Living in the Portsmouth area, we’ve all been to the Isle of Wight, right? Time to come clean. Twelve years on the south coast, that wasn’t the case for me until this summer.
But whether you’re a seasoned island pro or a newcomer like me, there remains something for everyone on a short hop across the Solent.
The Isle of Wight is the sunniest place in the UK, with beautiful beaches, miles of footpaths, a steam railway, theme parks, music festivals, military history, the list goes on.
The Wightlink ferry – with prices from £57 for a return ticket – took my family of five on a 45-minute crossing from Portsmouth to Fishbourne. The pretty little port is in stark contrast to the mainland bustle, with dense woodland on the shoreline and calm clear waters. We then wound our way south to Newchurch to our home for three days – the world-renowned Garlic Farm.
A family-run business going strong for more than 30 years, the firm is the UK’s largest specialist grower. As well as an onsite shop selling all its delicacies, ranging from garlic sauces and cloves to garlic beer and garlic ice cream – yes, really – the farm boasts a top-quality restaurant and seven beautifully converted self-catering holiday cottages and four luxury yurts sleeping between two and 10 people.
We stayed at Little Mersley Farmhouse. Built in 1672, it is a unique example of an Island yeoman farmer's house standing alone in its own grounds. Following sensitive renovation, it is now available as the site’s largest cottage, sleeping 10, and boasts five bedrooms – including one downstairs for people who find stairs difficult – three bathrooms and two en-suites.
Around the grounds, a tennis court, football pitch and games room with table tennis table, computer consoles and pool table are available exclusively for guests to keep all ages occupied before you’ve even started to explore the island.
When we did venture out, our first stop took us to Shanklin and the island's oldest tourist attraction, Shanklin Chine. Carved by nature this stunning tree-lined gorge cuts its mark from Shanklin Old Village to the sandy beach and esplanade far below. For 200 years millions of visitors have wandered through and marvelled at its chasm-like sides decked in tropical vegetation and towering trees, as well as streams and waterfalls.
The next day we went inland for a touch of nostalgia. Havenstreet is a living museum and just one of the stations on the island's steam railway. Guards and drivers don authentic uniforms of the era and they added to the atmosphere on a 10-minute jaunt along the restored line, followed by a tour of The Train Story Discovery Centre, a huge exhibition space housing an impressive collection of locomotives and Victorian and Edwardian carriages.
Next stop was the quintessential English village of Godshill boasting some of the oldest buildings on the island. Charming thatched cottages line the winding main street with traditional tearooms, gift shops and quaint pubs. Godshill is also the site of the first Isle of Wight Festival, which took place at Ford Farm in 1968. But the icing on the cake has to be its model village... of the village... in the village. The attention to detail from the church replica to the thatched cottages and fantastic use of real trees and moving parts makes this a delight.
After a couple of hours we headed to the western tip of the island and what turned out to be the highlight, for me at least. The Needles at Alum Bay is a geological gem – chalk stacks that jut vertically from the sea. The only way to reach them is by boat – and the best way to reach the boats is via the chairlift.
This gentle white-knuckle ride isn't for everyone. The chairs glide above the trees before descending almost in a vertical drop to Alum Bay and pleasure boats below, which give passengers a close encounter with The Needles.
Finally, we visited Osborne House, the private retreat of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert which they bought in 1845. She used Osborne for more than 50 years, entertaining foreign royalty and visiting ministers, finding solace there after Albert's death. We were given a tour of the rooms followed by a stroll through the grounds which open out on to the beach.
Back in Newchurch our stay ended with a fantastic meal at The Pointer Inn, possibly the best pub food I’ve ever tasted, along with faultless service.
All too soon it was time to head back to the mainland and home to Portsmouth in no time. Making my island bow had definitely been worth the wait – but why did it take me so long?
TRAVEL FACTS 1
The Garlic Farm has seven self-catering holiday cottages and four luxury yurts sleeping between two and 10 people located in the immediate area around the farm. The site’s renowned onsite restaurant serves breakfast and lunch everyday with discounts for guests. All properties are equipped with free wifi and dogs are welcome, with each cottage having its own enclosed garden space. There is a private fishing lake half a mile away and beaches no more than 10 minutes by car.
The cottages can also be booked together for group accommodation for up to 50 people.
Visit thegarlicfarm.co.uk to book and for more information.
TRAVEL FACTS 2
Prices from £57 return (based on a day return ticket travelling out at 8am on November 30 2018).
Routes and crossing times:
Portsmouth Car Ferry Terminal - Fishbourne Car Ferry Terminal: from 45 minutes.
Portsmouth Harbour Railway Station - Ryde Pier Head: from 22 minutes.
Visit wightlink.co.uk to book and for more details.