For those seeking a good, old-fashioned seaside holiday then there’s no better destination than the Isle of Wight. Just an hour’s hop across the Solent from Southampton, stepping ashore here is like stepping back in time. Charming winding lanes, unspoilt seaside towns, pristine beaches and windswept landscapes all seem as unchanged as when it was the holiday destination of choice for Brits back in the 1960s, that is before we all discovered air travel and guaranteed sunny skies. Nowadays its quintessential charm has been coupled with some new foodie haunts, chic hotels and oodles of things to do for the little ones, making it an idyllic holiday spot right on our doorstep.
Despite the Isle of Wight being a mere 23 by 13 miles in size, you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to somewhere to lay your head – from elegant country retreats, such as The Priory Bay in Seaview, which has its own private beach and shabby chic interiors to staying in a genuine, restored 1960s holiday chalet in Bonchurch, run by Vintage Vacations, a unique company which offers a wide selection of original and quirky holiday lets.
We opted for something in between these two choices – a few nights at Farringford on the western side of the island, just outside the charming village of Freshwater and minutes from some of the best beaches to be found. Farringford House is the former home of Lord Alfred Tennyson and located within its grounds are a selection of self-catering cottages. The pastel-coloured houses with their sparkling, all-white interiors, contemporary kitchen and bathroom have all the mod-cons you’ll need (think Wi Fi, dishwasher and flatscreen TVs). They are also cosy and comfortable and the perfect bolthole for family breaks. Within the estate, guests can enjoy tennis courts, a children’s play area and swimming pool. Kiddies can roam in safety while parents can kick back with a good book on their terrace or indulge at The Garden Restaurant. The on-site eaterie offers time-off for cook in the family, with affordable seasonal menus based on fresh, locally sourced produce, such as pizzas cooked in the wood-fired oven, seafood, rare breed meat and local cheeses.
Farringford itself is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with much of the surrounding countryside owned by the National Trust. This is the wilder side of the Isle of Wight and a nature lover’s paradise– with stunning cliff-top walks, such as The Tennyson Trail, a 15 mile walk that celebrates the life of the Victorian poet, taking in dramatic vistas along the Downs.
On the subject of nature, a trip to the Seaview Wildlife Encounter on the east of the island is a must for any bird or animal lovers. Set in stunning parkland with the glistening sea beyond, the wildlife park boasts flamingos, penguins and wallabies, among other species, with a hands-on approach that will appeal to children and parents alike.
For those who like their holiday experiences even wilder, a hair-raising trip to Blackgang Chine, near Ventnor, will get your heart racing. It’s the UK’s oldest theme park and has a whole host of rides and attractions, such as the new Fairyland and the classic Cliff Hanger rollercoaster.
Ventnor itself is one of the most delightful towns on the island – bunting-strewn lanes boast a variety of quaint little shops, check out Ventnor Rare Books for something special, as well as some great eateries – it’s home to the island’s only Michelin starred restaurant The Hambrough.
You’ll also find OceanBlue Quay in Ventnor, located on the seafront, an innovative sea charter company which runs sea safaris and lobster or mackerel fishing trips aimed at the whole family. We plumped for the one-hour mackerel fishing trip, which was highly entertaining as well as educational for all. We sped off into the south coast waters in a high speed catamaran and within minutes we were bobbing along in the mackerel grounds. After a quick demo on how to use the reels (even our four-year-old could do it), we were all hanging over the side looking for our first catch. Within no time at all, there were squeals of delight as people began catching the fish and were reeling them in. You can take your catch home for your BBQ or even ask the OceanBlue cafe, back on dry land, to cook it up for you. It’s certainly one hour well spent.
Back on shore, a walk along the coastal path to Steephill Cove will not only bring you to an idyllic sheltered beach but also Wheeler’s Crab Shed (01983 852 177). Both are among the island’s best-kept secrets. The traditional bay can only be reached on foot and nestling among the handful of cottages and beach huts you’ll spot the tiny Crab Shed, which serves the locally-renowned and delicious crab pasties, as well as lobster salad and mackerel ciabatta – all seafood used has been caught fresh each morning by the owner Mandy’s husband and is mouth-wateringly good.
Of course, no holiday to the Isle of Wight is complete without some time spent, bucket and spade in hand, on the beach. Sandown and Shanklin are among the most popular for families – both have a wide expanse of golden sands and safe swimming as well as all the attractions that you’d expect to find at a good British seaside resort – fish and chip shops, play areas and ice cream parlours abound. When it comes to ice cream, make sure you look out for a Minghella’s sign. The company was founded in the 1950s by film director Anthony Minghella’s parents and their 140 flavours are still made on the island using local cream.
From ice cream to garlic and cheese, the Isle of Wight is awash with local artisan producers. The Garlic Farm in Newchurch is well worth a visit to check out the huge array of garlic products on sale – from chutneys to varieties of bulbs you can grow at home. It also has a fantastic Garlic Cafe, overlooking a courtyard, where you’ll be inspired by its range of garlic-based dishes. The Isle of Wight Lavender Farm is also a delightful stop-off with its gift shop selling rare plants and its farm which is open to the public.
Lastly, Made on the Isle of Wight, near to Seaview, brings together a whole host of artists, artisans and local producers to offer one-off homewares, jewellery and gifts in a huge, lofty barn (madeonisleofwight.com). It’s the perfect pit-stop to bring home a memento, to remind you that timeless holidays do exist.
To travel to the Isle of Wight, Red Funnel ferries run regularly from Southampton.