Cowes Week, Music Festivals and 8 Other Reasons to Visit the Isle of Wight

By Phil Clarke, Editor of The Handbook website Phil Clarke |
6th August 2018

The English social calendar is an ever moving caravan, Ascot’s top hats are hurriedly stowed to make space for Wimbledon’s strawberries and cream, gaudy blazers, thronging the banks of Henley Royal Regatta, give way to the spectacle of aristos and reality stars divot stomping at Guards polo before the party moves to Glorious Goodwood, which itself fires the starting pistol for Cowes week, the regatta that gets into full swing this coming week.

So as the great-and-the-good set sail for this beautiful island county on England’s south coast, so I have donned my best life preserver to check out what all the fuss is about. Here are ten reasons to weigh anchor, hoist your mainsail and set course for the Isle of Wight after me.

You Have To Sail There

As a seafaring nation the briny British sea is in our blood, if not in the medical sense (I’m given on good authority this would cause cardiac arrest almost immediately) then in the figurative one. And unless you’re planning to take the ‘copter you will arrive on the Island by sea as there’s no other practical option. Red Funnel operate their car ferry from the insalubrious Southampton docks where you can grab an overpriced and over-stewed cuppa from a Portakabin while you wait for your ferry to arrive. But what the journey lacks in fanfare it more than makes up for in friendliness (rush hour left you running late? it was no problem to shift us onto the later ferry), and once onboard the bar and restaurant, while not straying far from the car ferry oeuvre (silver service first class saloon there isn’t), will keep you well fed and watered for the roughly hour trip across The Solent.

It’s Got Cowes Week

It goes without saying that the island is the home of modern sailing, with Cowes week being instituted in 1826 by George IV and later receiving royal blessing from it’s most famous resident, Queen Victoria. Nowadays the regatta sees over forty races a day take place over the week long festival, best watched from around the Royal Yacht Squadron. The Squadron is to sailors what the Garrick Club and Groucho clubs are to media luvvies, or the Harry Potter studios are to nerds, and although strictly off limits to land lubbing yacht muggles like you and me that doesn’t matter because the whole of Cowes is transformed into a day and night long party, albeit one that clutches champagne and Coutts cards in every hand and comes with more boat shoes than you could shake a spinnaker at.
Cowes week runs from 10th to 117h August

Vampires Need Not Apply

Of course, being in the global capital of sailing, the first place I naturally wanted to visit was a garlic farm. Any island visitors with an insatiable appetite for this breath altering veg will be relieved to know that the Isle of  Wight boasts the country’s leading purveyor of all things garlic. What the farm harvests, the restaurant cooks and the shop sells. I made the near-fatal error of visiting the garlic farm’s restaurant just in time for a weekend deluge of comedy accented grockles (the local term for tourists, some of them even more annoying company than I am) and their entourages of screaming kids. Immediately regretting my timing I nevertheless munched through a whole roasted garlic bulb with ciabatta followed by a Greek vegetable vegan flatbread. While the food was passable, the garlic laden funk lifted as I entered the shop which stocks all things garlic, from garlic beer to garlic ice cream. They even have a garlic festival, with billions of bulbs, mind altering cider and plenty of fun.
The Garlic Festival runs on 18th and 19th August

Unlikely Hipster Hangouts

By this point, if I was starting to miss London, then I needn’t have worried the hipsters have colonised here too. Restaurant Stripped, in Ventnor, might as well have been in Shoreditch. The cool restaurant, with its casual dining, only-just-about comfy wooden benches, wine served in beakers and pared back aesthetic is straight out of Bethnal Green, and awkwardly inserted in the rather parochial if beautiful south Wight village of Ventnor. And thank goodness it was, the food was also London standard. Opt for a bottle of the ‘better’ red wine and use it to wash down their ‘fusion fries’ (served with chilli on top) and the burger special which managed to live up to its name.

Happening Hotels

Tourism is the lifeblood of the Isle of Wight, from the yachties strutting their teak decks pointing to bits of brass the cabin boy forgot to clean, to the blue-rinse coachloads to the mods who bring their mopeds over by the thousand in the summer months, all of which requires a lot of hotels and plenty of busy Tripadvisor-ing. Don’t bother, go to The Hambrough. Tucked out of the way in Ventnor, a solid b&b-meets-boutique-hotel sort of vibe makes it one of the nicest places to stay on the island, laid back classy without any of the airs and graces of its competitors. After a comfortable night’s sleep wake to an endless sea view, slap-up breakfast and a three minute meander down to the beach.

