Captain's table

The Isle of Wight is a favourite among the yachting crowd, and now a recent culinary revolution has put it on the foodies' map, too. Rhiannon Batten sets sail
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The Independent Travel

Late summer on the Isle of Wight. Among the guests at the Priory Bay Hotel, an extended family has gathered to thwack balls around the tennis court, lounge by the outdoor pool - and discuss some tricky inheritance issues. Meeting for a pre-dinner drink in the cosy, panelled bar, they exude a kind of posh family contentedness. "Don't you look pretty, girls?" says a plump woman affectionately, returning the hotel's copy of Ladies First magazine to its rack as her daughters waft to the bar in coordinating raspberry-coloured skirts. Beside them, the woman's husband and another family member amiably evaluate their day's sailing, jollied along by a steady flow of gin and tonic. Gradually, the full complement of sisters, wives and boyfriends appears and, before you can say "cucumber sandwiches", they troop off to eat in the restaurant overlooking the hotel's velvety lawn.

The Priory Bay, on the island's east coast, is a laid-back sort of place, as happy to have children scrambling down the lawn and splashing around on the private beach as it is to welcome glamorous honeymooners arriving by boat. The hotel is built on what was once the site of a former priory, hence the name, and is an appealing, jumbled mix of Tudor farmhouse, Georgian manor and 20th-century touches. In the 1930s a previous owner, the self-styled "Lady St George", added peculiar octagonal windows above the central fireplace and a 14th-century stone porch to the entrance hall.

However, as we enjoy a chilled bottle of rosé on what had been a peaceful summer's evening, it becomes clear that the hotel's guests can be as eclectic as its architecture. On a neighbouring table, the room's soft plum cushions and honey-coloured stonework aren't soothing another guest as they did the happy family brigade. "Where's my bread?" barks a female voice. Turning, wide-eyed, to follow the direction of the flustered waiter, it's clear that the fuss is coming from a customer sitting on her own by the window, her crimson-painted mouth clenched into a grimace.

The woman's image isn't softened by the fact that her make-up matches her starter, a bowl of fresh gazpacho, which the waiter whizzes at high speed to her table. It's pretty hard to get gazpacho wrong (which is presumably why it's on the Priory Bay's bar menu), but there seems to be a problem this evening. "This isn't gazpacho," shrieks the woman, scornfully tipping a silver spoonful back into her bowl. "I know what real gazpacho should taste like."

Catching the gaze of a young French couple, our eyebrows shoot up in sympathy. "How's your soup, darling?" he whispers to his wife, conspiratorially. "Terrible. Shall we call for the manager?" she giggles.

Latching on to the pantomime, the whole room seems to suck in its breath as an enormous lobster is served to the crimson-lipped creature in the corner. The lobster's plump claws are artfully arranged so that they recline decadently on a plate of zesty looking lettuce. Surely she can't find fault with this?

"Oh for heaven's sake," she huffs, apparently determined to make the most of the opportunity to bully a young waiter. "Take it away and crack it open."

The drama continues when it is returned, shelled and fully dressed. "No, no," she snaps, as though reprimanding a lesser species. "I didn't say empty it, I said crack it. And I'll need a separate plate. Not a side plate. Bring me the manager."

Our own meal, we tell the manager when he finally appears, is wonderful.

After all, what could be better on a summer's evening than an enormous plate of dressed local crab, squeezed with almost a whole lemon's worth of juice and served overlooking the blowsy flowerbeds of a sun-drenched English garden?

We find out the next day. Carefully steering our super-sized car along the Isle of Wight's skinny, liquorice-like lanes, we set a course for the south - and the start of a day's grazing round the island.

This might be the British seaside but gone are the days when that meant meal-times of fish and chips on the promenade. The Isle of Wight is enjoying its own culinary revolution.

The Boathouse café, which clings to the bottom of the aptly-named Steephill Cove outside Ventnor, is our first fuelling stop. It is the ideal place for a lazy weekend lunch. Fisherman's platters, Skipper's banquets and pints of shell-on prawns are served on the wooden balcony of an old boathouse overlooking the sea to an in-the-know crowd. Unfortunately the crowd is a little too in-the-know when we turn up and the Boathouse is already suffering from a glut of customers. So, we drive on to the Pond Café, in the improbably pretty village of Bonchurch nearby.

Though Bonchurch's architecture, like Ventnor's, has its roots in genteel Victorian tourism, the Pond Café is an antidote to the Isle of Wight's image as a haven for retired colonels and health-seeking poets. Unlike ye olde fudge shops and the production-line cream tea experience offered at Godshill, further inland, this is a very modern British culinary experience.

The restaurant is set overlooking the carp-filled village pond. Outside it has a small terrace laid out with minimalist steel and wood patio furniture, while inside, the young and cheerful staff zip between bright white-clothed tables serving locally-sourced dishes such as pan-fried scallops and seabass with home-made chips.

In the event, by lunch the Priory Bay's breakfast - surely aimed at serious walkers rather than idle journalists - has subsided only enough to leave room for soup. Yet the Pond Café's sweet, rich blend of roasted butternut squash almost beats the local crab as best culinary experience on the island. But not quite. It's narrowly beaten by dinner further round the coast, in the pretty port of Yarmouth.

OK, we succumbed. Sitting above the town's historic harbour, scoffing plaice and chips out of newspaper, we watch, transfixed, as two girls in their early 20s, in full make-up, bum-skimming skirts and towering heels totter down the harbour steps and wobble into a waiting dinghy. Daintily passing their co-ordinating handbags down to the dinghy's bemused operator, they pause to touch up their make-up before facing the onslaught of wind and saltwater spray on their journey out to a waiting yacht. Unwittingly, they provide the perfect entertainment. Despite their impressive dedication to style they don't quite have the impact of the crimson-lipped woman at the Priory Bay - but neither do they threaten to upstage the fabulous food.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Rhiannon Batten travelled with Red Funnel (0870 444 8898; www.redfunnel.co.uk), which runs a car ferry from Southampton to East Cowes (fares from £42.50 return for a car and two passengers, if booked online) and the high-speed Red Jet foot passenger service between Southampton and Cowes. Wightlink (0870 582 7744; www.wightlink.co.uk) runs Portsmouth-Fishbourne and Lymington-Yarmouth car ferries, and a fast passenger ferry from Portsmouth to Ryde. Hovertravel (023 9281 1000; www.hovertravel.co.uk) hovers from Southsea to Ryde.

STAYING THERE

Double rooms at the Priory Bay start at £140, including breakfast (01983 613146; www.priorybay.co.uk). The Boathouse is at Steephill Cove (01983 852747). The Pond Café is in Bonchurch (01983 855666).

MORE INFORMATION

Isle of Wight Tourism (01983 813813; www.islandbreaks.co.uk).

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