Ferry trips and island voyages – these are the things memories of those seemingly endless summer holidays of childhood are made of. Don’t tell everyone but it turns out some of that summer magic is to be conjured up in the autumn and winter months too, if you know where to find it that is. Earlier this November, on an otherwise gloomy, damp and unpromising Saturday we found ourselves watching the boats of Portsmouth harbour slip by as we munched on pain-au-chocolate on board a Wightlink ferry to the Isle of Wight.
As a girl I spent a lot of time in Portsmouth with my Grandad. Yet despite many years of visiting the historic dockland and visiting the seafront (both worth tacking on to an Isle of Wight trip), I don’t think I ever went to the Isle of Wight. These days we live under two hours from Portsmouth and yet for some reason we still hadn’t visited the Isle of Wight, despite thinking nothing of travelling much further in search of weekend adventure. Perhaps psychologically it feels further away because of that slim channel of water of the Solent that lies between the island and the mainland. Whatever the reason, it is a shame. We have been missing out on a secret worth knowing – the Isle of Wight makes an accessible year-round getaway from the south of England that kids will love, not least for the ferry journey. With a 45 minute ferry crossing (or only 20 minutes on the catamaran service from Portsmouth to Ryde), it’s also much closer than it first seems.
Roo was completely taken with her unusual start to the weekend. There is something timeless and unchanging about a port. Despite leaps in modern technology, so much of the dockside equipment remains mechanical and was as spell-binding to watch for Roo and her sister with their noses pressed up against the big glass windows of the ferry as it was for me all those years ago. As for driving your car onto the ferry – well I can confirm that the novelty of that never wears off! Breakfast, a quick wander round the deck and a wave at the captain on the bridge and before we knew it, we were arriving at the picturesque harbour of Fishguard on the Isle of Wight before 0930 in the morning. Our island adventure had begun.
Room to breathe
As you’ll be aware by now, there is nothing our family likes better than a good walk. With its jagged coastline, sandy beaches and inland forays, the Isle of Wight offers varied and family friendly walking all year round and plays host to one of the largest walking festivals in Europe. When checking out the walks on offer I particularly liked the sound of the fancy dress walks around historic castles, family discovery walks and the pram and toddler walks. I’m not entirely sure about the speed-dating walks (!) but you can’t beat that for novelty factor!
Inspired by the various routes on the Wightlink Ferry walking page (a handy resource – you can filter walks by distance, difficulty and type), we quickly put together a walking itinerary for our weekend on the Isle of Wight. First up, we headed to the Isle of Wight ‘s south-west coast to the famous landmark of The Needles. Our 3 1/2 km round walk took us up onto a fantastic stretch of headland where a quick squall saw us scramble into our waterproofs and enjoying an exhilarating blast up in the elements. It felt a million miles away from the chores at home and it was hard to believe we had only arrived on the island an hour or so back.
The fickle coastal weather soon saw some wintery sunshine return and Roo ran and ran along the flat velvety grass, the sea and rest of the island spread out around us. It made a great spot to orientate ourselves as visitors to the Isle of Wight and this walk undoubtedly has some of the best views on the island (although we would love to return to wander round the Devil’s Punch Bowl which we drove past briefly and had some spectacular views too). Our wander took us down to the headland from where we could see the famous Needles sticking up from the sea like the giant white spines of some watery sea-monster. Joining the road we explored the Old and New Battery here. It’s a surprise to find that these old fortifications once housed not only Isle of Wight defences but also a rocket testing station! Look hard at the giant cut-outs in the cliff face here and you can imagine the noise and heat of the scientists at work here in the 1950’s and 60’s.
We called in at the quirky National Trust tea-rooms at the Old Battery for lunch, with war-time newspapers to peruse over steaming bowls of stew and binoculars provided for keeping look-out on the sea below. It’s one of the most unusual cafes I have come across and well worth a visit, although get there early as there is limited space indoors. In winter the Old and New Battery visiting centre is closed although the tea rooms are still open most Saturdays (you don’t need a National Trust card or to pay to get in during off-season) and you can see plenty of the old fortifications and rocket testing sites simply by wandering around as we did. If you’re into geocaching, there are a few to find around here.
