Whether on foot, on a yacht, on a bike or in a hang-glider, you'll be stunned by the variety of these shores, says David Orkin

Is the coast clear?

Is the coast clear?

Yes. The ragged diamond that comprises the Isle of Wight's shore contains some of the finest coastal scenery in Britain - and some excellent beaches. The most popular beaches are in the east, notably the long seafront promenade that links Sandown and Shanklin. You can find plenty of other beaches in the east and north: Ryde has tempting sands, and both Cowes and East Cowes have beaches of their own. In the west, Compton Bay is popular with families, as are Colwell Bay and Totland Bay in the far west. Nearby, the sands of Alum Bay are a perennial favourite with children. Between May and September, some beaches are designated as dog-free. All the beaches are Seaside Award winners; Ryde, Sandown and Shanklin qualify for the exclusive Blue Flag status.

If you're looking for a busy resort, Ryde is the island's largest town and has fine Georgian and Victorian buildings. Sandown and Shanklin are the most popular holiday bases, while Ventnor, built on southerly facing hillside terraces, has a unique character. Yarmouth is a picturesque fishing port with a deep-water harbour and good food and accommodation, while the name "Cowes" is synonymous with "sailing": it's no surprise to find a Maritime Museum there - in the town's Library on Beckford Road (01983 293341).

How should i see the coast?

You can drive along it (for example the south-west stretch along the Military Road between Blackgang and Freshwater Bay), cycle along it or even fly over it: check out the Isle of Wight Hang Gliding and Paragliding Club website, www.flywight.co.uk. But walking is the number one activity on the island, which hosts the biggest walking festival in the UK (see page 3 for details). Visitors can choose from 180 guided walks during the event; most are free. New walks for 2005 include Wings and Sails (six miles) and a five-day walk along the coastal path.

The Isle of Wight Coastal Footpath comprises a total of just under 70 miles of paths, roads and tracks; for most of its length it is well defined and well signposted. Many of those walking the entire length of the path break it up into five separate one-day walks. If you don't want to walk the whole thing, you can choose two or three of the day walks, or pick a small section to wander for a few hours.

Which are the best bits?

That depends what you're looking for. Along much of the southern half of the island (from Totland Bay in the west to Bembridge in the east) the path hugs the rugged coast, either at sea level or through downland on the cliff tops. The island's most celebrated natural site is The Needles: dramatic chalk stacks that once formed part of a ridge connecting the island with present-day Dorset on the mainland. But you should also see coloured sand strata of Alum Bay and Whale Chine (on the south coast between Brighstone and Niton). "Chines" are the remains of ancient river valleys, now mostly small gullies leading down to the sea; "groynes", on the other hand, are man-made barriers (usually of wood or concrete) built to help prevent sand from being carried away by the tides.

If you feel like only a short walk, set off from Ventnor: take the path above the Spyglass Inn and follow the coastline to pretty Steephill Cove. From here you can continue to Ventnor Botanic Gardens (01983 855397; www.botanic.co.uk), admission free.

And the best views?

There are dozens of superb viewpoints such as over the Needles, from Tennyson's Monument on Tennyson Down, Rylstone Gardens near Luccombe, and Culver Down. The latter is also accessible to those in cars (take the B3395 from Yarbridge and follow the signs).

I'm getting hungry

You're in luck. Two good coastal pubs for food are the Crab and Lobster (01983 872244) in Bembridge, and the Spyglass Inn (01983 855338; www.bargemanrest.co.uk) which has a great location on the western end of Ventnor's seafront. If you're self-catering, Blakes (01983 852176) sells crab and other fresh seafood (including lobster in the summer).

High above the bay, the Rex Piano Bar & Restaurant (01983 853355; www.rexpianobar.co.uk) offers classic French cuisine in a striking - if incongruous - Art Deco building. From late May until the end of summer The Boathouse (01983 852747) at Steephill Cove near Ventnor serves seafood freshly caught by the owner.

