Most visitors to the Isle of Wight flock to the resorts of the east - but the high cliffs, quiet harbours and tremendous beaches of the west are just as beautiful. Here’s what to do, and where to stay
The Isle of Wight ferry from Lymington in the New Forest takes just 30 minutes to reach the chipper little sailing town of Yarmouth, and the peaceful, away-from-it-all beaches and countryside of West Wight. This is the island at its best, where along the Roman-built coast road from Blackgang to Freshwater Bay, grassy cliffs dip and roll down to white-flecked sea. Further north, waves surge around the white chalk outcrops of The Needles, cliffs of multi-coloured sands drop to the beach at Alum Bay, and sailing boats bob on their moorings among the quiet saltmarshes of Newtown creek. Visitors can walk or cycle across high chalk downs and through ancient woods, explore historic castles, hunt for fossils and dinosaur footprints, and surf and swim on the west coast’s wild and lovely beaches.
Base yourself at...
The George Hotel, which has an unbeatable location right on the water in Yarmouth. Service can be a bit hit and miss, but it’s a charming, wood-panelled 18th-century house and the small garden, airy brasserie restaurant and best bedrooms look over The Solent. Doubles from £190 with breakfast, £210 in high season.
One of the Really Green Holiday Company's Mongolian-style yurts in the apple orchard at Afton Park near Freshwater, with a farm shop and small café on site. The yurts have solid floors, proper beds, tables and chairs, a lantern and wood-burning stove; they sleep from three to five; two furnished 16ft bell tents complete the camp. Four-night breaks from £120 for a yurt, £100 for a bell tent.
NorthCourt, a handsome 17th-century manor house on the edge of Shorwell, one of the island’s prettiest villages. The large, traditionally furnished b&b rooms have views across the magnificent 14-acre gardens and guests can use the grass tennis court. From £35 per person a night.
Saltys fish restaurant in Yarmouth (01983 761550, www.saltysrestaurant.co.uk), open Easter to end September, serves freshly-caught crab and lobster, and local fish; it’s a lively – and sometimes noisy – place, but great fun. Average £30 a head.
At On the Rocks in Yarmouth (01983 760505) you cook your own fish, seafood or steaks on hot volcanic rocks. From about £12 a head.
The Red Lion at Freshwater (01983 754925) is in a peaceful corner of the village, by the church and River Yar, serving above average pub food in the cosy interior or attractive garden. From about £9 a head.
The Blue Crab café in Yarmouth (01983 760014) sells unbeatable (and huge) takeaway crab sandwiches, £5.50.
The New Inn at Shalfleet (01983 531314, www.the new-inn.co.uk) is a classic English pub with flagstone floor and low beams; the menu focuses on fish and seafood; sandwiches from £5, mains from £8.95.
There are spectacular sea views from the small National Trust tearoom at Needles Old Battery (binoculars provided). Underneath, a tunnel brings you out almost on top of the rocks.
The beaches along the south-west coast are where the locals tend to go: a string of unspoilt sandy bays backed by cliffs and downs, with not so much as a beach café along their length. Compton Bay is the most accessible, popular with surfers and reached by steps from National Trust car parks above. Freshwater Bay and Totland beaches are also a good bet, more pebbly, but with a lovely outlook.
Out and about
Carisbrooke Castle (www.english-heritage.org.uk), where Charles I was imprisoned, is in the first league of British castles, with enough of the keep and battlements still standing to fire the imagination; £6.70 adult, £3.40 child. One of the island’s best long-distance footpaths, the Tennyson Trail, begins here, and ends - 14 miles later – with breathtaking views of the Needles. Download route details from www.islandbreaks.co.uk.
For details of summer guided walks, self-guided trails and countryside activities, download the leaflet “Wight Summer Walks” from www.iwight.com/walks.
Needles Pleasure Cruises (01983 761587, www.needlespleasurecruises.co.uk) runs regular boat trips from Alum Bay to see The Needles rocks and lighthouse and the cliffs of coloured sands; £5 adult, £3 child.
For even more dramatic views of the coast, try paragliding with High Adventure near Yarmouth (0845 505 1484, www.high-adventure.uk.com), from £69 for a short tandem glide with an instructor, or £99 for a day’s course.
The crumbling cliffs along the south-west coast have yielded some of the best dinosaur remains in Europe. See them at the Dinosaur Farm Museum near Brighstone (01983 740844, www.dinosaur-farm.co.uk), from where staff lead regular summer fossil hunts on nearby beaches. Adults £3, under 16s £2.50.
Mottistone Manor Garden (01983 741302, www.nationaltrust.org.uk), set in a magical valley, has superb herbaceous borders, a tea garden and tantalising glimpses of the sea. Open Mon-Thurs and Sun, £3.50 adult, £1.75 child.
Dimbola Lodge at Freshwater Bay exhibits the work of the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (a friend of Alfred Lord Tennyson, who lived at nearby Farringford). More contemporary displays include photographs and posters from the early Isle of Wight pop festivals (01983 756814, www.dimbola.co.uk). Adults £4, under 16s free.
More information: www.islandbreaks.co.uk and www.isleofwight.com.
Wightlink car ferry from Lymington in the New Forest to Yarmouth (0871 376 1000, www.wightlink.co.uk). Prices vary according to date and time of crossing; a high season four-night return for car and four passengers costs from £65; check for special offers when booking.