The Wight stuff

Venture overseas to discover the best of the Isle of Wight, old favourites and new...


After more than a year in the same postcode, my two sons were over the moon when I announced we were going overseas. Their enthusiasm wasn’t dented even when I explained that we were only getting the ferry across the Solent to the Isle of Wight.

I was told the same thing aged eight by my own father, when we took a similar trip 40 years ago — and as well as the old tourist favourites which have made the island so popular for decades, there are plenty of new reasons to visit.

In fact, the island has been welcoming Jewish visitors for at least two centuries. There are rumours that Queen Victoria took Jewish advisors with her when she spent months at her palatial holiday home of Osborne House. Benjamin Disraeli certainly visited a few times and Moses Montefiore — knighted by Victoria in 1846 — came to visit her at Osborne in 1857.

Less luxuriously, one of the island’s former prisons was also home to a synagogue and Kosher kitchen, built so that some of Britain’s Jewish prisoners could be incarcerated together.

Today the island has a small but active community which holds occasional services in members’ homes.

Starting our trip at Queen Victoria’s own home, where she died on January 22, 1901, you won’t find any evidence of its Jewish guests today.

Built according to the designs of her husband, Prince Albert (who died before it was completed), it includes the original Swiss Cottage he devised for his children; along with the two-third-sized kitchen range and equipment aimed at teaching children through play, it now houses a bizarre collection of ephemera and taxidermy.

Down by the shingle beach, there’s another quirky sight with the bathing machine where the Queen got undressed, now parked on display — once only for Victorian Royals to enjoy, the beach is open to the public, along with a café serving top-notch Victoria Sponge (what else?).

To everyone’s excitement, Osborne was also the place where we spotted the first (and only) red squirrel of our trip. It is nigh-on impossible to see them on the British mainland where they have been pushed out by more aggressive American grey squirrels.

The Isle of Wight remains is a key stronghold for the native red and you face a two-year prison sentence or £5,000 fine for bringing over a grey.

If you’re lucky, you can also find a few at the Garlic Farm, along with its impressive selection of garlic-flavoured condiments, although as a friend Tim said, ‘you only need to try their garlic beer once’.

For those clinging to the belief that the island is stuck in the past, there’s an impressive foodie scene these days too.

It’s not just sourdough that’s landed on Isle of Wight, we even stumbled on a deli selling excellent challah brioche and you’ll find Asian fusion like True Food Kitchen on the south coast at Niton Undercliff, including fresh fish tempura and vegetarian bao buns. Don’t miss the ice-cream at the Crave parlour in Ventnor either, with dairy-free options available.

And keep an eye out for award-winning local brew, Island Roasted coffee, in the Isle of Wight’s cafes, or if you need something to steady your nerves after some of the more adrenaline-fuelled activities, Isle of Wight Distillery has always won a string of awards, not least for its Mermaid Gin. You can stop in at the distillery itself near Ryde too, which had a facelift earlier this year.

These days, it feels like the isle is brimming with energy and opportunity. Over the last decade, a host of new family-friendly options have opened, while the traditional attractions have smartened themselves up too and remain as popular as ever.

The most famous, Blackgang Chine, claims to be older than time itself because it opened in 1843, more than forty years before Greenwich Mean Time was established in 1884.

Even Queen Victoria was tempted to visit back in August 1853, to see the large whale shark that had washed up near the Needles rock formation: you can still walk under the awesome skeleton.

With models of dinosaurs and deejaying dodos, plus real-life dastardly pirates all thrown into a crowd-pleasing mix, it’s arguably one of the most unusual of the amusement parks on offer but it’s a recipe that works, drawing in 100,000 visitors every year.

There’s a Wild West ‘Cowboy Town’ town where you can run around, throwing exploding caps (which I haven’t seen for at least 30 years) while pretending to rob, or defend, a trading outpost, saloon or bank. The traditional hall of mirrors was fun for everyone, and ended up with us taking countless selfies with exaggerated jaws or stubby legs.

Embarrassingly, my six-year-old son Jack is now bolder than I am when it comes to the white-knuckle rides. He had to calm my nerves while we patiently queued for the Water Force water slide, a 10-metre-high ride, which zips you along a closed or open water chute.

Lasting less than a minute, I was utterly terrified from start to finish, but despite my screams almost deafening Jack, he wanted to queue and do it all again. I insisted we should move on and, fortunately, my other son Sammy agreed.

The Dabell family also own the nearby Robin Hill theme park — everything, it should be said, is nearby in the Isle of Wight, there are no long drives anywhere, anytime.

The original location for the Bestival festival before it moved to Dorset in 2014, there are enough rides, activity courses and play areas on its 88 acres to keep a family busy for a full day.

For me, the highlight was a falconry display but, for my children, racing across a tree top trail was the most memorable spot. They sprinted across a net bridge into a huge trampoline suspended in a tree canopy while I watched from the sidelines, secretly wishing I was allowed to race on too.

If you’ve got a head for heights, make your way to the new Skynets: The Big Bounce at Sandham Gardens in Sandown, an adventure course with four gigantic nets suspended high above the ground, plus a central treehouse and three large slides for added fun.

A visit to the island still remains enjoyably low-tech: during our whole stay we didn’t see a single oversized LCD screen or stick a Virtual Reality headset on.

The most interactive exhibit was the meerkat enclosure at Tapnell Farm — which wins my personal award for top visitor attraction of the year — where I was sure two meerkats were checking us out quite thoroughly.

As my kids bounced on trampolines, giant jumping pillows and haybales, and raced around a track on pedal carts, I was one of many quietly-competitive Dads trying to shoot footballs through targets set against a net wall. I refused to quit until — after roughly 200 attempts — I’d managed to score one goal. A Pyrrhic victory.

On top of these engaging activities, we joined a wallaby walkabout to check out the farm’s wallabies, pigs and alpacas. There is archery and — honestly — axe-throwing (for older children or frustrated parents), new last year along with the island’s first Aqua Park, a purpose-built inflatable obstacle course.

If you can’t bear to leave, you don’t have to either, with accommodation options ranging from basic eco pods, wood cabins and farm cottages to the Tapnell Manor farmhouse for larger groups.

Competing for the title of the island’s grandest accommodation — along with Osborne House — is the other key English Heritage attraction, the iconic motte-and-bailey Carisbrooke Castle.

It was here that Charles I was imprisoned for more than a year before his trial and execution back in London in 1649. Even more excitingly for kids, it’s home to several donkeys, and when we visited, a falconry display, jousting and brilliant fire-juggling jester.

Which still left us time for a pitstop at Monkey Haven. Contrary to what the name suggests, there’s more than monkeys. The spot is a charitable rescue sanctuary for a range of animals: birds, primates and various reptiles and insects.

And for our pair of Harry Potter-obsessed sons, being able to see tawny, Eurasian eagle and snowy owls at such close proximity was a real thrill.

Their interest doesn’t seem to have dwindled despite the handler’s assertions that, despite the age-old adage of ‘wise owls’ they are actually ‘pretty dumb’, and constantly need to re-learn basic training.

Which leaves me smarter than the average owl. With this reminder of why the Isle of Wight is perfect for a family holiday, it’s a lesson I’ll only need to learn once.


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