When you travel to England, you may fall in love with any number of things, like afternoon tea or cozy cottages. But after a recent visit to the Isle of Wight, which lies four miles off the coast of Hampshire, I am a proud hovercraft enthusiast.
Conceived of in England in the 1950s, this hybrid vessel resists categorization. (In fact, the hovercraft was only recently classified as under the jurisdiction of maritime authority rather than civil aviation.)
You can take a regular old passenger or car ferry to the Isle of Wight, but hovering – which feels more like flying than sailing — is, by far, the most exciting way to get there. Beyond the ten-minute trip across the Solent, I wasn’t sure what the Isle of Wight had to offer. I was expecting something that felt remote, maybe even a repeat of my experience in the Isles of Scilly.
But I quickly found out that the Isle of Wight, a popular getaway for Londoners, offers a very different vibe. Little did I know that many of sailing’s brightest moments have taken place here during Cowes Week, one of the longest-running regattas in the world. And despite having heard reports of a raucous stag weekend involving Princes William and Harry partying hard at the Anchor Inn, I found out that the island has had a long connection to the royals.
Osborne House, the huge Italianate seaside palace Queen Victoria commissioned to be built after witnessing the stunning cross-water views of mainland England the property afforded, is reason enough to visit the Isle of Wight.
At her private beach, which was opened to the public last year, you can see the bizarre bathing machine (which looks a bit like a horse cart) that she used to preserve her modesty. Touring the house itself — the Council Room, where Alexander Graham Bell, one of National Geographic Society’s founders, introduced Victoria to the telephone and the ornate Durbar Room, designed by Rudyard Kipling’s father to celebrate her reign as Empress of India, are highlights — provides an intimate glimpse of the legendary queen’s life, and death (the room where she died is also open to the public).
I was pleased to discover that the Isle of Wight possesses a great many assets beyond those of the royal variety — its enthusiasm for its agricultural roots among them. You can stop and smell the garlic (lots of it!) at the Garlic Farm, which, in addition to growing heaps of this aromatic kitchen staple, gives it top billing in its on-site cafe. And locals seem convinced that the growing conditions for asparagus are not to be outmatched.
“My marketing for the Isle of Wight would be, ‘It’s brilliant. Please don’t come,’” said Martin Simpson, known locally as “the Fossil Man,” as we stood in a shaded clearing close to the water. “I’m hoping it gets famous for dinosaurs — but not too famous.” With a personal collection of more than 58,000 fossils, Simpson has been a vocal champion of the island’s unique dinosaur heritage and leads two-hour fossil hunts that, value-packed at £4 per adult, may constitute the best deal in town.
If you only run when someone is chasing you, the island’s two-week annual walking festival is for you. From one-mile strolls to longer commitments that involve circumnavigating the island on foot, this festival is all about fresh air, strong lungs, and great views. Hundreds of festivals fill the island’s calendar, from the world’s largest scooter festival to big music festivals that attract top-billing artists like Coldplay.
I loved staying at the romantic Royal Hotel in Ventnor (on the island’s southern coast), an area that Charles Dickens proclaimed the “prettiest place I ever saw in my life.” The place still oozes seaside Victorian charm and remains popular with the artistic set. A short drive from Ventnor is Dimbola Lodge, a small museum celebrating the life and work of groundbreaking Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron – though I admit I was more taken with their adorable tea room serving buttery lemon cake.
I could feel the ghost of King Charles I, imprisoned in the well-preserved medieval Carisbrooke Castle as I climbed the ramparts. Unlike many historic buildings where you have to really use your imagination to understand what it must have been like in its heyday, here it is easy to picture knights jousting in the courtyard.
Though distinctly British, the Isle of Wight feels a world away from mainland England — via a ten-minute hovercraft trip, of course. It’s not hard to see why its wild seaside landscapes, coupled with lovely old towns, yacht clubs, wildlife, and a burgeoning restaurant scene signal a welcome change of pace for Brits seeking respite from city life, and provide more than enough reason for travelers from further afield to add the island to their to-do list.
“People naturally want to leave at 18 [because] it can feel like the little island is boxing [them] in,” one long-time local confided. “But so many want to come back, and do.”
I can see why.