Something happens on the ferry. I've been thinking about it for a week and it definitely happens on the ferry. You drive on at Southampton, pick up a cup of tea and watch the Solent drift past. An hour later and you're in different place in time. A place where Kenneth More and Just William would have been happy, where they probably still make ginger beer, where picture postcards depict rose-tinted England with thatched cottages, sandy beaches, towering chalk cliffs, old pubs and steam trains.
Well, the steam trains are misleading. There's only one, a glorious five-mile renaissance line that starts near Ryde and this year celebrates its 40th birthday.
The island railways started to die out in the 1950s when they had become financially unsustainable and most were killed off by the 1960s as part of Dr Beeching's cuts. But the trainspotter's misfortune is the cyclist's delight. My wife, Susan, and I re-discovered the merits of the bicycle on the leafy cycle paths that replaced the railway lines, taking our bikes all over the west of the island from our base at the West Bay Club near Yarmouth.
Arriving at this New England-style village had been the second highlight of our trip. The first had been dumping our beloved 15-year-old James at Camp Beaumont, situated – handily – on the other side of the island in Bembridge. James was keen to sample go-karting, kayaking, tree climbing and to get stuck into all manner of adolescent pursuits. Sue and I gave badly-disguised yelps of delight as we headed across the island to Yarmouth.
This was to be James's first holiday without us and Camp Beaumont came highly recommended: more a place for young people to have fun than a holding pen for teenagers. We met some of the team leaders, signed him in, and he barely spared us a backward glance as he headed towards his new digs. Ahead of him lay five days without us; I didn't know who would crack first, him or his mother.
Still, we had plenty to distract us too. The West Bay Club sits in beautiful grounds just outside the tiny harbour town of Yarmouth and boasts all manner of leisure pursuits.
We tried tennis and cycling, and one of us raved for hours about the facial and massage succumbed to in the spa. The other borrowed some golf clubs and drove to Osborne House, Queen Victoria's palatial holiday home near Cowes, and venue for a nine-hole course that winds its way through trees and hills towards the Solent.
Barely five miles south west of Osborne House is Carisbrooke Castle. That's the nice thing about the Isle of Wight, diversions are never more than half an hour away. It's more than 800 years old and a real motte and bailey affair, a term which still resonates from my school days. It made me smile to think that James was probably clambering on some climbing frame at the other end of the island while I was doing more or less the same thing along the battlements, envisaging invaders below. As we left, we passed the window where Charles I got stuck, half in half out, in a failed escape attempt.
He lost his head. We lost ourselves in the charm of an afternoon tea at the Royal Hotel in Ventnor. It is "Royal" because Queen Victoria popped in regularly, royal too in the extent of the tea: £17.50 each bought us locally-grown strawberries, clotted cream and scones, piles of sandwiches, six choices of tea and another notch gone on the belt. Ventnor became a spa town around 1830, where the well-heeled would come to take the air. We settled back in front of the geraniums which cover the hotel's front walls, and fell asleep; it was bliss.
Beneath us a winding road led to Ventnor Esplanade. We had a deal to work off, and the beachfront was worth the trip. The beach is sandy and uncluttered and even the amusement arcade is understated and seemingly unwilling to break the spell. We continued west and up along the cliffs to Steephill Cove. Inaccessible by car, it is one of the most picturesque bays on the island, where a few shacks offer crab lunches, kids play in the sand and cricket holds sway when the tide is out.
From Ventnor, the drive back to the West Bay took us along Military Road, built to ease the movement of troops in anticipation of a Napoleonic invasion that never came. Bonaparte's loss was our gain. The views across the Channel were incredible. And we had them, even at peak season, almost to ourselves: towering cliffs, rugged heath and dipping pastures.
