When people hear I'm from the Isle of Wight, it usually makes them think of the 1969 and 1970 rock festivals with Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. Or they reminisce about childhood holidays. It's only as an afterthought that they mention the Isle of Wight's yachting associations and the annual regatta that takes place during Cowes Week in August.
So Cowes is not just for yachties, then?
Hardly. If you've ever wondered where socialites hang out after Ascot, Wimbledon and Henley, the answer is you'll find them in the island town of Cowes, which hosts one of the world's most famous yachting events. Often more interested in getting a ticket to the Cowes ball than in the sailing, they nevertheless try to look the part. But it's not difficult to tell the landlubbers from the seasoned sailors.
The normally quiet seaside town really comes alive in August, with serious beer tents, street entertainment and a spectacular firework display. A great way to spend a lazy day is down on the seafront, looking out across a mass of colourful sails.
So more of the same this year?
Nope. It's going to be bigger and better than ever before. After Cowes Week, from 4 to 11 August, comes the America's Cup Jubilee Regatta, the 150th anniversary of the founding of the event, which takes place between 18 and 25 August. Hundreds of classic racing boats are converging on the island for the regatta.
You don't have to get in a boat, do you?
You can't really avoid boats if you go to the island, mainly because you have to catch one to get there. And though it's just a few miles wide, the Solent is one of the most expensive stretches of water in the world, with peak-time return fares for a car full of people topping £100.
So what is there for landlubbers?
The Victorians made the Isle of Wight popular with the bucket and spade brigade, and it is crammed full of houses open to the public, and other tourist attractions. You won't have time to do everything, so get a look at what you're missing at the model village in Godshill, where everything is scaled down to a tenth of its actual size. There you'll see Osborne House, which was Queen Victoria's favourite home, and Carisbrooke Castle, where Charles I was imprisoned. Also miniaturised are the island's many chocolate-box villages.
You can tie in a visit to the America's Cup celebrations with the island's Garlic Festival, on 18 and 19 August. Sample garlic fudge or garlic beer as you try to digest the fact that Isle of Wight garlic is actually exported to France. And a walking festival taking place from 15 to 30 September offers guided walks along some of the island's 500 miles of footpaths.
Talking of garlic, where are the most breathtaking sea views?
Head up to Tennyson's Down, where the Victorian poet, who lived on the island for 40 years, liked to walk and compose verse. There are spectacular sea views on either side of the rolling chalk downs, which narrow to a point at the western end. Here, the chalky outcrops of rock known as the Needles stretch out into the sea. It's a good two hours of blustery walking from the Needles to the monument on the downs dedicated to Tennyson, giving you ample time to ponder the poet's words: "And further on, the hoary Channel/Tumbles a billow on chalk and sand."
You're just trying to impress me. Any more Tennyson?
Along a footpath at the edge of the downs is Farringford, Tennyson's home-turned-hotel, which he bought in 1855. You can stay in his old room (number 3). The house saw a steady stream of visiting writers, politicians and royalty, including Lewis Carroll, Garibaldi and Queen Victoria herself. Eventually, Tennyson got so fed up with all these visitors that, if he didn't like the look of them, he would escape to the downs.
Owned by Sir Fred Pontin for more than 30 years, Farringford still has a slightly battered holiday-camp air about it, with 29 self-catering cottages as well as the main hotel. The restaurant service isn't the best, either. What it does offer is atmosphere and location.
How do I book?
Travel to the Isle with Wightlink (tel: 0870 5827744), which goes from Portsmouth to Ryde (foot passengers only) or Fishbourne or Lymington to Yarmouth. Returns in August start at £41.40 for a car with four passengers in the evening, rising to £101 on a Saturday during the day. Red Funnel (tel: 02380 334010) runs from Southampton to Cowes, from £40 for a car and four peopleto £93 on a Saturday.
The Farringford Hotel charges £55 per person per night for bed and breakfast, with a £5 supplement if you want to stay in one of the rooms occupied by the poet and his wife (tel: 01983 752500; net: www.farringford.co.uk). For more information, contact the Isle of Wight Tourist Board (tel: 01983 813818; net: www.islandbreaks.co.uk).Reuse content