The Isle of Wight is somewhere I’ve always fancied going. It has a reputation of being a bit stuck in the mid 20th century. Not in a bad way but perhaps just harking back to seemingly simpler times. In essence, a laid back island mentality yet just a stones throw from the mainland. What’s more it’s supposedly very sunny but there are no worries about currency fluctuations or needing additional insurances. So it’s not exactly a foreign adventure but as you have to go by ferry (or hovercraft), it feels sufficiently like an overseas excursion. Our family often starts overseas holidays on the overnight Brittany Ferries crossing to St Malo so the Red Funnel ferry was something quite different. It seemed that we’d only just got settled with some food and a coffee before we arrived in East Cowes. Quite a refreshing change really. The ferry itself was clean and pleasant with friendly and helpful staff. The catering wasn’t quite up to the Brittany Ferries restaurant (but then again, what is?) but sausages, chips and beans are brilliant when you are hungry (and under ten). Disembarking was a speedy process and it was then just a 15 minute drive to Ryde, our base for the holiday. All in all a very easy transfer from home to holiday.
Ryde, like many seaside towns, has contrasting topography. The level seafront area is in sharp contrast to the quite steep main street which still has plenty of interesting shops and restaurants. It’s really pleasing to see that it hasn’t become another clone of the UK high street that invariably has a string of chain stores, charity shops and over priced coffee outlets. Instead there are independent cafes, food stores, hardware stores, art galleries, restaurants and plenty more. Down on the seafront there are hotels, an amusement arcade, restaurants, fish and chip shops (The Cod Father was our favourite, with the strap line “we’ll batter anything”) and a simply wonderful Italian ice cream seller called Minghellas. For us, it was THE only motivation to leave the beach and it was good enough to keep us distracted on our walk up the hill. The selection of flavours was imaginative and the taste of each was streets ahead of most ice creams. In fact, if it wasn’t for the hill we’d all have come back much fatter. Two of our party stayed at Yelf’s Hotel, about half way up the main street. It’s a bustling little place that still has the personality of a family run establishment with plenty of friendly local interaction. It’s definitely a hub for everything from local weddings to meetings of local clubs. The rooms and breakfast were reportedly good and the restaurant had a varied menu. It was also a very agreeable place to meet for a coffee or early evening drink on their terrace. Beware that it can be a bit noisy at weekends as it is a sought after venue for celebrations.
The great swathe of sandy beach is one of Ryde’s main attractions. It’s flat, clean and safe for bathing (assuming you take reasonable precautions of course). At high tide you can swim easily enough and yet all but the shortest of adults will struggle to get out of their depth. At low tide you can see why, as the beach shelves so gently that you will need to walk for 10 minutes or so to even get your knees wet. If you like swimming you very quickly learn to pay attention to tide times. One positive side effect of this great flat shelf is that the water is noticeably warmer when the tide is in, in fact it can be almost Med like on sunny days. Ryde beach looks out onto the Solent, which is a busy shipping channel and you get some enormous ships cruising past in the middle distance. Container ships, car transporters, cruise ships, ferries and even the occasional military vessel. If you are curious about such things you can download an App for your phone/tablet which will show you, in real time, what the ship is, where it’s come from and where it’s going to. Unable to suppress my inner geek I downloaded Marine Traffic for Android which was very good, but there are several others available.
Another lovely time capsule on the island is the rail system. At Ryde station you can wait for the train, looking at modern digital announcement boards and standard issue UK tickets, but when the train arrives it’s actually an old London Underground train. It only goes two ways. To the end of the pier (often to meet the fast ferry), or off into the interior. It even links in with the so called ‘Heritage Railway’ although I would have thought that these Underground trains could now be classed in a similar way.
On the transport theme I wonder how many readers have actually been on a passenger hovercraft. Despite 25+ years in the travel industry I hadn’t – and therefore the scheduled service from Ryde to Southsea was impossible to ignore. For just £17.50 return we experienced 10 minutes each way of the thrill of this unique passenger transporter and I would suggest that everyone should give it a go before it disappears as it’s quite unique (incidentally we used our time in Southsea to visit the excellent D Day museum).
If you prefer your beach life a little more off beat, jump in the car and with a bit of searching you’ll find bohemian inlets such as Steephill Cove, accessible by small winding footpath or boat only. There are small shops, a couple of restaurants and it has a very, very different feel to Ryde. Another place to seek out is the Crab and Lobster at Bembridge. It’s not easy to find as it’s hidden away down a series of back roads (maybe that was just my sat nav though). We arrived and found it to be a large, bustling and rather excellent place for lunch, with fantastic sea views from the garden.
After lunch, drop down the steps from the garden and walk to the right along the beach. Despite the crowds back at the pub we had a large section of the beach to ourselves and it was great for swimming. What’s more there’s another lovely looking restaurant on the beach (The Beach Hut). Too full to eat any proper food we did manage an excellent ice cream just before they closed for the day – and despite that fact that they were closing they could not have been more hospitable. All tables are outside so we sat in their garden, enjoying the last rays of sunlight, eating ice cream and watching the see. Bliss.
The Isle of Wight is also known as Dinosaur Island due to the fantastic fossils that have been unearthed. Near Sandown there is Dinosaur Isle, an interesting visitor attraction that makes the most of this nickname and is perfect for wet days (it is also very close to the Sandown zoo, housed in an old fort, which is another agreeable way to spend half a day especially if you can coincide with the tiger feeding times). One of the high points of our stay was signing up for a fossil walk along Sandown beach, accompanied by an expert (booked through Dinosaur Isle). When you know what to look for, a seemingly ordinary stretch of beach suddenly becomes minutely fascinating. Our guide had an encyclopedic knowledge of what was to be found – and with an an endless stream of young budding paleontologists bringing him rocks to look at he had a plenty of practice. Mostly it was fossilised coral, but our intrepid collectors still unearthed part of a shark skeleton, fish scales and lots of dinosaur poo (for my youngest daughter this was the highlight of the whole trip-delightful!)
One unexpectedly good visit was the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm near Sandown. On paper it promises very little, but do not be put off. For a start it’s free and you do get to learn a lot about the history and positive health benefits of this feisty little allium. In fact some of the medicinal facts are quite risque. There are also extensive free tastings of raw garlic and garlic infused products. However, away from all that there is plenty of space, picnic tables, mazes and various animals to see. It’s wonderfully laid back with no pressure to do anything. You are welcome to bring a picnic but if you do need refreshment the cafe is excellent. The shop is a real eye opener with everything from garlic jam to garlic beers (not for the faint hearted).
Having spent ten days on the Isle of Wight I am very pleased to say that the small resort of Ryde and indeed the whole island, is a really relaxed and enjoyable family holiday destination that I would happily return to again. There is plenty to keep children occupied and that helps keeps parents sane. Nothing is very far away so it’s easy to relax and take it easy.
The island is very easy to get to. If you are taking your car you have a choice of Red Funnel (Southampton-East Cowes) or Wightlink (Portsmouth-Fishbourne and Lymington-Yarmouth). Both operators also have high speed passenger only services to West Cowes and Ryde respectively. As mentioned above there is also Hover Travel’s scheduled hovercraft service from Ryde to Southsea, with two hovercraft operating at peak hours.
Food, accommodation and attractions