“Fancy a mini-cruise this year?” asked my husband as we toured a major UK camping and caravanning show on a dreary day in February. “Sounds great!” I enthused, a split second before my brain registered there must surely be some kind of catch.
“Good, because one of the ferry companies is offering a fantastic deal – a return crossing and five nights’ accommodation on the Isle of Wight.”
My face must have radiated disappointment, because he hurriedly added: “Five-star campsite, with indoor and outdoor swimming pools!”
My personal vision of a mini-cruise amounts to rather more than the hour-long crossing from Southampton via The Solent to East Cowes, but I soon got used to the idea, and by the time we travelled, I was feeling undeniably excited.
I hadn’t stayed on the Isle of Wight since I’d been on holiday there with my parents 50 years ago – just after the first men landed on the Moon – so rediscovering the island was a fine adventure. Our destination was The Orchards Holiday Park, Newbridge, near Yarmouth, a well-located base for our stay, not too far from the key attractions.
Chocolate box villages
For our first outing, we decided to head over to Ventnor on the south-east coast, taking the A3054 and A3020 via Newport and the chocolate box village of Godshill, home to pretty thatched cottages and a model village that boasts a Royal Horticultural Society partner garden.
Sheltering in the lee of St Boniface Down, its Undercliff hosts Ventnor Botanic Garden, whose Mediterranean-style microclimate earns it the distinction of being Britain’s hottest garden.
Ventnor itself is an attractive mix of artisan shops, cafés and restaurants, with a rich cultural vibe as well as an attractive, unspoilt seafront. We opted for an easy stroll past The Spyglass Inn, with its panoramic sea views, along the coast via Castle Cove, to the charming Steephill Cove.
Accessible by foot or boat, it has a timeless, Famous Five air about it, with clear seas perfect for swimming and plenty of rock pools to explore. It’s also a great location for a leisurely lunch, with excellent cafés and seafood restaurants among the bright beach huts and fishermen’s cottages.
We basked in the sunshine at The Crab Shed, enjoying a delicious crab sandwich and a prawn and avocado wrap before heading back to Ventnor and a scenic drive along the coastal A3055 via Shanklin and Sandown, back to Newbridge.
Regal holiday accommodation
Our next day out took us to imposing, Italianate Osborne House, managed by English Heritage and once the family holiday home of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family.
With fabulous views across the estate and The Solent, there’s a lot to see here. Victoria described Osborne as “a little paradise”, and on a sunny, early summer day, it was easy to see why.
Our tour of the house began with an exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of Victoria’s birth, featuring the lavish birthday gifts she and Albert bestowed on each other during their marriage.
Though undeniably grand and crammed with valuable furniture and paintings, parts of it have a comfortable family feel, particularly the nursery, which has been recreated as it was in 1873.
Another surprise was the bright yellow colour scheme and sparkling chandeliers in the drawing and billiard rooms, creating a light-filled space in striking contrast to the more usual dark and heavy Victorian décor.
Don’t miss the magnificent, Indian-inspired Durbar Wing, including the Durbar Room, added in the 1890s. After being created Empress of India in 1876, Victoria welcomed two Indian servants in 1887, her Golden Jubilee year. One, a young Muslim called Abdul Karim, became her favourite and her munshi (secretary or tutor).
Karim served as friend and confidant until his return to India in 1897, after the Diamond Jubilee. His portrait hangs in the Durbar Corridor.
The Durbar Room is an impressive fusion of architectural styles, with richly decorated walls and ceiling, and an exquisite peacock design over the fireplace. The room houses a collection of gifts given by India to mark Victoria’s Jubilees.
Outside, formal gardens give way to rolling meadows and a pleasant 20-minute walk to the family’s private beach, where you can see the carefully conserved bathing machine and pause for tea and cake at the café.
Our route back to the house took us via shady woods to the pretty Swiss Cottage and Garden, gifted to Victoria’s children in 1854, where we were thrilled to see our first-ever red squirrel scurrying among the vegetable plots.
It was here the princes and princesses learned the basics of cookery, housekeeping and gardening, entertained their parents, and displayed their natural history collection. Despite its informal feel, the cottage dining room was also known as the Queen’s Room, where Victoria worked on letters and state papers.
Back at the house, we enjoyed a late outdoor lunch of smoked mackerel on toast with fennel salad at the waiter-service Terrace Restaurant, which specialises in local, seasonal produce, before ending our day out in the walled garden, which kept the regal residents well-provided with the finest fruit and flowers.
