Queen Victoria’s passion for the Isle of Wight – England’s St Tropez – quickly transformed the diamond-shaped isle twinkling in the Solent into the most fashionable place in all Europe. It seems that anyone who is anyone has visited the island at some point – from Lily Langtree to flirt and promenade at Cowes – to film superstar David Niven, Jimi Hendrix and Keira Knightley, who once confided that she had her first kiss at Priory Bay!
After the triumphant return of the Isle of Wight Festival and the continuing appeal of the Staycation – the Isle of Wight is fast regaining its Victorian superstar status as the chic, clever place to visit for a romantic getaway or proper family holiday without the need to jump on a jet plane. From early spring right up until Christmas, this extrovert isle buzzes with an extraordinary number of festivals, fringe events and exciting activities on and off the water, with the opportunity to see rock icons such as The Foo Fighters, Robert Plant and Coldplay – to a vibrant arts and craft scene, a thriving local and artisan food culture, and the biggest walking festival in Britain.
To that you can add – romantic castles that were once the refuge of a fugitive king, walks galore along majestic, craggy coastlines in soaring areas of the AONB (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty), secret coves for al fresco picnics, bijou caravans perched on a remote clifftop, and glamorous hotels and crab shacks on the beach for posh fish ‘n’ chips, afternoon tea or a magnificent, local seafood supper under starry skies.
So, what are you waiting for?
The Very Best Places to Stay
Best Hotel – The Royal Hotel, Ventnor. This Victorian jewel of a hotel exudes tranquility and charm. Dinner in the elegant Appuldurcombe dining room is a feast for the senses with local fish, meat and game, and inventive puddings by pastry maestro Steve Bott. Locals come to linger on the prettiest, geranium covered terrace in the south of England for decadent afternoon tea or a cocktail before dinner. Highlight: the super chic new eyrie overlooking the English Channel. Book it for a champagne lunch – www.royalhoteliow.co.uk. B&B – The Little Gloster, Gurnard. Scandinavian elegance with attention to detail, plenty of home comfort flourishes, and expansive sea views. www.thelittlegloster.com; tel 01983 298776.
Self-Catering in a National Trust Cottage – help preserve the island’s fascinating and colourful built-heritage by staying in a 17th Century stone cottage in Mottistone; a mirror image 70s house, with spiral staircase tucked away in the Undercliff; or a coastguard’s cottage overlooking St Catherine’s Lighthouse and the English Channel, with big sea views. The trust owns properties island-wide, in some of the prettiest locations, and the quality and standard of accommodation is high -www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk/isleofwight; Newnham Farm, Binstead – a very special B&B tucked away at the heart of a working farm, with homemade bread and locally cured salmon for breakfast – www.newnhamfarm.co.uk; tel 01983 882423.
Where to Eat
The Taverners Pub, Godshill – The Taverners is the most exciting place to eat on the Isle of Wight, and chef proprietor, Roger Serjent, is a local food hero. Roger has cooked in some of the most exciting hotels around the globe, yet has a refreshing lack of pretension when it comes to cooking seasonal, well-executed food that really does champion the local fisherman, farmer and hunter-gatherer. Dishes are inventive, delicious and offer far better value that the many over-priced city gastro pubs. Roger will happily barter pints for tasty seasonal gems such as figs, quince, local seafood and wild garlic. Highlights: crab wonton in a hot and sour broth, potted crab, local Brownrigg duck with baked Godshill cherries, pork belly with seasonal greens and polenta, and very, very good tiramisu. Booking essential – www.thetavernersgodshill.co.uk
The George, Yarmouth – chef Liam Finnegan brings back a sense of theatre and glamour to this celebrated coastal hotel with silken, robust French cooking with big flavours. The island’s every changing seasonal larder is a great source of inspiration. Dishes to try include: Braised shoulder of Dunsbury lamb and Coconut soufflé – www.thegeorge.co.uk; The Crab Shed, Steephill Cove – enjoy a short, inspiring ramble from Ventnor to Steephill Cove, the prettiest hideaway in England. Soak up the view and order a sumptuous seafood salad of mackerel, crab or lobster and glistening garden-grown salad at this simple Mediterranean style taverna, the best-kept secret on the island. All the fish comes straight of Jim Wheeler’s boat. Food miles? – About fifteen feet from the shore to your table – tel 01983 855819.
The Garden Restaurant, Farringford, Freshwater – this cosy, atmospheric newcomer in the grounds of Tennyson’s celebrated home draws islanders and visitors alike for championing sustainable local produce and for its popular curry nights. Local shellfish and Dunsbury lamb are the stars on the menu. Great for families too – www.farringford.co.uk/restaurant; tel 01983 752700.
What to do
Put on your boots and go walking or meet your perfect match on the island’s famous speed dating walk – www.isleofwightwalkingfestival.co.uk; The Island is like England in miniature. It has every type of landscape from rolling downs, cathedral cliffs to protected wetlands. Visit the world-famous Ventnor Botanic Gardens www.botanic.co.uk Set in the protected micro climate of the Undercliff, the gardens surprise, delight and soothe the soul with their rare, surprising and idiosyncratic ‘room set’ gardens and wall lizards. Then head for the elegant Royal Garden Café for al fresco lunch or afternoon tea, the oversized meringues and clotted cream and scones are a cake aficionado’s delight. www.botanic.co.uk ; café 01983 855570. Take the children to meet Zena, the white Siberian tiger and her big cat friends at The Isle of Wight Zoo. You could also book a special tiger experience of a lifetime and bottle-feed a tiger with goat’s milk! www.isleofwightzoo.com
Eat homemade apple cake and clotted cream in the beautiful Afton Park Apple orchard. Stay for supper on Wednesday and Thursday nights in high summer and feast on rare breed beef, Bembridge crab, local pigeon and baked peaches – www.aftonpark.co.uk; tel 1983 755774.
Forthcomings events – Pop Up Opera at The Garlic Farm, 7-8th July, with Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in the courtyard, wwwthegarlicfarm.co.uk; International Cowes Week – high octane racing, star spotting and glamour on and off the water – www. cowesweek.co.uk ; The Bestival, 8-11th September – four days of amazing music, dressing up and proper tea and cake – www.bestival.net; The Royal Revival, 14-15 October – Put on your finest vintage glad rags and head to Ventnor, for a super glam weekend of dressing up, cinema, exquisite food and vintage bus rides – www.royalhoteliow.co.uk
For more ideas galore on what to do and see on the island go to – www. ethical-hedonist.com ; www.islandbreaks.co.uk; www.iwight.com
Alison Jane Reid – Copyright July 2011
First Published in The Lady Magazine July 2011