The beauty was more tranquil in Shanklin's Old Village. Here, Paul and Susan De Vere bought Vernon Cottage 18 months ago, the classic leap from the rat race to one of the prettiest corners of the country. They have rapidly developed a reputation for offering one of the best seafood platters on the island. I hate to think what London restaurants would charge for lobster, tiger prawns, smoked salmon, mackerel and more – but none could offer fresh produce and serve it in the unspoilt garden of a centuries-old thatched cottage for £30 for two.
I don't know what happened the following morning because Sue took a Zumba class at the West Bay and I wasn't allowed to observe. I am reliably informed that Zumba is a Latin-inspired dance fitness programme which requires a good sense of rhythm, a lot of wobbling and shaking, and then several hours of bed rest.
Consequently, we took the final day off ahead of our last meal on the island: dinner at Salty's, which occupies a converted boathouse in Yarmouth. Chairs hanging from the ceiling were graced by Princes William and Harry on one visit (I'm assured they were on the floor at the time); downstairs every other visitor seems to have scribbled their signature, while upstairs the restaurant offers "Salty's Formidable Fish and Chips". The plate buckles under the weight. Preceded by mussels and washed down by a bottle of house white, while staring out at a hundred masts glinting in the dying sunlight, this was the perfect way to end our trip.
James ended his trip being ambushed by new-found friends, proffering pens, scraps of paper and, no doubt Facebook details, as he made the long trip down the path to join us.
Conversation with a 15-year-old is never easy, but we deciphered the grunts and smiles as proof that his first holiday alone had worked well. And we'd been just as content without him. We knew he was safe and happy and doing what he wanted. And we'd definitely do it again next year. Together, but apart, if you see what I mean.
Travel essentials: Isle of Wight
* The writer travelled with Red Funnel Ferries (0844 844 9988; redfunnel.co.uk) from Southampton to East Cowes. Car ferries are also operated by Wightlink (0871 376 1000; wightlink.co.uk) from Portsmouth to Fishbourne and Lymington to Yarmouth.
* There are also faster foot-passenger sailings from Southampton to Cowes and Portsmouth to Ryde, and a hovercraft service from Southsea to Ryde.
* West Bay Club, Yarmouth (01983 760355; westbayclub.co.uk). Three-night breaks start at £284 for two, room only.
* Royal Hotel, Ventnor (01983 852186; royalhoteliow.co.uk). Doubles start at £175, including breakfast.
* Camp Beaumont's "The Island", Bembridge (0800 655 6560; campbeaumont.co.uk). Seven-night holidays for 7-17 year olds from £399, full board. Childcare vouchers accepted. The remaining holidays for summer start on 13, 20 and 27 August.
* Vernon Cottage, Shanklin Old Village(01983 865411; vernoncottage.co.uk).
* Salty's, Yarmouth(01983 761550; saltysrestaurant.co.uk).
* Isle of Wight Tourism: 01983 813 813; www.islandbreaks.co.uk
Camp Beaumont – The Island
By James Lorenzo, aged 15
I arrived at "The Island" with apprehension, having faced day camps with instructors who made you cringe at their attempts to be "cool", and camp rules that made them seem more like school. My fears, however, were soon quelled.
Immediately, I was included in activities, began making friends, and most importantly, I began having fun. My fellow campers came from all over the world, but that was no barrier for making friends. I shared a room with Javier from Spain, met Sophia from Russia and hung out with Alex from London. And I hope we stay friends for a long time, and perhaps even meet up next year.
The instructors became our friends too. They picked up on our interests quickly, and were able to gauge whether it was worth pressing on with an activity. In our group, volleyball was a favourite. That said, there were rules, and the instructors always kept us in check.
The activities were different from the sports I had expected – there was nothing that was targeted at just boys or just girls. From orienteering, a trip to the beach, to the 3G Swing – a thrilling ride which hurls you at three times the force of gravity up and down again – there was something for everyone. My favourite was go-karting — followed by the zip wire.
Camp Beaumont is the best summer holiday destination and I would return next year – but with eager anticipation, rather than nervous apprehension.