From the Isle of Wight, the troubles of the North Island – as islanders like to call the rest of England – seem a long way away. One of only three places in England’s Tier 1, the Isle of Wight is, happily, a great place to visit in the winter months. Wrap up warm for beach walks, English Heritage homes and gardens, nature reserves and views of the Needles, the island’s most famous landmark, before popping to a country pub or seaside boozer to sup a pint (no rules here, for that “substantial meal”, though you’d be missing out if you didn’t eat out, too).
One word of caution is that only visitors from Tier 1 and Tier 2 should come to the island, and that Tier 2 visitors must adhere to tougher Tier 2 rules regarding mixing househoulds. Hotels, pubs and restaurants across the Isle of Wight are ready and raring to go but the tourist board is urging visitors to follow the guidelines and the measures that have been put in place by the Government, the local authority and the businesses here.
Things to do
The Garlic Farm
This gorgeous family-run garlic farm in the Arreton Valley, between Newport and Sandown, is an Isle of Wight institution. It’s free to roam on the farm trails (maps are available in the shop) and there’s a shop (garlic ice cream, anyone?) and restaurant (reservations recommended), which will be bolstered by a Christmas pop-up in the Allium Barn – crafts and gifts from island producers and makers. December sees the return of guided nature walks through the fields and woodlands at the foot of the chalk downs. Look out for red squirrels.
Ventor Botanic Garden
Tucked away on the sheltered south coast with its famed microclimate, this very English botanic garden has been open throughout lockdown – though the heritage centre and tropical house will reopen in December. It’s on average five percent warmer here than on the mainland and as you wander through the gardens of various countries, including Japan, Australia and New Zealand, you really feel transported. While you’re here, go through the back gate down to the pretty little beachside hamlet of Steephill Cove.
Tennyson Downs and the Needles
For a glorious stomp across exposed rolling white cliffs then look no further than Tennyson Downs. Walk between Freshwater, which has a couple of great coffee shops (The Piano Café is a favourite), and the Needles Headland (7 miles loop), or park in the National Trust car park at the end of High Down Lane and tackle the short scramble up to the Tennyson Monument. There are glorious sea views all around and if you make it as far as the Needles headland you can look out at the famous stacks of rock from the New Battery or from the beach at Alum Bay (take the steps to the left of the closed chairlift at the Needles Landmark Attraction). The viewpoint at the Old Battery is closed, although the tea room is open.
Built by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as a holiday home, the Ground Floor State Rooms are reopening in December and will be decorated for Christmas in much the same style as they were in Victorian times (Victoria and Albert are responsible for introducing Britain to the Hanovarian tradition of dressing Christmas trees). The grounds and gardens are a lovely place to stroll and have evergreens and berries in the winter months. Open Wednesday to Sunday only, pre-booking essential.
Price: ££ (Free to English Heritage members)
Newtown National Nature Reserve
The island’s national nature reserve is a haven for humans as well as wildlife, and in winter, the salt marsh, mudflats, meadows and woodland are vital to migrating wildfowl and waders. Birds arrive here from as far as Siberia to over winter in our mild climate and birds of prey including Osprey can also sometimes be spotted. Look out too, for White-tailed eagles (also known as Sea eagles), which were released on the island in 2019, after being wiped out in England over a century ago. Bird hides remain closed for 2020, but bring binoculars and pay particular attention at Cassey Bridge and Newtown Quay.
Price: £ (Free to National Trust members)
Where to drink
The Buddle Inn
Sixteenth-century inn at the far south of the island, close to the lighthouse at St Catherines Point and perfect to combine with the fairly strenuous tip of the Wight walk. Real ales, real fires and real flagstone floors. They’re unlikely to open outdoors this winter so make a reservation for food or drinks inside (they do a great Sunday lunch). Isle of Wight ales on the hand pulls always available, but also beers, ciders, British gins and an unexpectedly good cocktail list. Dog-friendly and family-friendly.
The Old Fort
Locals and second home-owners in the pretty sailing village of Seaview are fiercely proud of their pub and it’s easy to see why it’s busy year-round (reservations recommended for dinner). Wooden tables, mismatched chairs and floor-to-ceiling windows take in the gorgeous Solent view and new management continue to offer cheerful service and a laidback atmosphere. Local beers and a decent selection of wine and spirits complement pub classics on the food menu. But did we mention the view?
Where to eat
Warm and cosy country pub with a roaring fire, exposed brick and beams, and traditional wood panelled bar. New owners Tim and Emma Foster (who were the team behind the popular Three Buoys restaurant in Ryde) are passionate about locally sourced produce – menus showcase seasonal Isle of Wight ingredients cooked beautifully. The Taverners sits in the centre of Godshill, a tiny village 5 miles inland from Shanklin or Ventnor.
The Terrace has fast become a favourite in Yarmouth since it was opened this summer by the Keen family. Phil Keen was a harbour commissioner for years and always wanted to do something with The Terrace so this year he finally took the plunge; the whole family are involved from kitchen to front of house. Eat in the light and bright restaurant or book a private “shelter” (stunning glass house) on the terrace for a table of four to six people and enjoy the sunset over the harbour and Solent. Food is beautifully prepared and there’s plenty of seafood options (moules mariniere, roast cod loin…). Walk-ins are welcome, but weekends get very busy.
Call It What You Want
Lively, bold and throwing open their doors once again this December, CIWYW is Cowes’ newest and most innovative restaurant. Southern soul food (Creole, Cajun) without a fixed menu, takeaway during lockdown included Witching Hour Ribs (12-hour slow cooked pork ribs, no less) and Three Fish Louisiana Chowder. Mark, Isaac, Connor and pastry chef/baker Matt experiment with new creations all the time and diners don’t have to make any decisions (no printed menus, here). This cosy place has the street food concept exactly right.
The George is a historic hotel right on the waterfront in Yarmouth, close to the Wightlink ferry from Lymington. Beautiful boutique rooms, a lively bar and brasserie and all the quirks of a 17th-century townhouse make this a stay to remember. Look out for playful touches like the wall of ‘George’ portraits (the faces of celebs called George superimposed onto period portraits).
Read the full review: The George
North House is the sort of place that makes you want to immediately redecorate on your return home. Occupying an 1850s townhouse, the interiors effortlessly blend period features with chic contemporary styling. Muted paint tones in contrasting Farrow and Ball colours provide the backdrop for choice pieces of antique furniture, ditsy-print tea sets or shining roll-top baths. Doubles from £145.
Read the full review: North House
The Pilot Boat Inn is a popular pub right on the harbour at Bembridge with five bright clean rooms above it. For a more romantic option you can choose between two quaint self-contained properties in the nearby villages of Seaview and Brading, with a hamper of continental breakfast and daily cleaning. Doubles from £90.
Read the full review. The Pilot Boat Inn
How to get there
Car ferries operate between Lymington and Yarmouth (40min), Southampton and East Cowes (55min), or Portsmouth and Fishbourne (45min); high-speed catamarans between Southampton and West Cowes (25min) or Portsmouth and Ryde (22min); and the last remaining year-round hovercraft service in the world takes only 10-minutes between Southsea and Ryde. Some services operating reduced capacity, see Wightlink, Red Funnel and HoverTravel for details.