Fans of fresh local produce will be in for a treat on the Isle of Wight. If you like your food home-grown or handmade, here's where you should go to eat your way around the island...
I love the Isle of Wight - always have and always will. It's been a staple holiday destination of mine for the last few years and even though I've been there countless times, there's still much I've yet to discover.
Every time I visit the island, I stumble across another hidden gem. But there are places I could happily revisit time and again - and most of them involve food.
There are, of course, plenty of pubs and restaurants that make the most of the Island's local produce, but I'll save those delights for another article...
Even when you take those out of the equation though, there's a lot more to eat than just fish and chips. So if you want to indulge your foodie side, let me recommend a few mouth-watering morsels you must try next time you visit.
No visit to the Island would be complete without sampling the delights from the Isle of Wight Cheese Company (www.isleofwightcheese.co.uk). This cute family-run business only started in 2006 but has already won several awards for its products, including 'Best English Cheese' at the 2007 World Cheese Awards. The company makes three different types of cheese - IOW Blue (the award-winner), IOW Soft (a cross between Camembert and Brie) and Gallybagger (based on a Cheddar recipe but with more moisture).
All three cheeses are absolutely delicious and although they're a bit on the pricey side (around £5 for a 200g pot), it's money well spent. The cheeses are readily available from the island's farm shops, delicatessens and at farmers' markets.
Another Isle of Wight staple food is, believe it or not, garlic. The islanders go mad for this vampire-slaying stuff and even have an annual Garlic Festival, every August. Admittedly, garlic isn't to everyone's taste, but if you're a fan of its fearsome flavour, a trip to The Garlic Farm (Mersley Lane, Newchurch; +44 (0)1983 865378; www.thegarlicfarm.co.uk) is a must.
This 'shrine' to garlic is run by the Boswell family, who have been successfully growing the plant on the island since the 1970s. Depending on what time of the year you visit, you can expect to see at least 12 different local types of garlic on sale, including the family favourite - Solent Wight - and the giant elephant garlic.
The Garlic Farm is also renowned for its asparagus (one of the earliest varieties in the UK), homemade pickles, chutneys and relish, which can all be sampled. There's even a Vampire Hot selection reserved for the very brave. As well as all this, The Garlic Farm has its own café and shop, where you can also pick up items like smoked garlic honey and even garlic ice cream, which is available in mini-tubs for the curious to buy...it's certainly an acquired taste!
People with calorific cravings will think they've died and gone to heaven when they stumble across Godshill. Not only is this chocolate-box village one of the most picturesque on the Island, but ironically, it's also home to the biggest chocolate producer. Chocolate Island (Church Hollow, Godshill; +44 (0)1983 840090) is a haven for those with a sweet tooth and always a joy to visit because you'll be able to treat yourself to something, no matter how small your budget.
Part of the fun is salivating over the huge number of chocolate slabs, sticks and shapes on offer in the shop then deciding whether to be sensible or blow the diet! Visitors can also slip out the back to watch the gooey chocolate being made in the 'factory' before treating themselves to arguably one of the UK's best hot chocolates at the Coco Café. Delicious!
Just up the road is The Old Smithy (High Street, Godshill; +44 (0)1983 840426, www.theoldsmithy.com) - an arts and crafts emporium with a tea room to remember. Here, you can indulge in some of the biggest slabs of cake I've ever seen for just a few pounds, which is probably one of the reasons it's so popular with coach parties.
Another good place to try is the Cameron Tea Rooms on the other side of the island (Dimbola Lodge, Terrace Lane, Freshwater Bay; +44 (0)1983 756814; www.dimbola.co.uk). This chintzy little café is inside Dimbola Lodge - the former home of pioneering Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. The building is now a museum dedicated to Julia's life and work, but for me, the tea room is as much of an attraction as the exhibition! It does brilliant cakes and cream teas at affordable prices and most of what's on the menu is veggie.