The afternoon took us to the Victorian spa town of Ventnor on the Isle of Wight’s south-east coast. Like a lot of the settlements in this area of the Isle of Wight, it feels a bit like stepping back in time to the days when a traditional beach holiday complete with crazy golf, beach huts, arcades and buckets and spades was at its peak. Ventnor itself is a quaint spot, famed for its botanical gardens where some unexpectedly tropical plants make the most of the unique local micro-climate. It is also the site of the island’s most southerly beach and with a long, traditional promenade backing the sandy beach, I felt the need for a long cloth bathing suit and some cloudy lemonade! Whilst I’ve no doubt this would be a perfect spot for those with young children in search of a traditional British beach holiday experience in summer, in the cool of that November day it lay open and invitingly empty – a perfect space for wild outdoor time with kids of all ages.
Muffled up once more, we took to the cliff path out of Ventnor on the short walk to secluded Steephill Cove. Roo had a lot of fun posing next to the seemingly magically conjured-up dinosaur at the meteorite point just beyond the car park (download the Dinosaur Island app – it’s free and kids will love it!) before we descended to the seafront near Steephill where we got an up-close view of some the island’s many sea-defences. The tide was high and Roo was a little apprehensive about the waves which were crashing against the groynes and gabions and occasionally splashing us, putting the defences to the test.
Worn out from exploring and an excess of fresh air, we retreated to our hotel The Channel View Hotel in traditional seasidey Shanklin, where mince pies and tea awaited us. There was no escaping our island location though – our huge room had wide windows overlooking the sea, making us feel a little like we were back on the ferry again!
The Channel View Hotel is in perfect keeping with the traditional British seaside town setting that surrounds it. Old fashioned in values although scrupulously bright, clean and comfortable in its furnishings, it reminds you of an era gone-by when things were simpler and an emphasis on genuine, warm and personal customer service was taken for granted. It’s a family run hotel and around half the guests here are return visitors, attesting to its charm. We were greeted as if we were old friends. With its Christmas decorations up already and the warmth of both staff and fellow guests, for the first time I could see the appeal of staying at a hotel for Christmas. The breakfast in the sea-facing restaurant was plentiful and well cooked. Roo was particularly pleased to have pancakes and they even did a mini scramble egg for her baby sister – I think we had all worked up big appetites after a pre-breakfast swim in the hotel pool!
It just so happened that our weekend on the Isle of Wight coincided with the annual ‘Blast from the Past’ fossil festival at the Dinosaur Isle museum at Sandown. A brilliant place to visit at any time, particularly on wet wintery weekends, the interactive museum with its life-size models of the dinosaurs that once roam the island was offering free admission and the chance to get up close to loads of fossils and chat to palaeontologists and get your own finds identified.
Roo enjoyed digging in the sand for dinosaur bones and spent ages sorting and identifying tiny fish bones and shark teeth around 50 million years old with a little help from a very patient lady on the Natural History stand. To her delight, she got to bring a bag home of a few of them at the end of the session!
Inspired by the museum we wandered down the coast from Dinosaur Isle to rocky beach at Yaverland. It’s a top spot for fossil finding and hubbie relived his childhood by examining rocks for signs of prehistoric remains. We found a couple of tiny fossils to take home which we grown ups were pretty excited about. Roo meanwhile, who had long given up on her loopy parents examining every stone, was happy splashing about in the rock-pools in her all-in-one suit, umbrella and jelly shoes. Who says you can’t paddle in November?
Wildlife on Wight
Dried, warm and fed, our final adventure on the Isle of Wight took us north once more to Parkhurst Forest to the island’s unique inhabitants – the red squirrel. Replaced elsewhere in the UK almost entirely by their American cousins, the grey squirrel the Isle of Wight is special in that it is home to red squirrels alone and is the only place to see them in the south of England. Whilst the squirrels can be spotted anywhere across the Isle of Wight, Parkhurst Forest has a short woodland walk which includes a visit to a squirrel hide which is open all year round. Robin Hood Park is another good spot, although it is closed over winter. Sadly, the squirrels were all hiding away when we visited, all except this one…
Having finished our walk earlier than expected and eager to avoid Sunday evening traffic on our mainland drive home, we were able to change our Wightlink ferry back to Portsmouth for an earlier service. Driving to the port, we hopped straight on and our bottoms had barely touched the seats before we were back in Portsmouth once more. An hour and a half later, we were home and both girls in bed by seven. With all cobwebs well and truly blown away, we felt like we had been away for a week and yet our stay on the island had been barely 36 action packed hours with so much more we would have liked to have done. Amazing to think that the Isle of Wight has been lying within easy reach all this time and yet we have only just discovered it.
A one night winter weekend stay at the Channel View Hotel, including family ferry travel with Wightlink Ferries starts from £142. We were fortunate to receive complimentary travel and accommodation as part of Wightlink’s Room to Breath campaign but all views and opinions expressed within this post remain 100% mine!