When I mention that I’m going on holiday to the Isle of Wight I am often greeted with bemused looks followed by questions along the line of ‘is it for the festival’? or ‘I didn’t know you liked sailing’? When I tell them it’s for neither purpose, signs of bemusement start to fade into incomprehension, usually shortly followed by a ‘but why would you choose to holiday in a place that’s full of amusement arcades, steam museums and tacky tourist shops’?! In reality, it is this view of the island which is outdated. The Isle of Wight has not only become something of a mecca for the food and boat crowd over the years but it’s also in the process of slowly but determinedly edging itself towards a sustainable future pioneered by the resourceful ecoisland project. Their aim is to turn the island into the first sustainable region in Britain by putting into place a number of community run initiatives revolving around sustainable energy, water, food and fuel. The project is already starting to create waves among local communities with the installation of electric vehicle charging points; food hubs to collect and distribute locally produced food; an eco-research and education centre; solar panels and insulation for housing; and Green Back cards, which reward the holder with discounts on goods and services from sustainable and ethical companies. Longer term plans involve the construction of a waste management centre and several wind power plants. What is refreshing about many of the schemes within the project is that they are community driven. As we travelled around the island, we began to notice more and more signs of local involvement, from an increased focus on good, local food and ethically sourced products to beach cleaning schemes, school projects and even talk of solar panels in the local pub!
The Isle of Wight has always been a popular biking and walking destination but with the growing number of excellent food producers, restaurateurs and artists being lured from mainland cities to set up shop here, there has never been a better time to visit.
Below are a few of our favourite places, walks and refuelling spots on the island (and not an arcade or view obscuring net curtain in sight, we promise).
Steephill Cove: Wheeler’s Crab Shed and The Boathouse
Steephill Cove is a short walk down the cliff-side from Ventnor’s Botanical gardens and is well worth the uphill stroll back (it’s not accessible by car which adds to its charm). It’s a tiny cove clustered by wonderfully unique local restaurants and cottages including Wheeler’s famous Crab Shed which produces the best crab pasties on the island, if not the UK. The Wheeler family have been fishing off the Isle for generations and brothers Mark and Jimmy haul their catch into the cove each morning, weather permitting. Sustainability is important to them and having embraced Channel 4′s Fish Fight they are now serving mackeral ciabbattas which are apparently proving very popular. A few lobster pots and fishing boats along the quay brings you to The Boathouse, a restaurant specialising in simple, fresh seafood which has seen its popularity rise through word of mouth alone (like many of things really worth paying attention to in life, it has not gone down the path of heavy marketing or advertising). With a sheltered wooden driftwood cabin below encompassing one family table and an intimate upstairs dining room both commanding excellent sea views, it can get booked up weeks in advance so it is definitely worth calling ahead, particularly for evening dining.
If cake and tea is more your thing then the Cove coffee shop next door should be able to help. With home made cakes, Minghella ice cream and tables so close to the sea that you can feel its spray, it’s all too easy to while away an entire day cradling a warm mug while listening to the sounds of crashing waves, screeching seagulls and the chatter of children exploring the rock pools below. If you find it difficult to tear yourself away, there is beautiful seafront accommodation available in the form of the Crow’s Nest (sleeps 2), the Lighthouse (sleeps 6) or the Boathouse (also sleeping 6); while overlooking the cove there is Little Tamarinsk B & B on Love Lane and the Sea Breeze self-catering cottage which are both owned by Jim and Mandy Wheeler. For a cheaper break, stock up on fresh local foods such as oak smoked sundried tomatoes from the Tomato Stall and one of the many island cheeses (The Isle of Wight Soft is particularly good) from one of the local deli’s in Ventnor and stay within walking distance of the cove in a sea front chalet just off Wheelers Bay Road (contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details).
Newtown Creek & The New Inn at Shalfleet
Newtown Creek and Nature reserve could be something straight out of Cape Cod or Dawsons Creek with its weathered wooden boat houses, salt marshes and prettily bobbing fishing boats just offshore. I often come across is in magazines and newspapers as the weather-beaten backdrop for oceanic themed photo-shoots and I can see why it keeps drawing people back. It’s a beautiful space and is home to the only National Trust nature reserve on the island so expect to see seaside meadows strewn with wild flowers and salt marshes packed to the brim with waders, geese and gulls.
When you’ve had enough of a walk, the New Inn at Shalfleet is just a short drive, bike ride or slightly longer ramble away and serves good, locally inspired food. It’s ales and wine list aren’t bad either, just ask Alan Titchmarsh…
Tennyson Downs and Dimbola Lodge
Home of early 19th century portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Dimbola Lodge now houses an intriguing collection of photography, camera equipment, Isle of Wight festival memorabilia (that statue of Jimi Hendrix can be found here) and surf boards. You’ll also find a good little tea room and the even better Cameron House Bookshop which is a treasure trove of rare and interesting literary finds all situated at the foot of the Tennyson Downs which is one of the most beautiful cliff walks on the island.
Bonchurch – a place to think
Bonchurch is a pretty village in a leafy pocket on the south coast of the island which people tend to sadly forego in favour of its larger neighbour, Ventnor. It’s something of a hidden gem which has received interest from archaeological, historical, literary, artistic and more recently, culinary factions over the years. Charles Dickens famously took up summer residence at The Winterbourne Hotel while writing David Copperfield and John Keats, Algernon Swinburne, Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot have all reportedly spent time here. Today, an ornate village pond, a picturesque row of cottages, St Boniface church, a foodie cafe and the Bonchurch potterystill draw in those looking for a space to think, relax and take in the scenery.
The Taverners, Godshill
Gallery, shop and country pub combined, The Taverners is quickly making a name for itself as the go to place for local, seasonal food. The menu changes often, produce is bought daily and the food is very good (they even bake their own bread and on some occasions forage the cooking ingredients themselves). Godshill may be a mecca for the chocolate box tourist crowd but the Taverners is one place that is bringing back the locals.
Swim spots: Shepherds Cove and Seaview
Shepherds Chine lies West of the village of Little Athefield on the A3055 Military road. If travelling toward Brightstone, the coastal path that leads to it can be found on the left hand side of the road near Chine farm campsite. The beach is pebbly but provides good access to the sea and sweeping views up and down the coast.
Words and pictures by Anna Rice