Going to the Isle of Wight is like stepping into a holiday drawn from fading seaside postcards. An enclave of convertible cars, thatched cottages, guest houses and chalky cliffs – hallmarks of a sophisticated past – have been preserved long enough to feel fashionable again; Queen Victoria’s preferred holiday destination remains a tranquil place for families to slow down and savour the timelessness of carousels, ice cream and chairlifts to the sea.
What we liked
Godshill Model Village
In the dark and distant 1970s, model villages were miniature wonderlands for kids. By the nineties, they’d been replaced by housing estates and foreign holidays. Godshill Model Village rekindles the simplicity of staring at a more straightforward existence: a tiny world of croquet, cricket and steam trains. Kids can crouch in front of shop windows and peer in at tiny sweets; or smile at model trains and mischievous youngsters; while parents nod with recognition at model mums struggling with model prams. Being taller than a house never loses its appeal.
Tucked round the coast from Ventnor (a hilly seaside town of very fit residents) is a miniature cove of beach huts and rock pools and lobster pots. Finding it is an adventure. A cliff-top path gallops downhill, dropping explorers in a colourful, sun-kissed nook crammed with shacks and deckchairs – then races calories away on the return climb. Between journeys, you can eat seafood and sip wine at The Boathouse or Crab Shed, and let the kids explore. This is the kind of place where time is measured in sunshine.
Shanklin is the classic English bucket and spade beach: a long strip of golden sand, lapped by waves. Great for ball games, writing your name in the sand with a stick, and collecting shells. A streak of bars, restaurants and hotels oversees friendly waves, so you’re never far from the beach. If your kids are old enough to entertain themselves while you enjoy coffee on a terrace, The Waterfront Inn has wifi and a good view of the sands.
Where We Stayed
The Isle of Wight isn’t known as a budget destination but, if you’re happy to camp or rent a 1930s beach chalet, it can be. From the ferry, we headed for a couple of cliff top campsites, within walking distance of Brighstone’s village store and the Three Bishops pub. Brighstone Holiday Centre’s colourful chalet doors, play area and swimming pool (only open in summer) lured the kids in.
Camping in April was draughty but, owners, Clive and Sue lent us duvets and we were soon toastie warm in our billowing tent. Clive also lent me a mug. So I could sip coffee and gaze at the sea, while the kids planted bedding flowers and played at the park. Staying in a miniature, buffed up Butlins was strangely enjoyable. If you like kitsch cliff tops, this is the place for you.
How We Got There
Wightlink ferries glide between Portsmouth and Ryde/Fishbourne, or Lymington (on the edge of Hampshire’s New Forest) and Yarmouth. The latter route feels posh and lovely in both directions: affluent yachts wave the ferry off; Yarmouth’s castle waves it in. There’s time for a coffee; then you’re there. Booking online cuts costs on a pricey route, and terminal staff are happy to load vehicles onto earlier boats if there’s room.
We’d leave the car behind, catch buses, cycle the country lanes, or walk the island’s 70(ish) mile perimeter. Public transport’s easy to come by and a slower pace suits the island.
Useful Things to Know
The Needles are pointy rocks at the foot of a cliff topped with attractions, not wild giants of the sea. If you want to visit, it’s better to make a day of it, take the chairlift down to the beach and budget for amusements and parking (a fiver).