A guide to the Isle of Wight

written by Aimee White
updated 3/23/2021
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Last year, 2019, saw the Isle of Wight become a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, just one of seven UK sites to bear this prestigious status (others include the Isle of Man, North Devon and Biosffer Dyfi). This UNESCO status means that there’s no immediate threat to the diverse ecosystems which thrive here, across its high cliffs, wide marshlands and seagrass beds. Plus, with over half the island a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and zero motorways, it’s not hard to see why the great outdoors reigns supreme on this diamond-shaped island.

Ahead of our brand-new Pocket Rough Guide British Breaks Isle of Wight, there are plenty of ways to make the most of a UK staycation on the Isle of Wight. Choose from family-friendly campgrounds, hike along coastal trails between quaint villages and enjoy Covid-safe sightseeing at a number of reopened attractions.

How to get there

Situated just off the south coast of England, the Isle of Wight is the largest island in the country.

Wightlink ferries serve three routes: Lymington to Yarmouth (40mins), Portsmouth to Fishbourne (45mins) and Portsmouth to Ryde (foot passengers only; 22mins). Well-behaved dogs travel free!

Red Funnel catamarans run between Southampton to West Cowes (foot passengers only; 25mins) and East Cowes (55mins). There’s a free shuttle-bus service from Southampton Central train station to the Southampton ferry terminal.

The fastest – and most unique – way to reach the island is by hovercraft, which serves between Southsea (Portsmouth) and Ryde (foot passengers only; 10mins).

Visit WightLink, RedFunnel and HoverTravel for up-to-date timetables.

Freshwater Bay on the Isle Of Wight © Ian Woolcock/Shutterstock

Getting around

Planning on leaving the car at home? It really couldn’t be easier to get around the Isle of Wight. Buses are modern and efficient, and wind their way through steep narrow roads, past rolling countryside and along the seafront, all making for unexpectedly scenic sightseeing tours in their own right. Hop-on hop-off open-top buses operate during the high season.

There are two rail lines on the island. The Island Line (whose trains are made up of former London Underground carriages) run between Ryde Pier and Shanklin. The second, and most scenic, line is the Isle of Wight Steam Railway; technically a tourist attraction, it still helps you to get around parts of the island.

Rental cars are another viable option; Go for something electric (and therefore environmentally friendly) if you can. With an absence of motorways on the island, driving around the Isle of Wight takes you via some wonderfully scenic routes, from large stretches of quiet countryside to horizon-lined coastal views.

In fact, getting around by foot or public transport not only contributes to responsible travel, but it also saves you a few pennies; an increasing number of attractions (such as Goodleaf Tree Climbing in Ryde) offer discounted tickets for those who have travelled by sustainable means.

Steam train at Havenstreet, Isle of Wight © Liz Miller/Shutterstock

Where to stay: hotels

There’s a wide variety of accommodation options available on the Isle of Wight. Treat yourself to spacious rooms with a sea view at North House, or hunker down in one of Farringford’s self-catering cottages set amid an historic estate.

With plenty of spacious and self-catering accommodation options, you can really stretch out at a safe distance.

Aimee White, author of our Pocket Rough Guide to the Isle of Wight, selects some of her favourite spots to bed down around the island:

Yarmouth: Jireh House. This 17th-century guesthouse has a popular downstairs tearoom.

Ryde: Royal Esplanade Hotel. Situated along Ryde’s seafront esplanade and overlooking the Hovercraft terminal, this hotel is in a superb location.

Cowes: The Caledon. Provides free bus passes for guests – which is pretty handy, as the bus stop is directly outside.

Shanklin:Aqua Hotel. Sea-facing hotel that juts out of the cliffside, with its own brasserie restaurant.

Ventnor: The Leconfield. Maritime-themed hotel that offers discounted car ferry travel.

Newport: The Wheatsheaf. Located by a string of cafés and overlooking St Thomas’s Square.

Beach huts at Colwell bay, Isle of Wight © Carl Dickinson/Shutterstock

Where to stay: campgrounds

There are plenty of campgrounds spread across the Isle of Wight, from luxury tree houses to award-winning holiday parks. Most offer a wide range of facilities, views and camping options, so it’s an easy way to embrace all things outdoors.

Our recommendations:

St Helens: Nodes Point Holiday Park. Excellent position overlooking Bembridge Bay.

Newport: Tom’s Eco Lodge. Go glamping by tent, cabin, pod, dome or unique “modulog”.

Yarmouth: Orchards Holiday Park. Check out their decent package deals.

Wroxall: Appuldurcombe Gardens Holiday Park. Set amid 14 acres of secluded grounds, with the countryside beyond.