Elsewhere, the Baywatch Beach Restaurant has a fabulous setting on the waterfront in St Helens (01983 873259; www.bay-watch.co.uk). Joe Daflo's (01983 567047), on Ryde's Union Street, is a good choice, while for dinner in Cowes head for Mojac's Restaurant (01983 281118; www.mojacs.co.uk) - lunch here is by reservation only.

In Yarmouth, from a table at Gossips Café, The Square (01983 760646), you can watch the ferries and pleasure boats come and go. To the west of the island, there are splendid sea views from the Totland Pier Café, Totland Bay (01983 756677).

Where should i stay?

There are a number of campsites near the Coastal Path - contact Isle of Wight Tourism (01983 813818; www.islandbreaks.co.uk) for a list - but if you're looking for solid walls and a roof, try the Wellington Hotel at Ventnor (01983 856600; www.thewellingtonhotel.net), an attractively restored hillside building. Sea view room prices are from £100 including breakfast.

Built in 1860 and very close to the shore, the Sandpipers Hotel, Freshwater Bay (01983 758500; www.sandpipershotel.com) has 25 rooms from £70 -£90 including breakfast. At the intimate, seven-room Foxhills in Shanklin (01983 862329; www.foxhillshotel.co.uk) you can soak in the Jacuzzi, indulge in a spa treatment or just relax in the gardens; £90 including breakfast. Or see if poetic inspiration strikes at the Farringford Hotel, Freshwater (01983 752500; www.farringford.co.uk), former home of Alfred Lord Tennyson, set in 30 acres of parkland. From £90-£130 including breakfast.

Where's Ellen Macarthur?

The round-the-world yachtswoman has a home in Cowes, and chose to base her back-up team on the island and train here. Although the island's best-known sailing event is - to give it its official title - Skandia Cowes Week (see page 3 for more details), far more yachties flock to the Isle of Wight in June for the Round the Island Yacht Race. This is the world's largest single-yacht race of its type held annually, with boats of all shapes and sizes competing on handicap in an anti-clockwise race around the 70 miles of coastline. The event is open to everyone, with amateurs competing alongside Olympic and World champions in 1,700 craft, from maxi-yachts to the smallest offshore categories. With over 18,000 competitors, the Round the Island yacht race (see page 3) is third only in size to the London Marathon and Great North Run.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, and a second Round the Island race, labelled "Atlantic Challenge" (01983 292191; www.rys.org.uk), has been organised for 13 June, when sailors will compete for the Nelson Plate. These aren't the only times of the year when you can sail - various companies offer sailing lessons and holidays on the island including Sunsail (023-9222 2221; www.sunsail.com), the United Kingdom Sailing Academy (01983 294941; www.uksa.org) and Wight Waters (01983 404987; www.wightwaters.com).

Any man-made coastal attractions?

If you're on the Portsmouth-Fishbourne ferry, as the crossing nears its end to your left (port) you will see the silhouette of imposing Quarr Abbey. Once ashore, take the Ryde road and you'll soon see a turning to the left to the Benedictine monastery (01983 884850; www.quarrabbey.co.uk), completed in 1912. There is a bookshop and in the summer a tea shop in the gardens. A short walk away are the sparse ruins of the original monastery, the Abbey of our Lady of the Quarry, founded in 1132 by one Baldwin de Redvers but suppressed in 1536 by Henry VIII.

Where can i get more information?

Among the literature published by Isle of Wight Tourism (01983 813818; www.islandbreaks.co.uk) is a booklet entitled The Coastal Path And Inland Trails (£3). The Complete Isle Of Wight Coastal Footpath by Brian Smailes (£3.75) is more detailed. For an overview of the entire shoreline and coastal waters, head for the Coastal Visitors Centre (01983 855400; www.coastalwight.gov.uk) in Ventnor: 9.30am-5pm daily except Sunday, admission £1.