There’s something alluring about an island holiday; a feeling you’ve really got away from it all and taken a step back from your run-of-the-mill routine.
The UK’s dotted with islands from uninhabited and remote rocky outcrops to popular tourist destinations, each with its own unique lifestyle.
This is the first in a series of articles designed to help you discover Britain’s island life for yourself.
Less than 2 hours from London and a short ferry ride across the Solent off England’s South coast lies the Isle of Wight, a surprising place that’s romantic, energetic and relaxing all at the same time!
Towering chalk cliffs, smooth sandy beaches, rolling countryside and unique marshland can all be found on an island you can drive around in less than an hour.
And best of all the Isle of Wight’s full of wide-open spaces – perfect for walking, cycling, sailing and bird watching.
The island’s now Good to Go, with new measures to ensure everyone’s safety including pre-booked time slots for attractions and social distancing systems in enclosed spaces. For all the latest updates check out their website.
Getting to the Isle of Wight
If you’re bringing your own car or bike, or are a foot passenger, you have a choice of ferries at Southampton, Portsmouth and Lymington which run frequently.
In a hurry? The Red Jet from Southampton into Cowes, the Wightlink catamaran from Portsmouth to Ryde (restarting 31 July 2020) or the Hovertravel hovercraft from Southsea to Ryde will cut the crossing time in half.
There’s plenty of public transport once you’re there but right now the best options are hiking, biking or touring in your own vehicle.
What to do on the Isle of Wight
Shanklin beach is one of the most popular, found close to the Clock Tower that marks Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It’s clean, sandy and well equipped for a family day out.
The best beach on the island is hotly debated but Sandown Bay probably takes the prize as the most family-friendly. It’s a traditional bucket-and-spade destination with miles of soft golden sands and a pier.
Sunseekers and surfers will love Compton Bay but for a quieter beach try Chilton Chine, Gurnard’s, Binnel Bay or Woodside Bay.
Best for rock-pooling is Freshwater Bay. Not much sand, except at low tide, but the grey flint and chalk pebbles make a special sound as the waves rise and fall.
Rock ledges are revealed at low tide so grab those buckets and nets. Smugglers famously used the caves that sit at the bottom of the cliffs but don’t venture there without a local guide as they can be cut off by the tide.
On the island’s most easterly point you’ll find Bembridge – thought to be the largest village in England, with a population of around 4,000. Bembridge is a thriving local community packed with independent shops and cafés. It has three beaches, a small harbour and is backed by Culver Down, the white cliffs which can be seen from Sandown Bay all the way to Shanklin.
Or take a trip on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, rattling through the countryside and stopping off at each station for a glimpse of the past. The entire 10 mile round trip, which starts at Ryde, is a working museum dedicated to the age of steam.
The best view on the island has to be The Needles in Alum Bay. Around 70 million years ago the sea bed rose then sank beneath the waves again, laying down a series of sands and clay. 10 million years later the bedrock rose again, pushing the sediments nearly vertically upwards to form the multi-coloured cliffs of The Needles.
There’s a walkway (closed in rough weather) and you can take a chairlift. A 20 minute mini-cruise or a speedier jet boat ride will get you a closer view of the famous rocks and the lighthouse.
Robin Hill Country Park combines beautiful countryside with family fun. 88 acres of parkland with woodland, wide open fields and water gardens to explore. Jungle Heights has tree canopy walkways, rope bridges, net tunnels and a giant trampoline for burning off excess energy and there’s a huge open air maze for those who really want to get lost.
Ventnor Botanic Garden is an oddity, a garden in Britain with a Mediterranean climate. Protected by chalk downs the cold northerly winds fail to ruffle its calm and frost is almost unheard of. Subtropical plants can grow unprotected, out of doors, giving rise to its reputation as Britain’s hottest garden with an impressive range of succulents and cacti plus herbs, bedding plants and even palm trees.
A little more sedate is the historic Mottistone Gardens, a National Trust property near Newport set in a sheltered valley surrounded by rolling downland.
Homes and History
Osborne House was Queen Victoria’s holiday home where she spent many years with Prince Albert and their children and where she came to mourn after the Prince’s death.
Visit Victoria and Albert’s bathing beach and discover the family play-cottage for a glimpse of a royal child’s life. Wander through the garden terraces and take in the same views across the Solent that once reminded Prince Albert of the Bay of Naples.
English Heritage run the property and the grounds and gardens are open, with advance booking and timed tickets.
Carisbrooke Castle is another English Heritage attraction, with a long history. It has been an artillery fortress, a king’s prison and a royal summer residence. Take in the panoramic views from the Norman Keep and castle walls, or delve deep into the moat and find King Charles I’s bowling green where he whiled away the days during his captivity. Oh, and there are donkeys.
If pubs and clubs are not your thing, the Isle of Wight has a different type of night life on offer. What could be more romantic than a bit of star gazing?
The island’s been recently designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and has some of the darkest skies in the UK, making it a star-studded night out.
The Pepperpot – or St Catherine’s Oratory – makes a perfect backdrop for the Milky Way. The site is run jointly by National Trust and English Heritage and is free to enter during daylight hours, but be prepared for s short hike up a hill and there may be cows! The octagonal tower is all that survives of the oratory which was built in 1328 as penance by a local landowner, who had plundered casks of white wine from a shipwreck, little knowing the cargo was destined for the church. The Pepperpot stands on one of the highest parts of the Isle of Wight and was once used as a lighthouse.
Blackgang Chine in Ventnor is Britain’s oldest amusement park dating back to the 1840s and is packed with whimsical and unusual attractions. Alongside traditional roller-coasters and water slides you can walk through a range of outdoor fantasy lands including Underwater Kingdom with a giant whale model, Nurseryland, with some rather terrifying picture book characters, a dino-heavy Restricted Area and a whole host of pirates, cowboys and fairies.
Monkey Haven in Newport is a sanctuary for rescued animals including gibbons, capuchins and meerkats. From its early days as a centre for birds of prey it has grown into a reserve for a wide variety of creatures. Like so many zoos and animal attractions it really needs the support of visitors to survive.
The family friendly Sunshine Trail is the perfect choice for safe cycling. Mostly off road it runs through the towns of Sandown, Shanklin, Godshill and Wroxall with wide open spaces in between. The slower pace of travel means you’ll see plenty of wildlife.
5 great little tea rooms and cafés on the Isle of Wight….
…because no island holiday is complete without a little treat or two.
* The Beach Shack is a licensed, award-winning seafood café which boasts stunning views of Sandown Bay
* Chessell Pottery’s Courtyard Café, in the heart of the beautiful West Wight countryside, is famous for its ‘Ultimate Island Cream Tea’
* Add a little sparkle at The Vineleaf Coffee Shop at Rosemary’s Vineyard. They offer English Wine and traditional ciders to wash down your sandwich.
* Pedallers is a cosy countryside café strategically positioned on the Red Squirrel Cycle Trail to welcome hikers, bikers and dog-walkers.
* The Tea House in Ventnor offers all things arty, crafty and vintage – as well as tea of course.
All of this on an island that takes less than an hour by car to travel its length and breadth.
No wonder people come back to the Isle of Wight year after year.
When will you discover it?