Walking along a beautiful sandy beach on the south-east coast of the Isle of Wight, our palaeontologist guide stops suddenly and points at a rock perhaps 60cm across. "That," he says, "is the cast of a dinosaur's footprint." At first I think he is joking, but he goes on to point out the three vast toes and to explain that this stone was moulded in the footprint of an Iguanodon some 125 million years ago. From the size of the "foot", he adds, this particular herbivorous biped would have been about 8 metres long and perhaps 2.5m tall to the hip. The Isle of Wight is the most prolific and accessible site in Europe for dinosaur fossils. Bits of bone are regularly found on the beaches and the Dinosaur Isle Museum in Sandown has a collection of international importance - and is thoroughly family-friendly to boot.
Walk through the museum and back in time, via the last Ice Age (and a mammoth tusk) and the Eocene (and its shark's teeth) to the late cretaceous (with bits of Icthyosaur and huge ammonites) to the heyday of the dinosaurs, to which the main hall is dedicated. The information is accessibly presented and there is enough to satisfy even the most ardent dinophile (of any age). The collection sensibly majors on the dinosaurs that once roamed this island, with full-size reconstructions as well as fossils ranging from huge vertebrae to toothed jaws and long leg bones. Many of the specimens were found by amateur fossil hunters, including two families on holiday here in the 1970s who found some bones on a beach in the southwest of the island; they turned out to belong to an iguanodon and another completely new dinosaur, subsequently called Neovenator (new hunter).
On our Fossil Walk a piece of dinosaur rib bone was found, and the day before, four dinosaur bones were discovered as well as a large prehistoric crocodile tooth. Even if you are not lucky enough to find bits of dinosaur, there are 110 million-year-old shells and fossilised wood to be collected. Our guide was not only extremely knowledgeable but also endlessly patient as he identified a steady stream of sandstone and flint (with a few fossils thrown in).
Back at the museum there is stacks for kids to do: three different activity sheets and lots of interactive exhibits. The touchy-feely game was a big hit. It revealed a sauropod claw, fossilised dinosaur poo (great fun to make the parents feel this), and the cast of a Tyrannosaurus' brain (remarkable for its smallness). Smells from the dinosaurs' world were much enjoyed too - rotting corpse, pine forest, swamp and carnivore breath (yuck).
An interactive map shows where the Isle of Wight's five main dinosaurs were found, along with a second map indicating their global spread. Upstairs is a reconstruction of the Sandown pterosaur (unearthed close to the museum) and its fossils, along with information about the Isle of Wight's own tyrannosaurus (discovered in 1995) - about half the size of T Rex and called Eotyrannus Lengi - as well as loads of dino-related art activities.
Nothing on site but there is a café attached to the mini-golf course next door.
The museum is fully wheelchair accessible.
Open daily 10am-6pm, April to October, 10am-4pm, November-March (varies in January). Adults £4.75, children (3-15) £2.75, family (two adults, two children) £13, concessions. Two-hour guided dinosaur walks must be booked in advance. Adults £3.50, children £2, family £10, concessions.
How to get there
Dinosaur Isle, Culver Parade, Sandown, Isle of Wight PO36 8QA (01983 404344; dinosaurisle.com).
By car, take a ferry from Portsmouth to Fishbourne, then it's about a half-hour drive. Parking on site.
By public transport, take the train to Portsmouth, then a passenger ferry to Ryde and bus to Sandown, or train to Sandown station followed by a 20-minute walk or local bus to the museum.