Forget the Edinburgh Fringe

Before you leave Ventnor, there’s something else going on you have to know about. Nicely buzzing after a dinner and a bottle of ‘better wine’ at Stripped, the sound of decent music gently carried down the the sleepy Ventnor streets. The source was The Ventnor Exchange, a former postal sorting office now rented, at a pittance (think rural economy) by the entrepreneurial Jack Whitewood. He’s transformed it into an arts and creative centre, serving drinks and playing great music to and with anyone who passes by, and it’s well worth quite a considerable diversion to check things out. Especially if you’re passing this week, as Cowes Week aint got nothing on the Ventnor Fringe, the arts and music festival that takes over Ventnor with live music from local bands like Cat Skellington (pictured) to theatre and storytelling.
The Ventnor Fringe runs from 23rd – 28th August

Pretty Fine Fine Dining

Of course, if hipster dining isn’t your thing then don’t worry, crisp table clothes await at The George in Yarmouth. Flung out west of the island, The George is a fine dining with a view. It’s also one of the small list of restaurants where I have actually been sacked from. To be fair I worked one shift washing dishes and I was terrible at it, but something of a turnaround to be returning to review, I ensured I chose a bottle of wine that was more expensive than the day’s pay I’m still owed. But if there were any hard feelings they quickly dissipated as I started my sirloin. The food was fabulous, my friend had one of the best beef Wellingtons he’s ever had and a diabetes inducing chocolate fondant pudding left me well and truly satisfied.

The hotel itself is noteworthy, formerly the home of the island’s governor and once entertaining Charles II, the hotel is the best of boutique, with individually designed rooms finished to a very high standard. General Manager Brian, a hugely entertaining and welcoming character, insisted on showing us most of them. I was perfectly happy at The Hambrough, but would recommend The George if you want to give your wallet a bit more exercise.

Mind The Gaps

If the idea of getting out of London to jump back on the tube fills you with Monday morning despair fear not, the quirky island line, operated by Southern Railways, operates using 1950s vintage tube carriages on a line that stretches from the tip of Ryde Pier (a rickety ride with a constant fear of being plunged into the water below) down to Shanklin in deepest tourist-ville. And the ancient rolling stock on the actual railway is made look positively modern by the steam railway that operates along a stretch of former railway in the heart of the island.

Splendid Sunsets

Sunsets come easily to the Isle of Wight, you’re spoilt for choice, do you stand at the iconic Needles? Or catch the sun downing across the island from the top of Bembridge Downs? Putting stomach over Insta stories, I opted for Little Gloster, which sits on the seashore and enjoys both excellent food and stunning views. The restaurant, run by husband and wife duo Ben and Holly, serves deliciously simple food. The Uffa pasta, named after the owners’ young son Uffa, was splendid as was the gravelax starter. Unfazed by the fact I’d had a sirloin steak just hours earlier at The George, I enjoyed my second of the day even more than the first. The chilled out vibes of Little Gloster and the panoramic views of the sea making the experience nearly as magical as the food itself.

A Whole Nother Language

When you board a plane to Paris there’s the expectation that you might have to brush up on your language skills. Not necessarily when you hop on a hovercraft to the Isle of Wight (oh, yes, you can arrive via hovercraft which is pretty cool). To the uninitiated you are most certainly a ‘grockel’, meaning a tourist, especially Northern, if you’re born there you’re a ‘caulkhead’, if you’re from ‘the mainland’ then you’re an ‘ovener’, or overlander, and we’re only getting started. From caterpillars (‘mallishag’) to donkeys, or “nuttens”, there’s a distinctly different feel to this island set just a few miles from Hampshire still just about London commutable, yet linguistically far further flubg. As per the mug photo above, my favourite has to be ‘nammet’, which is Isle of Wight for lunch or a snack.

Check out this Isle of Wight cookery book, celebrating all things Nammet

As I boarded the Red Funnel back to the mainland I looked fondly back at an island that had hosted, entertained and delighted me for a oh-too-short weekend, Cowes with its braying red trousered revellers, Ventnor and its unlikely subversive hipster scene, The Garlic Farm, steam railway and realised the best bits were certainly the nammet. The range of options for anyone who loves food is broad and the quality was universally high, so here’s to nammet.

Anyone wanting even more reason to head to the Isle of Wight should head to Visit Isle of Wight website.

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