The first time I came here was as a 17-year-old student hitching around the UK (when people still did that kind of thing). Since then I’ve been back only once for the excellent Isle of Wight festival.
In the meantime, Bestival has taken off for families, the culinary scene has exploded as Michelin-starred chefs pour in to take advantage of fresh seafood and fish, and the Isle has gained a reputation as ‘Dinosaur Island’ with fossil hunts and footprint tours increasingly popular. Cowes Week Sailing Regatta in late August gets a bigger international crowd each year and there’s tons of attractions now – all easy peasy given it’s a short drive anywhere on an island only 23 miles by 12 miles in size.
‘Are we here already?’ says my 11-year-old, Gabriel, as the Wightlink ferry glides gently into Fishbourne harbour. As family trips go it’s an uplifting change from the usual mantra: ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ But a brisk 45 minute ride across the Solent from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight is all the time it takes to feel like you’re on an adventure in an entirely different land. ‘Pretty sick!’ says Gabriel.
After a warm meet and greet at the Clubhouse, we head to our luxury three-bedroom lodge on The Crosswinds. We’re on the other side of the resort with the Canvas Village, but it’s all very walkable, easy to orientate yourself, and the Nab Bar and Diner, beach and Culver Club with live music and dancing most nights are nearby.
All the lodges are nicely spaced out for privacy, and inside there’s lots of room and natural light. Our beds are already made for us to jump into but first we collapse on the comfy sofas and stick on a warming wall fire to get toasty. The kitchen has all the mod cons including fridge, oven, microwave, dishwasher, and the bathrooms (one ensuite) have plenty of towels. There’s a big dining room table and the large, colour TV is an additional hit with our boy for Friday night X-Factor viewing before we all flake out.
We wake up the next day to the light rustling of trees that shelter our lodge, and peace envelops us after sleeping like logs from the sea air. Looking out over our lodge’s white picket fence, I can see the patchwork of Bembridge countryside, the thick forest and undulating bottle-green hills under light, bright blue skies.
A big English breakfast kicks off our Saturday at The Nab Bar and Diner where the helpful and friendly staff go out of their way to make sure we have everything we need. Conveniently, the indoor swimming pool is next door, so we take a splash in the pleasantly warm water before I spend an equal amount of time trying to persuade our family aqua tuber to leave the flume ride he’s doing loops on. We follow this with a father and son table tennis match in the games room, before deciding to hit the beach.
“We wake up the next day to the light rustling of trees that shelter our lodge, and peace envelops us after sleeping like logs from the sea air.”
Moving past the fun, giant deckchairs and mini golf on the front lawns, we take the footpath to the shore for some rock pooling and a coffee at the Beach Café.
This whole area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and for budding dinosaur hunters, the grey, pinkish and yellow strata of the chalk cliff’s soft sands and clays are a good way for children to discover fossils. You can see the layer cake effect, where thousands of years of earth are stacked up over time in the side of the cliff, and it adds a new dimension to discovering the tiny sea creatures washed up by the waves.
Back at the Clubhouse and shop on site, I catch up with the general manager, who tells me £2.5 million this year alone has been invested here in modernising the park.
For old hippies like me there’s also the Canvas Village, a glamping area inspired by the Isle of Wight festival with bell tents that sleep up to four people and cottages that can take up to eight. For a touch of nostalgia there are Vintage Caravans, which are the original 1970s Cosalt Abbey caravans kitted out in a Cath Kidston, retro style.
Next up though is something thoroughly modern – we’ve booked in for a hoverboarding session with enthusiastic activity leader, Ben. It’s one of the many activities available at the resort from archery, land zorbing and laser tag to raft building, water polo, circus skills and pottery painting. This is on top of the new covered kids play area with its climbing ropes, slides, novelty red phone box and outdoor swimming pool with kayaks.
Ben expertly guides us through what to expect and kits us out with a helmet, elbow, knee and wrist guards. We tentatively step on the two wheelers that are lit from underneath in electric purple and remind me of Back to the Future. Gabriel loves it and is already dodging in and out of plastic cones, starting to spin in circles and picking songs to ‘dance’ to with Ben, even going one-footed by the end. I’m happy to make a few laps without picking up any major injuries, but we all smile from ear to ear.
On Sunday morning we leave early, waving our serene hideaway goodbye to visit Monkey Haven, a Primate rescue centre in Newport only 10 minutes from the ferry, so a good last pit stop to make. It’s a genuine joy, this place with its whooping Muller gibbons, cheeky capuchins and permanently alert meerkats.
There’s so much more to do, but annoyingly we’ve run out of time. On the way to the ferry we make a mental list of all the places we’ll go next time: Dinosaur Isle at Sandown; Queen Victoria’s home, Osborne House; Carisbrooke Castle; the Needles; and the intriguing Garlic Farm.
As we leave the Isle of Wight, we sit with our faces to the sun as jet skis skim across the wake of our ferry and seem to urge us to stay. The short crossing reminds us we won’t leave our next escape that long again.
Isle of Wight Breaks
Book your Isle of Wight break at Whitecliff Bay