Brits have been holidaying in the Isle of Wight for nearly 200 years, many of them inspired by Queen Victoria, who built a much-loved retreat (Osborne House) there. It’s partly that bygone charm that 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.
olive’s must-visits for foodies on the Isle of Wight
The Royal – for a Victorian experience
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 compliment the views of Ventnor Bay, a five-minute walk away.
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 Isle of Wight 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 was 10/10.
The Little Gloster – for a Scandi sleepover
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.
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.
Thompson’s – for fine-dining
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, but this is his first solo venture.
Book a table and you can watch Robert 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 rich, porky black pudding balls.
New for 2019, Robert has been recruited by The George Hotel in Yarmouth (on the west coast) as its new executive chef. He’ll be splitting his time between Thompson’s and the hotel (where he previously worked as a chef, in 2014), designing menus, recruiting staff and cooking at both. There’ll be a new outdoors kitchen, with views of The Solent, where guests can relax in the summer whilst watching Robert and his team barbecue local produce.
Dimbola Lodge – for afternoon tea
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. 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.
The Hut – for seafood with a view
Colwell Bay restaurant, The Hut, perches on the water’s edge, with sparkling views of The Solent out to Lymington and fresh seafood literally on its doorstep. It’s a timber-clad bungalow, flanked by stripy beach huts, with a suntrap terrace, rope fences and enough seats for everyone. Reach it by boat (The Hut has its own fleet of dinghies), helicopter, foot or car, and order garlic butter grilled lobster – they served over 1,000 every week in summer 2018 –, halibut fish tacos and tempura samphire.
Updated by Charlotte Morgan, March 2019
Originally written by Charlotte Morgan, March 2016