Coast Editor Alex Fisher discovers a beautiful Victorian resort on the Isle of Wight that is having a renaissance. Photographs: Jon Spong
Perched on the southern tip of the Isle of Wight, Ventnor is renowned for its unique micro-climate, which allows many Mediterranean plants to flourish beneath the hills that hug the town. Such was its reputation for clean air that the area was declared to have healing powers by eminent physician Sir James Clark in the 1830s, and subsequently became a busy health resort. Much of the resulting Victorian architecture remains today, including the Botanic Garden, home to 30,000 sub-tropical plants and trees, which thrive in the consistently warmer temperatures.
Despite the development that followed Clark’s declaration, the town retained its natural beauty, with a coastal path that winds through rugged, fern-filled woodland and clifftops offering stunning views out across the sea. Here, you can watch red squirrels scurry up knotted oaks and admire the range of butterflies attracted by the wild buddleia and thrift. The woodland is most dense to the east of town, where you’ll find the adjoining village of Bonchurch, one of the oldest settlements on the island, due, it’s thought, to the presence of a freshwater spring. With its wildlife pond and paths down to the shingle and sand beach, Bonchurch is almost too picture-perfect to be real. Charles Dickens, who stayed here while writing David Copperfield, wrote: ‘I think it is the prettiest place I ever saw in my life, at home or abroad.’ And one can imagine saying much the same thing today.
Like so many coastal resorts, the area slumped in the 1970s when cheap flights to foreign climes made holidaying abroad popular. However, recently Ventnor has enjoyed a renaissance and now has its very own Fringe Festival, along with many truly outstanding restaurants and hotels that are all well worth a visit.
CROSSING THE WATER
There is something special about any journey that involves crossing water. The ferry crossing marks the beginning of an adventure, and I’m excited as we glide into Ryde harbour. With the journey behind us, we decide to stop for lunch in pretty Godshill on our drive to Ventnor. The Taverners has gained a reputation for excellent food and has a shop at the rear selling local produce. I order island smoked salmon ‘tartar’ with Eastern flavours and melba toast, which is delicious, followed by baked pollock fillet with a sundried tomato crust. This really is a fine dining restaurant disguised as a country pub!
ONE FOR THE KIDS
When holidaying with children, it is good to have a fun-filled activity up your sleeve if the weather is poor. There is no shortage of these on the Isle of Wight, and we make the most of the day by visiting Blackgang Chine, one of the oldest theme parks in the UK. As well as a great roller-coaster with views out to sea, there is an impressive dinosaur zone and a haunted house. Families who need to burn off steam during their holiday can buy a joint ticket to sister park Robin Hill.
We’re staying in Bonchurch, just east of Ventnor, so we head through the picturesque village down a bumpy track lined with wildflowers to Ocean Blue Quay Coastal Retreats, a collection of self-catering cottages on the hillside overlooking the sea. We’re delighted to discover we are just a few minutes’ walk from Bonchurch Beach. The tide is out and we explore the rockpools as the light turns golden.
STYLISH FINE DINING
In the evening we head to the Hillside hotel – which rears its own pigs, has vegetable gardens and even a mushroom cellar – for dinner. Beautifully refurbished in a contemporary Scandinavian style with constantly changing modern art adorning the walls, Hillside is run with great passion and vision. We try some island smoked salmon with home-grown beetroot to start, followed by local organic fillet steak, hung for 28 days, which literally melts in the mouth. Be aware that you must book; all reservations are by prior arrangement only.
As well as running the holiday accommodation, Ocean Blue Quay also has a boat-building business and, in the warmer months, visitors can go on Sea Safaris in one of its Cheetah Catamarans. It’s a gloriously sunny day and we’re told the history and folk tales of the area as we explore the coastline. On the way back we pull up lobster pots and, much to the children’s delight, we find a huge lobster, along with a selection of very angry crabs. The crabs go back in the water, the lobster will be someone’s tea.
There are so many great places to eat in Ventnor that it’s impossible to fit them all in, but if you want to linger over lunch, head to Steephill Cove, just west of Ventnor. It can only be reached on foot by walking down the steps from the Botanic Garden or along the coastal path from the town. In the warmer months you can eat great local shellfish at The Boathouse. We settle on a Captain’s Platter, which is meant to feed two, but could feed four. The sun shimmers off the ocean and I can’t imagine anywhere more beautiful.
IT’S A WRAP
After a paddle, we stroll back along the clifftop coastal path. At the end of the path I head to The Crow’s Nest treatment room at The Cabin, which overlooks Ventnor Beach, and wait in the Japanese-influenced garden for Rowena, whose architect father helped her to construct this great building a few years ago. Here, the real sound of the waves – not a recording – lulls me into a place of deep relaxation as I receive a Voya Seaweed Leaf Wrap, created to soften and detoxify the skin.
One of the many lovely things about staying in Bonchurch is the walk by the sea into Ventnor. We take a torch with us for our night-time stroll.
We head to Ryde, where Goodleaf offers the irresistible opportunity to climb into the canopy of an ancient oak. After safety instructions, we don our hard hats and climbing harnesses and make our way up the ropes. It’s easier than it looks and, before long, I’m lounging in the hammock at the top. The views across the golden sands of Appley Beach are stunning and I don’t want to come down. But soon some children want to have a go, and my turn is over…
LUNCH WITH A VIEW
The Three Buoys sits across the park from the oak tree, and is the perfect stop-off for lunch. Its balcony overlooks the beach, back across the Solent to Portsmouth. We try an excellent tasting plate, with sesame chicken, chorizo, ham hock, calamari and battered hake, followed by a fantastic spicy fish stew.
THE HOTTEST GARDEN
You can’t visit Ventnor without spending an afternoon at Ventnor Botanic Garden. This experimental horticultural delight has pioneered the idea of growing plants in ‘native communities’, resulting in themed areas relating to different countries and climates. There are also guided walks and special events for children.
A ROYAL WELCOME
The Royal Hotel offers elegantly decorated suites overlooking manicured gardens and an outdoor pool. After 180 years in business, they really know how to do things properly here, and the restaurant has been awarded two AA Rosettes for the past 17 years. The seafood risotto is a perfect way to end the weekend, followed by one of the Royal’s famous desserts, which include rhubarb and ginger baked Alaska and passion fruit soufflé with pineapple carpaccio. Our weekend is at an end and it’s been a ball! There’s so much to do, not just in Ventnor, but across the Isle of Wight, that we plan our return on the ferry back to Portsmouth.
NEED TO KNOW
OCEAN BLUE COASTAL RETREATS
Coast stayed at Ocean Blue Coastal Retreats, a hamlet of farm cottages overlooking the sea just outside Bonchurch. Nestled in the countryside on a former strawberry farm, they are perfectly situated for an idyllic island holiday. Prices start from £97 per night in ‘The Hideaway’, which sleeps two. Prices at ‘Carmel’, which sleeps six, start from £460 for one week. oceanbluequay.co.uk
You can also stay in town in a luxury beach house with Ventnor Seafront. Each property has a master bedroom with a balcony overlooking the sea. They can sleep up to nine people. Prices range from £650 to £1,895 per week, depending on the season ventnorseafront.co.uk
HOW TO GET THERE
You can travel to the Isle of Wight from Southampton, Portsmouth or Lymington. Crossings take around 22 minutes by catamaran and from 40 minutes by car ferry. coast travelled on the Wightlink ferry from Portsmouth to Ryde (wightlink.co.uk).
For more information go to visitisleofwight.co.uk