I do admire the residents of the Isle of Wight, which might be a strange thing to admire, but I really do. And that’s why I love an Isle of Wight holiday.
It’s like they all held an Island-wide meeting in about 1959 and decided that at that exact moment in time, the Isle of Wight was absolutely perfect as it was, and from that day forward, they would not change or modernise at all.
Dual carriageways on the Island? Hard no. Update our hotels? Absolutely not. What about that massive Island-wide railway network? Get rid of it, far too modern. Want a bridge to the mainland? Forget it.
I get it. It’s the sort of local pride and bloody-mindedness I often see in my proudly Cornish wife who will drive at terrifying speeds down narrow West Country lanes, swearing loudly at any tourists (Emmets, in local speak) that have the temerity to block her path – and God help you if she gets stuck behind you when you’re trying to do a three-point turn in a caravan. She’ll get out and pop your tyres.
But the subject of being a foreigner in the West County is probably best saved for another blog. This time, we’re going to focus on the Isle of Wight, and when I say focus, it’s less of a laser focus, more of a blurry, friendly focus on an island through the lens of childhood holidays, Enid Blyton books and general 1950s nostalgia.
Welcome to the Isle of Wight. Please set your watches back 50 years.
Literally, everyone has had a stay at an Isle of Wight holiday park at some stage, and if you’re one of the rare people who haven’t, my jokes about the 1950s are probably lost on you completely. I guess you could prepare yourself for a week on the Isle of Wight by watching lots of Ealing comedies where gentlemen still wear hats, or the early Carry On film series, where there are lots of terrible double entendres about big knockers and vicars’ trousers, to get a bit of a feel for the place.
Travelling to the Isle of Wight
One of the reasons I like an Isle of Wight holiday is probably because it’s not just a simple drive to get there, it takes a little bit of effort via a ferry, and getting a ferry anywhere, by default, makes it feel like you’re heading abroad somehow.
We live in the South East so for us, it was a drive down to Portsmouth for a ferry to Ryde at a very reasonable £100 for a family of 4 and our trusty family car. Depending on where in the UK you are heading from, you can also get a ferry from Southampton to Cowes starting from £96 or from Lymington to Yarmouth from £91.
Clearly, like all holiday destinations, prices vary with the season and generally speaking, the best prices are the earlier ones, so book early to get the best benefits.
As we pulled out of Portsmouth Harbour, you’re treated to a display of Britain’s impressive ocean heritage from the perspective of the sea, and for my money, that view alone is worth the ferry fare.
As you glide past the grey ships of the Royal Navy, the view gives way to the impressive Spinnaker Tower and the bustling traffic in the Solent, where rich yacht owners jostle for space between enormous supertankers.
The ferry darts between the ocean forts that once defended Britain from nefarious overseas enemies but are now either sadly derelict or, as is now standard, converted into luxury homes for people richer than you or I will ever be.
But time it right on a summer’s day and as the sun glitters off the ocean wave, you feel an enormous sense of well-being that summer in the UK is uniquely beautiful.
If you’re not a car driver, there are also foot-passenger ferry options, but only the ferry from Portsmouth to Ryde connects directly to the last remains of the Islands railway system for onward travel.
That said, there are also busses and taxis services available on the Island and they’re fairly regular – not as regular as, say the London tube, but with a bit of planning, it’s entirely feasible to do a car-free journey, depending on your reserves of patience, the ability of any children to wait around and of course, your robustness when the previously mentioned glorious British Summer weather gives way to the inevitable rain shower.
Isle of Wight Accommodation
Crikey, you name it, it’s there for you on the Isle of Wight. Funnily enough, there is only one 5-star hotel on the Island – The Hambrough in Ventnor – but I still maintain this relates to the fact that 5 stars weren’t a hotel category in 1959 so therefore doesn’t really count on the Timewarp Island.
Going down from there, there’s the usual array of hotels, AirBnBs, regular B&Bs and – what we were there for – Isle of Wight holiday parks! Yes, I had decided that I would give my children the same holiday experience I enjoyed as a child – a shoe-free, bedtime-free, healthy diet-free week in an Isle of Wight holiday park that would come complete with a caravan. It was a chance to break free of staring at screens and get the children to go outdoors. They could have the chance to catch a tan on the beach, the chance to catch crabs in the sea and the chance to catch verrucas in the swimming pool.
We stayed at the wonderful Whitecliff Bay Holiday Park near Bembridge and it did not disappoint. A week’s stay in August in a six-berth caravan set us back £1900, which I thought was entirely reasonable.
What really sold me was the fact there was direct access to the Whitecliff Bay beach from the park, which meant a trip to the seaside was as simple as gathering up the children and depositing them on the beach with strict instructions to only return when they were hungry, or if they had found pirate treasure.
If the weather closed in, there was a pretty good clubhouse which served full meals and drinks and there was also the option of both indoor and outdoor pools to ensure the children were properly tired by the end of each day. If your budget doesn’t stretch that far – there is a cost of living crisis – there are also the reasonably priced chalets on site that go for around £1500 that also sleep up to six.
As always, when it comes to self-catering Isle of Wight holidays – and despite having an entire car’s worth of luggage space – I had forgotten to pack all those minor little things you need for a holiday like washing up liquid, tea towels and, crucially, teabags but because you’re on the Isle of Wight, you can simply go to Tescos in the nearest town and not feel too bad.
If you’re carless, that changes the dynamic a bit and you can always drop into the on-site shop. You might as well because your children will inevitably drag you in there once they discover it also sells sweets, slushies, ice cream and many other things that would make my dentist’s accountant rub his hands with glee.
