Escapism. Sitting on the beach, its silhouette so clear on a sunny day, so mysterious on a misty one, the Isle of Wight seems like a land of adventures, slightly out of reach… and yet it only 6 km away from the South coast. Put on your walking shoes, let’s go and explore!
How to get there?
Just pick a ferry line and you will be there in no time.
If you’re taking your car along:
> Red Funnel covers the Southampton to East Cowes route in an hour
> Wightlink covers the Portsmouth to Fishbourne route in 45 minutes
> Wightlink covers the Lymington to Yarmouth route in 30 minutes
If you’re backpacking (trains from London will take you to the coast in 2 hours max), there are faster passengers only boats:
> Red Funnel’s Red Jet covers the Southampton to West Cowes route in 25 minutes journey + you will find a bus terminal once there
> Wightlink’s catamaran covers the Portsmouth to Ryde Pierhead route in 22 minutes + you will find a bus terminal and a train station once there
> Hovertravel’s hovercraft covers the Southsea to Ryde Esplanade route in 10 minutes + you will find a bus terminal once there
I chose to go with my car. While it makes is super easy to go all over the place… I found it really frustrating. If the sun is on your side, the views simply take your breath away. Cliffs, valleys, adorable countryside, it has it all. Meaning you will want to stop every 5 minutes to enjoy a new panorama, take a few more pictures. You glimpse adorable details (oh, that thatch roof and you spend your time wondering whether you should have turned around. If I were to start again, I’d select one region of the isle of Wight and either walk or cycle (you can even rent electric bikes there!) >> there are hundreds of miles of interesting walking routes to choose from.
Alum Bay and The Needles
These three teeth shapes (there used to be 4 – you can see the gap if you look closely – one has collapsed since) used to be part of the coast. Little by little, the waves, the storms, sculpted the relief, separated the pieces from the island, making them sharper with time.
The road leading to the view point is closed to cars. You will need to park at The Needles Landmark Attraction (free in winter, fee in summer) where you will find a few souvenir shops, a café, a 4D cinema for kids… but more interestingly a cable car (open in high season only) leading straight to the Alum Bay beach. You can see its yellow painted platform, firmly planted in the sea in the pictures below.
From the parking, you can…
> Jump in the “Needles Breezer” double decker with its open rooftop, which goes back and forth every half hour (March to October)
> Simply walk along the coast, the best way to take in this stunning view. It only takes 20 minutes to reach the tip of the bay. Right after the parking, you will notice a garden filled with hundreds of funny little statues, toys and signs with cheerful sayings. Do leave a coin in the box on the side: it all goes to a good cause!
Have you noticed the beautiful shades along the Alum Bay? The sand owes its many colours to coloured due to oxidised iron. The Victorians used to collect it in pretty vials, showing off the palette in layers. Tourists are no longer allowed to do so themselves, but shops do sell them in the area, should you want one.
The path will take you all the way to The Old Battery, a Victorian coastal fort. Make sure you get there within opening times: an underground tunnel takes you to a viewing platform with a wow panorama on the Needles. There is even a tea room on site, should you need to regain some energy for the way back. A little higher on the hill is The New Battery, which was for a while a secret rocket testing site. A couple of rooms there retrace Britain’s race for space.
The Alum Bay Glass Factory
On the other side of the road from the Needles Landmark Attraction parking is the Alum Bay Glass Factory where you can see the lampworkers and glassblowers adding colour to the molten glass before polishing, sculpting the pieces to perfection, a lengthy process involving jacks, paddles, shears, tweezers and an incredible amount of patience. Feel free to ask them any question crossing your mind, especially if you indulge in a little souvenir from the shop. Knowing exactly how it’s been made doubles its emotional value.
Alum Bay Glass | Isle of Wight, PO39 0JD
St Agnes Church
If we are quite used to seeing thatch roofed cottages in the British countryside, a thatch roof church, however, comes as quite a surprise. It seems there were quite common in medieval times. The material was easy to find and cheap, it’s true. It also proved fragile, having to be replaced on a regular basis and had an annoying capacity to burn fast. Hence why there only are a hundred of so buildings of the type left in England. Saint Agnes is a “recent” addition, having been built in 1908 but oh, it’s a little architectural gem all the same.
Craving a cup of tea? The Piano, on the other side of the street offers a nice selection as well as savoury and sweet treats. The cherry on the cake: postcards and prints by local photographers are on sale on the side of the room.
The Isle of Wight counts so many stunning beaches it would be worth spending a whole going from one to the other to compare their different sides of their beauty. Freshwater bay is one of the most famous. If you come at low tide, you will notice lots of little caves on the side of the cliffs, used by smugglers in the past.
Need some action? Ask Adventure Activities Isle of Wight to take you on a family or adventure kayak tour of the bay.
Feeling Pecking? From the beach, take the stairs leading up the hill and order a crab (fished in the bay) salad at the Dandelion Cafe. It comes with a fab view.
Freshwater Bay | Freshwater, Isle Of Wight, PO40 9RA
Adventure Activities Isle of Wight | Freshwater Bay, Freshwater, PO40 QXR
Dandelion Café | Freshwater Bay House, Blackbridge Rd, Freshwater PO40 9RB
The coastal path
From one bay to another, walking along the coast, mostly on top of the cliffs for bigger wow effect. The geology sand panoramas seem to change constantly so no chance you can ever get bored. The Coastal Path goes almost all the way round the island – more than a hundred km in total. No time to cover long hikes? The main road is sprinkled with many viewpoints or little parkings leading to viewpoints within minutes. Do check out the bike racks there – the design is usually themed around the name of the bay like the Whale Chine one below!
