WHY GO NOW?
WHY GO NOW?
To join the thousands flocking to the annual Cowes Week regatta, which starts today and continues until 14 August ( www.cowesweek.co.uk). Dating from 1826, it is one of the highlights of the international sailing calendar with nearly 1,000 yachts and 8,000 competitors taking part. On land, Cowes will be gripped by a carnival atmosphere, with live bands and yachting types packing out the pubs and streets. For information on other events over the summer - such as the pungent Isle of Wight Garlic Festival on 21-22 August - contact Isle of Wight Tourism (01983 813800; www.islandbreaks.co.uk).
I travelled with Red Funnel (0870 444 8898; www.redfunnel.co.uk); ferries sail from Southampton to East Cowes on the hour, take 55 minutes and cost £47.50 for a car and two passengers for a five-day return. The high-speed Red Jet crossing for foot passengers runs from Southampton to Cowes, takes just 22 minutes and costs £14.70 return. Wightlink (0870 582 7744; www.wightlink.co.uk) operates vehicle ferries between Portsmouth and Fishbourne, and Lymington and Yarmouth, while Hovertravel (023 9281 1000; www.hovertravel.co.uk) offers a 10-minute service from Southsea to Ryde for £12 return if you stay overnight. If you're travelling by train (08457 48 49 50 you can buy a through ticket including ferry crossing). From London Waterloo to Southampton and then on to Cowes on the Red Jet costs £42.50 for a five-day return.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
A six-mile hop across the Solent from Hampshire, the Isle of Wight is 23 miles long by 13 wide, and much of it is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Broadly speaking, the east coast is lined with traditional Victorian resorts such as Sandown and Ventnor, while the north also has its share of seaside sprawl with Ryde and the yachting centre of Cowes. The picturesque west coast is less developed and home to the pretty little port of Yarmouth and the Needles, pinnacles of chalk soaring out of the sea. To the south you find dramatic white cliffs and miles of unspoilt beach. Inland, the Isle of Wight's rolling downs are dotted with picture-postcard villages such as Brightstone. The island's climate - both Ventnor and Shanklin are among the sunniest places in the UK - has drawn visitors to its shores since Queen Victoria bestowed her favour on the island in the mid-19th century. There are tourist information offices in Cowes (The Arcade, Fountain Quay), Ryde (The Esplanade), Ventnor (Coastal Visitors' Centre, Dudley Road), Sandown (High Street), Shanklin (High Street), Newport (The Guildhall, High Street) and Yarmouth (The Quay). Until the end of October all these offices are open Monday to Saturday 9.30am-5.30pm, Sunday 10am-4pm.
The two best hotels are at opposite ends of the island. The Priory Bay Hotel (01983 613146; www.priorybay.co.uk) is in Priory Drive, between Bembridge and Seaview. It is elegant yet cosy, with a wood- panelled drawing room and comfortable sofas. A family favourite, it's a mix of Famous Five and The Camomile Lawn set in a 70-acre estate, with grassy slopes rolling down towards a wooded path to the sea. There's also an outdoor swimming pool, tennis court and nine-hole golf course. Doubles cost £170 in high season, plus a £40 a night supplement at weekends, including breakfast. The George (01983 760331; www.thegeorge.co.uk) on Quay Street in Yarmouth is also elegant with stone-flagged entrance hall and panelled bar. In the centre of the bustling little town, it's close to the harbour and castle and also has its own patch of beach. Helena Bonham Carter checked out as we were checking in. Doubles from £130 per night including breakfast.
The nautically themed Seaview Hotel and Restaurant (01983 612711; www.seaviewhotel.co.uk) on the High Street in Seaview has doubles for £100 in August, including breakfast. For other accommodation options including farmhouse B&Bs, self-catering cottages or campsites, contact the tourist board.
TAKE A VIEW
From the battlements of Carisbrooke Castle Carisbrooke (01983 522107; www.english-heritage.org.uk; open daily 10am-6pm; adults £5, concessions £3.80, children 5-16 £2.50), the motte and bailey castle that has straddled this ridge since 1100.
