Brits have been holidaying in the Isle of Wight’s resorts since Victorian times, many of them inspired by Queen Victoria, who built a much-loved retreat, Osborne House, here. It’s partly that bygone charm that still attracts us today. On the island’s southern tip you can stay in a hotel (The Royal, distinguished by its original wrought-iron porch) that the Michelin Guide has recommended every year since it was first published in 1911.
But skip over to Newport or Cowes and you’ll find ambitious young restaurateurs transforming island produce into clean, modern food that challenges the Isle of Wight’s nostalgic reputation.
Afternoon tea served on manicured lawns and a lofty dining room that looks as if it once doubled as a ballroom show that The Royal hasn’t lost its Victorian feel. Bedrooms enjoy the same ambience (arched, floor-to-ceiling windows are a highlight), and most are painted sky blue to complement the views of Ventnor Bay, a five-minute walk away.
At the opposite end of the scale, The Little Gloster in Cowes takes inspiration from co-owner Ben Cooke’s Danish grandmother. Set against The Solent, a stretch of water usually peppered with sailboats, it looks like an unfussy little bungalow from the outside; but inside its clean, white interiors are illuminated by candlelight, Scandinavian-style. There are three bedrooms, all large suites, and all with the same minimalistic-yet-cosy feel – watch the sailboats race from your very own veranda, decorated with squashy cushions.
Perhaps it’s the old fashioned dining room, but we didn’t expect such clever, delicate cooking from The Royal’s restaurant. A cheese soufflé made from island Gallybagger cheese (similar to cheddar) was so light that it evaporated on the tongue; and pearly white lemon sole caught that day had just the right level of bite. Prune and Armagnac soufflé – miss no opportunity to eat soufflé here – was 10/10.
For a more modern menu, head to Thompson’s in Newport. Regular visitors to the island will know Robert Thompson’s cooking from his days heading up the kitchen at Michelin-starred The Hambrough in Ventnor (and, latterly, The George in Yarmouth), but this is his first solo venture (Thompson’s opened last summer).
Book a table and you can watch Thompson at work in his tiny open-plan kitchen. Here he produces dishes such as smoked wood pigeon carpaccio – velvety soft and dramatically presented under a glass globe that billows smoke when removed – and skate wing served with the richest, porkiest black pudding balls we’ve ever tried.
Not surprisingly, The Little Gloster offers a subtly Scandinavian-inspired menu – try house-cured gravadlax with a shot of homemade aquavit (dangerous, but excellent), or catch-of-the-day with punchy pickled cockles and vegetal seaweed mash. Even the burger comes with Danish pickles.
Take in the beauty of Tennyson Down (the poet lived on the island for more than 10 years) on a walk from The Needles to Freshwater Bay. Be sure to stop off along the way at Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater (once home to Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron) for fat scones with jam and cream.
Double rooms at The Royal start from £190, b&b (royalhoteliow.co.uk) and at The Little Gloster from £120, b&b (thelittlegloster.com). Return vehicle ferry crossings from Southampton to East Cowes cost from £51 (redfunnel.co.uk). More info: visitisleofwight.co.uk
Written by Charlotte Morgan, March 2016
You might also like
Best trips for June 2015: Bordeaux, the Isle of Wight, Tuscany and Padstow
Parsonage Farm, Hampshire: Butchery and charcuterie workshop review
Best British Isles weekend breaks 2015: Hampshire
The Cary Arms, Devon: hotel and restaurant review