The coast really is hypnotising but don’t miss out on the inland hikes – the hills and valley bring fantastic views of their own… There are 8 trails to choose from:
> Freshwater Way from Yarmouth to Freshwater Bay (5 miles / 8 km)
> Hamsted Trail from Hamsted to Brook (7 miles / 11 km)
> Shepherds Trail from Newport to Shepherds Chine (7 miles / 11 km)
> Nunwell Trail from Sandown to Ryde (8 miles / 13 km)
> Stenbury Trail from Newport to Ventnor (10 miles/16 km)
> Bembridge Trail from Newport to Bembridge (11 miles / 18 km)
> Worsley Trail from Brightstone to Shanklin (13 miles / 21 km)
> Tennyson Trail (yes, the poet, who lived on the Isle of Wight) from Newport to Freshwater (14 miles / 22.5 km)
The Devil’s chimney
A narrow path through narrow fissure in a rock formation. It’s rather steep, the steps are unequal and if it has rained muddy and slippery but what an atmosphere! Dozens shades of green, soft moss all round, birds singing. Peaceful and mysterious all at the same time.
To find it, look out for the Smugglers Haven Café (which has a nice view on the sea -just saying) on Leeson road. There is a free public parking a little further opening straight onto the forest and the path to the Devil’s Chimney.
The Devil’s Chimney | Leeson Road, Ventnor PO38 1QB
Smugglers Haven Café| Leeson Rd, Ventnor PO38 1QD
Spring on the isle of Wight
With the local microclimate, spring is often early here. Daffodils, crocuses, cherry blossoms… but the Isle of Wight also is known for its yellow primroses and mimosa. If you are driving through Shanklin, do stop at the St. Blasius Old Parish Church. Snowdrops and primroses grow amidst the graves in the most poetic way.
St. Blasius Old Parish Church | Church Rd, Shanklin PO37 6QY
Shanklin – the old village
Shanklin thatch roofed cottage are some of the oldest house on the isle of Wight. Pubs, tearoom, shops… The roofers have added a fun little decoration on some: a teapot and cup, a bird, a cat chasing a mouse, all made of straw.
The only remaining windmill on the Isle of Wight, built in 1700 and still in activity until 1913. Turner even sketched it. It now belongs to the National Trust and all 4 floors (the machinery is in perfect condition still) can be visited between March and November. Add a few tables outside and a mini café would you like a hot drink and a slice of cake.
Bembridge Windmill | High St, Bembridge PO35 5SQ
Queen Victoria had her summer residence built on the Isle of Wight. A little more freedom, a simpler family life. Prince Albert designed the house himself (and some of the furniture) in an Italian Renaissance palazzo style. What to expect? Sumptuous rooms, with some quite modern touches for the era. The very last one, called Durbar, was used for state functions: its Indian inspired ceiling, fully sculpted were meant to really impress the guests. Victoria finished her days here and died in her bedroom upstairs in 1901. Count 2h30 to really enjoy the visit, a little more if you want to take a stroll in the park, which goes all the way to the beach.
Osborne House | York Ave, East Cowes PO32 6JX
The Garlic Farm
A must stop for foodies. As you can guess, it’s all about garlic: elephant garlic (huge), wild garlic, Solent Wight (French origin, but has been grown on the island since 1942) but also black garlic (slightly fermented) and smoked garlic. The shop sells a full range of (garlic infused) products: tomato sauce, chutney, mayo, pesto, salt, butter but also fudge, beer, vodka. Not sure what to pick? Have breakfast or lunch there – the marinated samon is to die for and you will be quite surprised to find garlic ice cream is superb with chocolate sauce… Do sit on the terrace in summer, peacocks wander around happily.
The Garlic Farm | Mersley Ln, Newchurch, Sandown PO36 0NR
Make sure you stock up at the many Farm Shops on the Isle of Wight! My favourite is The Hold Herb (who smoke meat and fish on site) and the Briddlesford Lodge Farm (the only place where I’ve ever been able to find raw milk)
The Old Herb | Brading, Sandown PO36
Briddlesford Lodge Farm | Briddlesford Rd, Wootton Bridge, Ryde PO33 4RY
A charming seaside town with a Victorian vibe. Have a look at the Royal Arcade dome, with its stained glass and 12 muses, each symbolising a month of the year. The pier (the oldest pleasure one in the world) length is quite amazing too. You will find lots of independent shops on high street (try Dig for Vintage for treasures from the past and Beachcomber for sweet creations made with driftwood). On a sunny day, head for the beach, framed by two cafés, both with a view (Three Buoys and Della Cafe). I was cursed with fog at that point but I’m told you can often see Portsmouth in the distance.
Royal Victoria Arcade | 54-76 Union St, Ryde PO33 2, Ryde PO33
Dig for Vintage | Ryde PO33
Beachcomber | 3 Union St, Ryde PO33 2DU
Three Buoys | Appley Ln, Ryde PO33 1ND
Dell Cafe | Puckpool Sands, Seaview PO34 5AR
Where to stay?
You’re familiar with Boutique Hotels: Boutique B&Bs are the new trend! The Caledon Guest House proves quite perfect: friendly, elegant and super comfortable. It’s also a mere 5 mn walk from the marina and high street where all the restaurants are. Fish’n’chips lover, try Corries Cabin (fried mushy peas anyone?) who have a nice selection of fish on the menu and offer Gluten Free options too.
The Caledon Guest House | 59 Mill Hill Rd, Cowes PO31 7EG
Corries Cabin | 17 Shooters Hill, Cowes PO31 7BG
Good news: you can now book your flights, hotels and train tickets via Expedia.co.uk. To celebrate this new option, Visit Britain and Expedia have come up with a calendar of inspiring events all around the country. Check it out!