Bembridge harbour, Isle of Wight © Charlesy/Shutterstock

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Best hiking trails

Lace yer boots – the Isle of Wight is prime hiking and walking (and cycling) territory. Here’s some of the best walks to take on the Isle of Wight:

Tennyson Down to the Needles headland: This seven-mile, moderate southwest route stretches from Tennyson Down to the Needles. Following cliff-top paths and signposts, highlights of this walk include a Celtic stone cross commemorating the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the old defensive forts of New Battery and Old Battery. This is one of the most scenic walks on the island, as you overlook Alum Bay from the headland and across to the white chalk stacks which make up the iconic Needles. Wind your way back following a parallel path and finish at Dimbola Lodge, where you can take a break in their tearoom.

Best of Niton: Enjoy a continuously changing view of the wildlife and coast on this slightly challenging 3.5 mile-long walk, focusing on the south coast of the island. Pass along grassy tracks and, at Knowles Farm, check out the memorial plaque to Marconi, an electrical engineer and inventor. Venture slightly uphill to reach the respite-worthy Buddle Inn pub, before continuing along towards picturesque Niton village.

The Cliffs of Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight © J M Ritchie/Shutterstock

Sandown to Ryde: This moderate 12-mile route takes in the buckets-and-spade towns of Sandown and Ryde along the east coast. Start off from Sandown Beach, taking in the long stretches of sand, before passing through Bembridge Harbour, with yacht masts clinking in the nearby marina. There are smart houses to ogle in Seaview before the coastal path continues straight onto Ryde; take in the mainland views of the Spinnaker Tower and more of Portsmouth to your right.

Ryde to East Cowes: If you fancy a historic walk, choose this easy 8-mile route, covering the northern part of the island. Start in Ryde, cross over Wootton Bridge and pass through Whippingham, which houses a small church that Queen Victoria frequented. You’re not far from Osborne House, if you want to take a small detour, otherwise end the route in East Cowes at the Classic Boat Museum Gallery. Alternatively, catch the minute-long floating bridge to West Cowes and stretch those legs further until you reach the Royal Yacht Squadron, one of the oldest and most prestigious sailing clubs in the world.

Osborne House on the Isle of Wight © Richard Melichar/Shutterstock

Other things to see and do

Newtown Nature Reserve

It’s hard to believe that Newtown once served as the island’s capital; today, it’s best-known for its expansive Nature Reserve. In the 1960s the reserve almost became a nuclear power station, but this was thwarted thanks to local intervention. Visitors to this National Trust site today can appreciate its medieval field patterns, with carpets of meadows, tall wildflowers, and ancient woodland and harbourside walks.

Fossil walks

The Isle of Wight is hailed as the “dinosaur capital of Britain” thanks to the impressive range of fossils that have been – and continue to be – discovered, dating back millions of years. It’s not just for history buffs, though; kids and adults alike can enjoy walking across Compton Bay at low-tide, where dinosaur footprints appear. There are various informative guided walks and talks, so you can really suss out your flint from your fossil.

Osborne House

The honey-coloured, Italianate villa-style Osborne House was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s family holiday home, and later became the Queen’s permanent residence after Albert’s death in 1861. Visit this English Heritage site today and gaze across the sprawling landscaped gardens overlooking the Solent, visit the beach where the royals liked to bathe and follow the one-way social-distancing system inside the house to take in the Grand Corridor, formal State Rooms and Indian-style Durbar Wing.

The small town of Shanklin on the Isle of Wight in England © Gordon Bell/Shutterstock

Shanklin Old Village

Yes, parts of the Isle of Wight still look rather old-fashioned. But this comes into its own in Shanklin’s Old Village, with its centuries-old thatched cottages, traditional sweet shops and twee tearooms. As you simply stroll along the winding road, stop for afternoon tea at the icing-pink Old Thatch Teashop, tuck into a hearty Sunday roast at The Village Inn and swing by Pencil Cottage for a souvenir; the romantic poets Keats and Longfellow used to buy their writing stationery here, hence the shop’s name.

The Garlic Farm

Some four miles southeast of Newport, the Garlic Farm makes for a fun day out, with farm tours of Arreton Valley available by foot or tractor. If you want to take some of the good stuff back home with you, choose from garlic-infused ice cream, mayonnaise and even vodka. Their on-site cafe and restaurant serves up garlic-infused dishes (no surprises there) – just remember a packet of chewing gum for wherever you’re going afterwards…

Dimbola Lodge

This museum was once the home of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, whose subjects included the likes of Charles Darwin. Following a circular one-way route, take in the displays of her photography and equipment, as well as iconic photography and memorabilia from the Isle of Wight festivals. With advance booking, hand-sanitizer points and positioned next door to Tennyson Down, this is another way to sightsee from a social distance and embrace the fresh air afterwards. Don’t miss the Jimi Hendrix statue in the front garden, either.

Top image: Isle of Wight © Baalkta/Shutterstock

Travel advice for England

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written by Aimee White
updated 3/23/2021
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Aimee is an in-house Senior Travel Editor at Rough Guides and is the podcast host of The Rough Guide to Everywhere. She is also a freelance travel writer and has written for various online and print publications, including a guidebook to the Isle of Wight. Follow her on Twitter at @aimeefw.

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