The very act of crossing the Solent towards the Isle of Wight performs a kind of magic, as the cares of the mainland disappear and a holiday mindset begins to take hold. It’s just a short ferry journey away (less than an hour) but the destination is a world away from life back home.
From timeless villages like Godshill to larger towns where innovative independent businesses and creative artisans thrive, the whole island retains a laid-back, welcoming feel. Endless stretches of pristine coastline, charming seaside resorts and miles of gloriously undulating countryside serve to increase its appeal still further.
And everywhere the Isle of Wight sings with history – beaches of dinosaur fossils, Bronze Age barrows, remains of Roman villas, and ample traces of its popularity among fashionable Victorians (Queen Victoria’s own island residence, Osborne House, is a perennial tourist favourite). As you might expect from such a storied isle, the place is brimming with unique shops and tempting galleries showcasing all manner of treasures; half the fun is in seeking them out.
What to do on the Isle of Wight
It was the view from the drawing room of Farringford that made Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his wife Emily fall in love with the place in 1853. They lived here until the poet’s death in 1892 and it has recently been restored to its Tennyson-era splendour. Pre-booked tours are usually available (check the website for details), offering the chance to experience the place Tennyson wrote some of his most famous works. Tennyson Down is close by, with expansive sea views at the top, while down the road Dimbola is also worth visiting – the former home of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron is now a fascinating museum.
Although Appuldurcombe House is now largely a shell, it manages to retain a rich sense of its former elegance. The present structure, a masterpiece of Baroque architecture, was designed for the Worsley family and built in the 18th century. Today Appuldurcombe House remains a peaceful, atmospheric place to wander and its impressive Capability Brown-designed grounds are ideal for picnicking.
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Where to shop on the Isle of Wight
Visitors can enjoy wall-to-wall books and a relaxed ambience at this characterful bookshop in Shanklin, which also offers typewriter sales and repair. Among the legions of collectable books and first editions, houseplants add to the homely feel, and a spot of leisurely browsing among Babushka’s packed shelves is the perfect antidote to the stresses of day-to-day life.
Arreton Barns enables short-of-time visitors to tick off a good breadth of shopping in one stop, with a host of arts and crafts workshops and shops (and even an on-site pub, medieval pond and 12th-century church). Offerings include gifts and accessories made from recycled bike parts at ReCycle & BiCycle, the iconic designs of Isle of Wight Studio Glass and an array of local produce at Farmer Jack’s.
Zachary and Connor founded The Velvet Pig in 2019, inspired by a shared love of vintage, sustainable clothing. The pair are hugely passionate about the pieces they sell, and have built up a legion of fans in Ryde and further afield for their carefully curated, artfully arranged stock. The shop is also known for its eye-catching window displays, which offer a vibrant peek at what to expect inside this ‘treasure trough’ of wonders.
The Isle of Wight is positively heaving with antiques shops and, whichever town you visit, you won’t need to go far to
find one. In the seaside town of Ventnor, Peter and Jackie run Burfields. They have been dealing in antiques since 1982 and although these remain the shop’s main focus, it also sells contemporary fine art, sculpture and other creative works by island-based artists.
Where to eat on the Isle of Wight
Just south of Ventnor you’ll find the secluded bay of Steephill Cove. This picturesque place can only be reached on foot, but it’s well worth the effort and The Crab Shed offers a unique and delicious reward for the journey in its fresh, hot crab pasties. Wash one down with a glass of wine or a chilled cider while watching the sea, for an instant holiday frame of mind.
Charlie and Helen Bartlett opened The Duck in 2016 and it’s now a firm favourite. A welcoming atmosphere and sea views provide a pleasing backdrop to the top-class food. There are also mouthwatering desserts and a tempting cocktail list, including The Wobbly Duck – a zingy concoction of limoncello, gin and egg whites shaken over ice, with Prosecco… sprinkled with popping candy.
Where to stay on the Isle of Wight
Nathalie offers a warm welcome at this grand manor, which enjoys a distinguished history and – having changed very little since 1595 – retains a palpable feel of its long past. The house abounds with tales of monarchs and monks, and oak-panelled rooms, leaded windows and grand fireplaces are complemented by fine, rich furnishings. Set within Arreton Down Nature Reserve, this peaceful retreat is fantastic for history lovers – right down to the antiques shop based in its coach house.
This historic cottage, now a boutique B&B, is a cosy, relaxing base, serving delectable cooked breakfasts using local produce. The hotel is named after John Keats as the poet spent the summer at the house in 1819 (then named Eglantine Cottage) and wrote some of his poems here. The building’s literary pedigree is honoured in its rooms, all named after famous poets.
Perfect for lovers of vintage chic, and set in a peaceful, bucolic location, Vintage Vacations’ Airstream vans make for an unforgettable glamping holiday. The vans are restored to original condition – many with original fixtures and fittings – and all have individually styled accessories and decorations, including vintage fabrics where possible. Meanwhile, the deckchairs outside are highly recommended for lounging in after a busy day’s sightseeing on the island.
Words: Jenny Oldaker