ‘cottage cheese’ style cliffs, which are so vulnerable to coastal erosion that every year, another huge chunk falls into the sea!
After stopping the car many times to admire the views, we finally arrive at our destination – the four star Royal Hotel, nesting in the Undercliff in Ventnor, just as the sun is sinking over Ventnor Bay – and we feel as if we have stumbled on the rarefied world of Jay Gatsby. Any moment I expect to run into a heartbroken flapper. The staff are friendly, welcoming and low key. The hotel newly spruced up in shimmering Farrow and Ball London Grey; grand yes, but not too grand, and the stunning subtropical gardens, garlanded by a dusting of subtle fairy lights really create an air of twinkling magic.
Supper is delicious and tastes of the sea! Our waiter mentions that the hotel has its own fisherman, Justin, who is also the local retained fireman and window cleaner. I start with local beef Carpaccio with capers and soft boiled egg, which is so pink and pretty, like lace on a plate – I can hardly bare to eat it. Then local, pearl fresh, line-caught sea bass with delicious, melt in the mouth gnocchi and pesto drizzle. We finish the meal by sharing a chocolate tasting plate that is a feast for the eyes and the senses. Then it is off to our chic, comfortable room to plan the next day’s adventures. Room twenty has a big, comfortable, glamorous bed, the colour scheme is all restful, muted golds and taupe’s; and the stunning black and white prints on the wall give us food for thought for adventuring. The best bit is the enormous, gleaming bathroom fit for a king and his queen – and complete with a lovely claw bath.
The next day after an above average feast of homemade yoghurt, granola, and very good Chinese Zing tea, we go for a long hike along the breathtaking cliff path to visit St Catherine’s lighthouse. After a tour of the lighthouse, and marvelling at the bullet holes in the giant lens, a legacy from World War Two, we head off to the world renowned Ventnor Botanic Gardens, to admire the beautiful sub tropical room-sets from different regions of the world and the seven-hundred year old olive tree, rescued from Greece. Afterwards we sit and relax in the uplifting café gardens and feast on fluffy scones, well-made, tart strawberry jam and clotted cream.
After tea on the geranium-covered terrace, overlooking the enticing pool, we head off on a cycle ride into the heart of the island, to quaint Godshill, with its higgledy piggeldy thatched cottages to visit the beautiful 13thCentury church. I drop £1.50 in the collection box for a lovely, impromptu, old copy of Great Expectations and then we make a beeline for The Taverners Eating House – where chef Roger Sergent is a local food hero – championing first class ingredients bartered, bought or foraged from local farmers, fishermen and his walks in the fecund countryside. The food is tasty, surprising and prepared with great flair. Our favourites? -A well made, light goats cheese soufflé, crab wanton, local duck with Godshill cherries and the most amazing silky chocolate Brule.Ventnor was once the most fashionable winter resort in Europe, and a magnet for the beautiful, the rich and powerful at the height of Victoria’s reign. There is a sense that that is happening again. From late February onwards, the island springs to life with a diverse array of music and arts festivals, and high-octane activity on and off shore. Of course, if you wish, you can just enjoy the delicious prospect of being able to swim and picnic on locally caught crab and lobster on a deserted, secret cove, far, far away from the tourist hoardes who flock to the mainland beaches on the south coast.I know it won’t be long before this surprising English St Tropez draws us back again and again.
Alison Jane Reid Copyright October 2015
Where to Stay
The Royal Hotel, Belgrave Road, Ventnor, Isle of Wight.
Photography – Lobster Picture – Heather Edwards.
Places to Eat
The Taverners Eating House, Godshill – Tel 01983 840707. (See above for review)
Tramezzini – For the best gourmet Italian grazing on the island – this buzzing, vibrant café is the place for lunch -expect delicious soups, glistening salads and amazing cakes & luscious hot chocolate in a glass – 14, High St, Ventnor; Tel 01983 855510.
The Crab Shed, Steephill Cove – Bask in the dreamy views form this simple, Greek Style Taverna offering delicious crab, lobster and mackerel straight off their own fishing boat, open April –October, 11-3pm; Tel 01983 852177.
Where to Shop
Sophie Honeybourne Jewellery – Ethereal handmade jewellery inspired by natural forms by Royal College of Art alumni – 3, Church St, Ventnor – www.sophiehoneybournejewellery.com
; Tel 01983 854618.
The island has a thriving music scene. Head to the Spyglass Inn overlooking the English Channel, for folk, jazz and classical guitar – The Spyglass Inn, Esplanade, Ventnor – www.thespyglass.com
Copyright Alison Jane Reid October 2015