Gardens and a manor house
Next day, our interest in horticulture took us to the National Trust’s Mottistone Gardens and Estate, near Brighstone, and the 12th-century Church of St Peter and St Paul, where actor Benedict Cumberbatch got married in 2015.
Set in a sheltered valley, the gardens cluster around an ancient manor house, which is still a private home and only open to the public on two days a year. Planted as recently as the 1960s, the shrub-lined banks and rainbow borders have a Mediterranean-style planting scheme, including drought-tolerant plants and an olive grove.
Mottistone also has a very pleasant tea garden, where it’s worth exploring The Shack, an unusual cabin retreat designed by architects John Seely and Paul Paget, as their summer drawing office.
Nostalgia at The Needles
We then headed to The Needles Old Battery and New Battery, where we stopped for a sandwich lunch in the 1940s-style tearoom, served on vintage china by staff in period costume, surrounded by maps of the D-Day landings, listening to wartime songs and savouring a bird’s eye view over The Needles.
The first soldiers arrived at the Old Battery in 1865 and the last left in 1945, having achieved their mission to protect The Solent and the Portsmouth dockyards from invasion. You can head down a tunnel to obtain the closest view of The Needles and the Lighthouse, and there’s an interesting exhibition featuring the Old Battery’s military history. We also visited the rather ghostly New Battery, used as a secret rocket testing-site from the 1950s to the 1970s.
On a clear day you can follow in the footsteps of Victoria’s poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, on a walk over Tennyson Down to the Tennyson Monument, a huge granite cross erected in 1897, with breathtaking views of the Dorset coastline and Old Harry Rocks.
Stocking up on the garlic
Our first stop on the final day of our stay was The Garlic Farm, near Newchurch, in Arreton Valley, where you can buy a mind-boggling variety of garlic bulbs, including Elephant, Wight, Smoked and Black, and garlic-flavoured food and drink, ranging from mayonnaise and pickle to, rather more improbably, beer and vodka.
Well-behaved dogs on leads are welcome at this family-friendly attraction, where we had a close encounter with a rather handsome peacock, which was patrolling the farm’s inner courtyard.
Wander among the wildflowers
You can discover more about garlic history, facts and folklore in the education centre, wander around the wildflower meadows, which are woven through with garlic trial beds, and tour the farm on foot or on a tractor-trailer.
Workshops include garlic bread making and garlic planting and plaiting, and local produce features prominently on the excellent menu in the Allium café and farm shop, where I also invested in a long plait of large garlic bulbs.
Later, we drove on to Culver Down, north of Sandown, for a coastal walk to Bembridge and back – a varied five-mile route on footpaths, along beaches and through woodland.
We admired sweeping views of Whitecliff Bay and investigated rock pools at low tide on the beach, then retraced our steps after a lunch of local cheese, hunks of bread and salad at the Farm Shop and No8 Café, in Bembridge.
In the evening, our break came to a fitting end at the recently reopened New Inn at Shalfleet, where we lingered over fish of the day (salmon) and slow-roasted shepherd’s pie while discussing our plans to return to the island – hopefully well before the next Moon landing!
When to go
We visited in June to use an off-peak offer of a return trip from Southampton to East Cowes with Red Funnel and five nights at the five-star Orchards Holiday Park, hosting £197.
Where we stayed
The Orchards Holiday Park
- Main Road, Newbridge, Yarmouth, PO41 oTS
- Web orchardsholidaypark.co.uk
- Open 12 April – 30 October
- Pitches 160 touring
- Charges See website for full details; check Red Funnel and Wightlink for inclusive deals covering the cost of return ferry and accommodation.
Hardstanding and grass pitches have hook-up and some are water-serviced. High-spec, spotless facilities block. Dogs are welcome – the dog walk links up with local footpaths. Beautifully maintained indoor and outdoor swimming pools, coffee shop, large shop and takeaway.
Find out more
Food and drink
Lots of choice for lunch and dinner at cafés, pubs, tea rooms and restaurants across the island. At Ventnor, we lunched at The Crab Shed, Steephill Cove, famous for its seafood. The Spyglass Inn is another popular venue.
At Osborne House, options range from the Terrace Restaurant, overlooking the formal gardens, to the beach café and Gazelle House Cake Shop.
We took a trip back in time at the 1940s café at The Needles Old Battery. Snacks are also available at the New Battery.
The Garlic Farm, Newchurch, is a good choice for breakfast, lunch, snacks or tea and cake based on local ingredients, with indoor and outdoor seating at the restaurant and the Allium Café. Serious garlic guzzlers can indulge their passion at the annual Garlic Festival in August.
Artisan bread and local produce feature prominently at the Farm Shop and No8 Café at Bembridge.
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