TAKE A HIKE
The island is perfect walking territory, and is criss-crossed by 500 miles of footpaths. If you don't feel up to tackling the 64-mile coastal path, how about the 14-mile Tennyson Trail? The Poet Laureate's favourite walk starts at Carisbrooke Castle and continues over Brightstone Down towards Alum Bay. You can download walking notes from the tourist board's website, www.islandbreaks.co.uk.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Munch your way through a crab pasty (£3.50) from Wheeler's in Steephill Cove, near Ventnor. The clutch of little houses at the water's edge is down a steep set of steps and has no access for cars. Wheeler's has fishing nets and buoys strung up outside, and bears a sign that reads "fishermen since the 1500s". Or head to The Lobster Pot Café (01983 761018) on Wheatsheaf Lane in Yarmouth for traditional fish and chips. Eat them out of the paper on a bench overlooking the marina.
Queen Victoria bought Osborne House (01983 200022; www.english-heritage.org.uk) in East Cowes in 1844 as a summer retreat for her family. The Victorian opulence of the interior and Italianate gardens offer a fascinating insight into the private life of the royals. She died here on 22 January 1901. The house is open 10am-6pm until the end of September; entry for adults is £8.50, children £4.30.
Queue up at Minghella's by the pier for a ginger and honey ice-cream then wander around the cobbled streets of Yarmouth, browsing the delis, antique shops and galleries. (Anthony Minghella, Oscar winning director of The English Patient, is the son of the ice-cream maker). For fresh local produce on Fridays there's a farmers' market in Newport. For sailing garb head to Cowes which has outlets of Henry Lloyd, Fat Face et al.
Watch the sun set with a chilled glass of wine on the terrace of The George in Yarmouth, as the ferries churn in and out of the harbour and wooden dinghies bob past. The hotel's restaurant has a Michelin star if you can stagger no further.
DINNER WITH THE LOCALS
Zigzag down the series of hairpin bends to the stylish Pond Café (01983 855666) opposite a murky emerald pond in the village of Bonchurch. Think large stone houses hiding behind overgrown hedgerows and an old-fashioned village store and post office. The restaurant has a tiny terrace outside if the weather's fine. If not, inside it's simple but elegant with crisp white linen tablecloths, whitewashed walls and wooden floor. The roast butternut squash soup with parmesan, thyme and black pepper (£4) was one of the most delicious I've ever tasted. Mains include smoked cod fillet with wilted spinach, soft eggs and chive butternut sauce (£12.75).
SUNDAY MORNING, GO TO CHURCH
The pretty church of St Agnes Gate Lane in Freshwater Bay is the only thatched church on the island. A former verger collated the display of the 80 or so thatched churches around the UK on the back wall. Dating back to 1908, the land was donated by Hallam, Lord Tennyson (the son of the poet). The Poet Laureate had bought the neighbouring Farringford estate in 1856 with the proceeds of the poem "Maude". The church was built using stones from an old farmhouse, although the reeds for the thatch originally came from Norfolk. Sunday services are at 8am and 10.30am.
OUT TO BRUNCH
The Boathouse at Steephill Cove near Ventnor (01983 852747) is a ramshackle wooden restaurant perched above the water that serves delicious seafood; specialities include their own freshly caught crab and lobster. Salty's on Quay Street (01983 761550) in Yarmouth is a designer spit-and-sawdust fish restaurant and bar with a young crowd that is buzzing at lunchtime.
A WALK ON THE BEACH
The Isle of Wight has 60 miles of coastline and 13 blue-flag beaches. Whether you want candyfloss with your sweep of golden sand or a tiny pebbly cove on which to perch your stripy deck chair for a sun-kissed snooze, there's a beach for you. Alum Bay, with its multi-coloured sand cliffs, is the most well known - but bordered by tacky arcades. For quiet shingle and rock pools head to Bembridge, for family-friendly sand try the beach at Shanklin, to watch the sun sinking into the sea wander over to Totland Bay, and for water sports try Compton Bay.
WRITE A POSTCARD
With its thatched cottages converted into a clutch of tea-rooms and cutesy shops selling fudge and cider, Godshill feels a bit like an olde worlde theme park. Escape by climbing the hill to the 15th-century church, put money in the box for a postcard of the mural of the Lily of the Cross and write it in the peaceful overgrown graveyard.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
Drive straight past The Needles Park at the top of Alum Bay, with its sweet-making factory and amusements. From the car park of The Needles proper (£3), it's a brisk 20-minute walk (there are buses if you can't manage it) along the cliffs to The Old Battery (01983 754772; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) the Victorian fort built to ward off the threat of a French invasion. The views are not only magnificent but the fort and exhibitions are fascinating. It's open daily until the end of August, 10.30am-5pm, but closes in bad weather; adults £3.60, children £1.80.Reuse content