Travel review: Isle of Wight
As we sailed away from the narrow streets of Old Portsmouth where press gangs roamed in Nelson’s day, my wife and I were already studying the leaflets and maps which you collect on the ferry across the Solent.
On the Isle of Wight, there’s always something new to see: another multi-million pound facelift at impressive Osborne House (Queen Victoria’s favourite home), a new waterfront pub, or yet another exhibition with tales of dinosaurs and Roman invaders.
If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed the garlic farm in Newchurch would need overflow car parks at weekends, let alone self-catering cottages for visitors keen to stay and sample the 42 pickles and relishes on display!
With careful planning, you won’t need much cash to see this island. Many visitors explore its 148 square miles by bus, and there are 500 miles of footpaths for walkers and cyclists, often with amazing views across vast open spaces. National Trust guided walks are also led by experts.
The tourist season offers a long programme of special events. The Walking Festival in early May focuses on 30 miles of Heritage coast and areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty which make up more than half the island.
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When you need rest and refreshment, pubs almost fight for your business.
“Credit munch!” said one of them, promising two courses for �3.95, near Carisbrooke Castle, where they held Charles I just before he lost his head in Whitehall.
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English Heritage’s film in Carisbrooke’s Visitor Centre is a masterpiece in making history interesting to any who missed out on the subject at school.
In the middle of Ryde, you can land by catamaran at The Pier, walk up the main Union Street and check into one of the apartments which enterprising Annie Horne, an entrepreneur whose main job is running an events management company, has created in an old bank building above Liberty’s, a cafe-bar on the ground floor.
Ryde is a magnet for day trippers from the mainland who love an olde world high street free of superstores and giant car parks, so Annie swiftly added a restaurant - The Blacksheep Bar - across the street, with tasty main courses from around a tenner.
One of Liberty’s daily specials - a slice of warm ciabatta packed with smoked sausage, red onion and mayonnaise, served with skinny chips and salad - put us in the perfect mood for one of Ryde’s newest attractions.
The Postcard Museum is the brainchild of James Bissell-Thomas, and tucked with some brilliance into the back half of a former shop.
Dedicated to the artist Donald McGill, the master of the double entendre, it’s a splendid selection of saucy postcards featuring nervous brides and randy vicars which sold in British seaside resorts in the 1950s.
Cannily, James acquired the copyright of dozens of McGill originals.
They are huge fun, because some standard characters are much too politically incorrect to be acceptable in today’s more ‘liberal’ climate.
As a town, Ryde has a stylish, cosmopolitan feel and could become really fashionable in the next decade. Head west on the island, however, and there’s a different atmosphere: remote, unspoiled, slower paced.
That’s where we found our holiday base, the West Bay Club: with holiday cottages surrounded by walkways, weeping willows and open lawns. It’s just outside the charming port of Yarmouth, where narrow streets fill with traffic when ferries pull in from Lymington.
West Bay Club is good for families. There’s good security within a gated environment, so children roam without supervision, and excellent leisure facilities with a large indoor pool adjoining the restaurant as the centre of attraction from 7am to 10pm, so bad weather needn’t spoil your stay.
There are squash courts, an ESPA spa, scuba diving courses, and - like a cruise ship - daily programmes of entertainments and instruction.
There’s a tennis coach on hand, with tips to improve your shots on fast and true hard court surfaces.
Although the cottages might not look too good - ‘eco-efficient’ lawns as roofs are not the smartest ‘green’ design - they are clean and virtually brand new inside, with well-equipped kitchens and a welcome pack in the fridge.
At this end of the island, you’re barely aware of other visitors – even in midsummer.
On our first night, we only found the restaurant sitting on stilts above the beach at one end of wide, curving Totland Bay with the help of a local showing us the way.
As Pinot Grigiot washed down a delectably fresh crab salad, we listened to familiar chords on the classical guitar. A vivid sunset painted a reddish glow across the waves and suggested a quiet, romantic corner on the Algarve coast of Portugal.
“Actually, that’s Boscombe across the water,” said the waiter. Our meal for four, with wine included, came to just over �60.
Next morning, it was time to tackle a breezy stretch of the Tennyson Trail - the famous poet who became the Poet Laureate lived here for 40 years, because he reckoned the air was “worth sixpence a pint”.
Before the final stretch towards The Needles, it was time to drop in for a snack at Dimbola Lodge, above Freshwater Bay, where toasted tea cakes are a delight.
This old house, rescued and refurbished in the last decade, tells the story of Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the early photographers of Victorian England, whose regular guests included the Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll, and Edward Lear.
Goodness knows what these august visitors might have made of the photographs taken during the epic 1970 Isle of Wight Pop Festival, when the audience allowed a lot to hang out. They formed an eye-popping special display when we called.
At this historic event, The Who played from midnight to dawn, and Jimi Hendrix gave one of his great performances - weeks before his death. A bronze statue in the garden of Dimbola Lodge commemorates the guitarist for posterity.
Next day, we headed for Ventnor, where the subtropical climate enables yuccas and other plants to flourish in the celebrated Botanic Gardens (admission free).
We walked down to Steephill Cove, where maritime shacks and fishing boats encircle a play area which has become a magnet for families, before strolling along the clifftops and beyond the wide sandy beach of Ventnor to the tiny hamlet of Bonchurch around the bay.
If you venture east of Ryde, you will find the atmosphere changes yet again.
Splendid houses are dotted along the seafont, and six miles of sandy beaches stretch from Ryde pier to Seaview, famous for sailing and often called ‘Chelsea by the Sea’.
Beyond the village is the Priory Bay Hotel, which looks and feels like a country house owned by the same family for generations - and elegantly dog-eared around the edges.
In summer, a barbecue area serves lunches on a wooded terrace above the hotel’s private beach, edged by trees and enjoying magnificent views across the eastern Solent.
On a sunny, summer day, this setting compares with the South of France - or even Barbados. No wonder Queen Victoria lined up her bathing machine to make the most of it, a mile or two along the shore! - Jeremy Gates
Key facts - Isle of Wight
:: Best for: Families who like walking, boating and outdoor adventure.
:: Time to go: Summer, though hotels (in packages from ferry operators) are great value in winter.
:: Don’t miss: Osborne House, the jewel in English Heritage’s crown (family tickets �29. 90) and Brading Roman Villa, with some of best preserved mosaic floors in UK.
:: Need to know: Useful guides from Wightlink include Secret Wight (10 fresh air challenges off the well-trodden tourist path), Green Getaways, Wight History Trail and Wight Taste Trail, all free by post or online.
:: Don’t forget: Waterproof clothing, if you plan to spend time outdoors.
Jeremy Gates was a guest of Wightlink, which offers three nights’ self-catering (four sharing) at West Bay Club from �120 per person in early June, including return ferry crossings (Portsmouth-Fishbourne or Lymington-Yarmouth). Seven night ferry-inclusive stays in August start at �266.
Wightlink reservations: 0871 376 100 and www.wightlink.co.uk.