Another Isle of Wight institution is its Minghella ice cream (+44 (0)1983 883545; www.minghella.co.uk). Chances are, if you've ever treated yourself to a '99 while strolling along the prom, you've been tucking in to one of the island's favourite exports. This lip-smackingly good brand was founded in Ryde in 1950, and as well as the most popular flavours, such as vanilla and lemon, it is also available in more unusual - and adventurous - varieties, such as Absinthe Sorbet and Chocolate Cheesecake. Minghella ice cream is readily available in pubs, cafes, restaurants and shops across the island.
Thirsty explorers will love the island's local produce. For non-alcoholic beverages, your first stop should be Sharon Orchard (Smallbrook Lane, Ashey; +44 (0)1983 564595) where you can try 10 different traditionally pressed apple juices. At certain times of the year, you can also buy fresh apples from the orchard's 20 varieties.
If you're in need of something a little bit stronger, the nearby Rosemary Vineyard (Smallbrook Lane, Ashey; +44 (0)1983 811084; www.rosemaryvineyard.co.uk) will be just the ticket. As the name suggests, this is the place to go for locally-produced wines and liqueurs (prices start at around £7 a bottle) and free tastings take place on a daily basis. Because of this, coach parties love the vineyard so it can get quite busy, but if you have a bit more time to explore, try one of the guided or unguided tours of the area, or relax in the Vineleaf coffee shop.
Another excellent place to check out (and one of my all-time island favourites) is the Godshill Cider Company (The Cider Barn, High Street, Godshill; +44 (0)1983 840680). With its huge variety of home-made ciders, ginger beer, real ale and wines, this place is always full of shoppers, although be warned - some of the drinks on offer can knock your socks off! Prices are reasonable (around £2.50 for a small bottle of island-produced cider) and you can also pick up local mustards, chutneys, pickles and preserves here.
Best of the rest
If you're short on time or looking for a 'one-stop shop' for local produce, try and visit one of the island's popular farmers' markets (www.islandfarmersmarket.co.uk). These are held twice a week - at St Thomas' Square in Newport every Friday from 9am-2pm, and in Ryde Town Square every Saturday from 8.30am-12.30pm. The markets take place come rain or shine and you can usually pick up a whole range of local produce at them, including cheese, juices, jam, fruit, vegetables and flowers.
If you can't make either of those times, check out Farmer Jack's Farm Shop (Arreton Barns, Arreton; +44 (0)1983 527530; www.farmerjacks.co.uk), which also stocks a great range of island food and is open seven days a week. For a more in-depth guide to the island's home-grown produce, though, check out the Wightlink website (www.wightlink.co.uk) to find out about its 'Taste Trail'. The ferry company has compiled a 'best of' guide with regards to food on the island that is regularly updated. It mentions several of the aforementioned companies and places, as well as many others - well worth a look.
Where to stay
There is an abundance of places to stay on the Isle of Wight, but because you will need to travel around to sample the best local produce, I would recommend staying in the island's capital, Newport. Centrally located, Newport has good road and public transport links so nowhere will be too far away or difficult to reach.
Whether you'd prefer to camp, book some self-catering accommodation or blow the budget on a posh hotel, Newport has plenty of options.
The town has several good places to stay including the recently refurbished Calverts Hotel (Quay Street, Newport) - a charming budget option with rooms for around £50 a night.
There is also a Travelodge Newport (Lugley Street) where you can get rooms from as little as £19 if you're lucky enough to book during a sale.
Situated just off the south coast of England, the Isle of Wight has direct and regular transport links to the mainland.
Ferry is the easiest option for both cars and foot passengers and routes connect the island with Portsmouth (to Fishbourne), Southampton (to East Cowes) and Lymington (to Yarmouth). The ferries are run by Red Funnel (www.redfunnel.co.uk) and Wightlink (www.wightlink.co.uk) and prices vary depending on the time of day and year you travel. Services take between 40 minutes and an hour, but you can also take a hovercraft from Portsmouth, which takes just over 10 minutes (www.hovertravel.co.uk).