The other great thing about an Isle of Wight holiday is that because it’s a relatively small island, it doesn’t actually matter too much where you stay as everything is within an hour. The very longest drive is probably from where we were in Benbridge to the famous Needles which was just under an hour’s pleasant and slow drive around the winding roads of the island. Which of course leads me nicely onto…
Things to do on an Isle of Wight holiday with kids
Oh man, the Isle of Wight is FULL of things to do with kids. All of the larger towns have a seafront with at least some sort of small arcade and funfair set up. We particularly liked the setup in Shanklin where we spent a relaxed day strolling up and down the promenade, letting the kids splash in the sea and spend far too much money in the arcades, before treating ourselves to a slap-up tea in The Steamer Inn Restaurant.
As the name suggests, they’re heavily into serving up the best in local seafood, but there are also the old favourites of a grill and burger menu to pick from as well as substantial vegan or vegetarian options too. The kids love the pasta options (mac and cheese or lasagne) almost as much as they liked the impressive menu of sundaes they could pick from.
We also took a day trip across to the Needles for a bit of a mooch around and, if I could, I wanted to sneak off, to look at the remains of the nearby High Down Rocket Test Site – an incredibly rare example of a 1950s British rocket test facility, built at a time when Britain was actually Great and a world leader in rocket and missile technology.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be as my children actually wanted to go on a speedboat ride around the Needles, but next time, when they’re a little older, I will absolutely bore them to tears with stories of how innocuous men with names like “Bert” and “Alf” nearly conquered space with little more than a slide rule, a set of NHS issued glasses and some British innovation.
The Needles themselves were exactly as I last saw them in 1986, although the prices were not. Getting to the beach area involves two choices – walking (steep, tiring, not recommended) or placing your life in the hands of a terrifyingly ancient 1950s ski lift that will send you to the bottom (terrifying, rusty, also not recommended) but as this is a lazy travel blog, I took the path of least decent and booked four return seats on the widow making device.
On certain days, speedboat rides are run from the beach around the Needles and for a small price you can speed over a calm, flat Solent pretending you’re rich, or at least handsome.
If you have a small boy in your family (who is not the husband), the next most exciting thing on an Isle of Wight holiday is clearly a trip to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway at Havenstreet where you can spend the day on trains on most days from June to September.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to peek at a London, Brighton and South Coast Railway A1 Class 0-6-0T in full steam? Again, sadly it was not to be as my boy shamelessly accused me of wanting to go for my own benefit and instead opted to take a trip to Dinosaur Isle in Sandown. Nestled between an inevitable arcade and a rather energetic-looking trampoline park, Dinosaur Isle is a full Jurassic history of the Isle of Wight revealed in a highly interactive and exciting format.
I mean, sure, it was exciting, but was it as exciting as a London, Midland and Scottish Railway Ivatt Class 2 2-6-2T? The jury is out on that one.
So special, it gets its own section!
If it’s fun for all the family that you need, the only real game in town is the always-wonderful Blackgang Chine amusement park near Ventor. As you drive down, you’ll be bombarded with questions from curious children like “Dad, what’s a Blackgang? What’s a Chine? What’s actually at Blackdown Chine?” to which the answers are, respectively, “A village”, “A steep ravine” and “Everything”, although the kids may take some convincing to that there really is everything there – but there is!
The joy of Blackgang Chine is every time you go, there’s something new there to see. When I first visited with the kids it was a very different layout from what I remembered from my own childhood and was quietly impressed by the obviously innovative and exciting thinking the site owners must have.
To be constantly re-inventing their always-popular park must be a real testament to their dedication.
Of course, later, I realised that the truth was that the park layout constantly changes because – and there’s no real way to sugarcoat this – it’s because it keeps falling into the sea thanks to coastal erosion.
I mean, if the roller coasters aren’t enough to make you fill your pants with terror, the thought of falling into the English Channel can also add a certain extra sense of dread to some already thrilling rides.
A particular favourite of ours was Cowboy Town where, thanks to the Gift Shop knocking out some bargain-priced cap guns, the street resembled a midget-sized shootout as rambunctious 8-year-olds burned through gunpower at a rate that would make any full-blooded American jealous, and the air was thick with gunsmoke.
There must also be a tip of the hat to some of the characters in the park who played the Wild West characters so well – they really made the atmosphere for the children but sadly I’d just finished watching Westworld on Sky Atlantic so kept a close eye out … you know … just in case they went rouge.
We made sure we timed our visit to Blackgang Chine with its Summerfest that runs every Monday and Wednesday throughout the school holidays. From 6 – 9.30pm, you can enjoy a clifftop party like no other (so they say) with fun, foam and fireworks! It is a good reminder of what makes an Isle of Wight holiday so special.
And again, before I knew it, it was time to pack up the caravan and our Isle of Wight holiday and return to the 21st Century. It was quite a depressing thought.
We’d managed to have a wonderfully old-fashioned week of ice cream, donkey rides and straw hats. We’d dawdled through sleepy villages near Whitecliff Bay and walked on golden sands and not been too fussed about bedtimes and teeth cleaning.
The children had a healthy outdoor bronze glow about them and if you squinted, my daughter’s hair wasn’t too matted with a combination of sea salt, sand and sticky sweets.
As we drove home, straight back into the crowded roads of Southern England full of angry, stressed drivers, I knew that the residents of the Isle of Wight are absolutely right. If I lived on an island like that, I’d do my best to keep people like me out too.