Even though the Isle of Wight is a land mass very much part of the UK, I actually knew fairly little about the London-sized island before I visited it a couple of weeks ago. Word of mouth told me to expect a rural population, good home-grown food and plenty of countryside adventures. So, under a very beautiful midday Monday sun, I boarded the train from London Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour with fairly high expectations.
The trip from the capital to the Isle of Wight is incredibly easy; a couple of hours from Waterloo and you’ll arrive in Portsmouth Harbour train station. Then you simply walk a few minutes to the fast and efficient Wightlink Ferries terminal to board the giant catamaran than runs a few times each hour. Within 25 minutes, I found myself looking back on the British mainland from Ryde Pier; a picturesque throwback to seaside times gone by. The only reminder that I was indeed still on British soil was the timely arrival of a former train carriage from the London Underground that trundled lazily along the pier to shuttle us to the nearby town of Ryde.
Our accomodation for the two-night stay was the East Afton Farmhouse on the western edge of the Island. An idyllic 12-person farmhouse, East Afton was the perfect base from which to explore the island. Well-connected to the rest of the Isle of Wight, there was also a strong argument for never leaving the premises; an on-site hot tub, cinema room and archetypal farmhouse kitchen making this a perfect place to call home. If I ever moved to the countryside, or more specifically the Isle of Wight, East Afton would make an excellent abode.
So, what can you do on the Isle of Wight? Our first activity was a trip to Carisbrooke Castle; a former Elizabethan artillery fortress, a king’s prison and a royal summer residence amongst other things. On-site, the working donkeys provided plenty of entertainment, with the Edwardian garden being the perfect place to take in the sights and scents of a floral summer. At the top of the castle walls, the far reaching panoramic views stretched out across the island to the emerald waters that lapped the shores in the distance. With the mercury touching thirty, it was hard to believe that I was so close to home.
That evening, after a few hours back at the farmhouse, we headed Ryde once again for dinner along the seafront. While there were plenty of options overlooking the sandy beaches, no other eatery quite matched the atmosphere of the Three Buoys restaurant. Facing out over the Solent towards Portsmouth Harbour in the distance, this family restaurant served big dishes with even bigger flavour. While I couldn’t sample the fish dishes, the steak was perfectly medium-rare and generous in size. It was only trumped by the accompanying vegetables and polenta toast; both doing enough to stand out, but not too much to overshadow the meaty flavours.
The next day was our only full day on the island and so it promised to be a busy one. After a locally-sourced breakfast at the farmhouse, we were greeted by the team at Wight Cycle Hire for a coastal cycle to nearby Freshwater Bay. Under the morning sun, the cycle ride was challenging enough to get the legs pumping, but the views from the top of the grassy cliffs were well worth it. Simply stunning. After an hour or so turning the chains, we then headed back to the farmhouse for a quick shower before heading out to lunch at the island’s famous Garlic Farm. It was all things garlic and more; the lunch was exceptional and I left safe in the knowledge that I would be immune to would-be vampires for a few days or so…
The afternoon saw us meet so very special furry friends at the West Wight Alpaca Farm, and probably provided the best photo opportunities on the entire trip. Keeping an alpaca as a pet is most definitely not advised for someone living in Central London, but it was very difficult to say goodbye to “Woody” after walking him around the field for an hour or so. Like miniature camels, their faces provided endless moments of humour and both the alpacas and the llamas were surprisingly well-tempted considering the reputation that precedes them.
With the evening drawing closer, we headed into Newport for dinner at Thompson’s Restaurant, home to award-winning chef Robert Thompson. With Michelin stars to his name he is no stranger to producing great food, and the tasting menu that we sampled in his restaurant was worthy of any table in the world. Locally-sourced ingredients were expertly delivered with subtle twists and the entire occasion was a pleasure to digest. The standout for me had to be the slow cooked ox tongue with a crispy potato galette that was as delectable as it sounds. Of course, the caramel panna cotta came in at a very close second place.
Rising early the next day, we had just enough time in our diaries to squeeze in a windsurfing lesson with Tackt Isle Adventures, on the other side of the island. Being a complete novice, I did spend the majority of the first half hour drinking fairly cold seawater but, by the end, I was able to stand on my own two feet and get the sail moving in the right direction. It was the perfect way to build up an appetite before our lunch at The Cow Co; a steakhouse conveniently located right next to the farmhouse which served up the most mouth-watering bovine dishes. Another medium rare steak was the only option for me, and it proved to be one of the best steaks I have ever had in the UK. Utter perfection, and just the dish to wave goodbye to as we boarded the Wightlink ferry back to Portsmouth Harbour.
I want to say a big thanks to everyone who made this trip so memorable, but a special thanks to Wightlink Ferries for arranging the transfers and, of course, Travel To and Keith for his expertise and skill behind the wheel.