When I was growing up on the Isle of Wight, I only knew one person who surfed.
He was regularly paraded in assembly to show off his latest surfing trophy. He had an O’Neill pencil case and would turn up in Billabong jumpers on non-uniform days.
In hindsight, this seems rather odd. The Isle of Wight isn’t the surf capital of the UK, but it does get pretty decent surf on the right day and it’s certainly good enough for learning.
Learning to surf wasn’t an easy thing to do in the 1990s. I don’t remember there being a surf school on the Isle of Wight and buying a board would have been a huge investment considering I was earning £3.11 an hour.
Thankfully, things have moved on.
iSurf has been offering surf lessons on the Isle of Wight for a number of years, so I thought I’d finally give it a go. I had tried to surf about five years ago with a board I’d bought at a car boot sale for £4. Predictably, it turned out to be useless as it had a hole in it. I gave up and we’ve stuck to bodyboarding, kayaking and paddleboarding.
iSurf moves around the Isle of Wight, depending on the weather, tides and surf. They’ve got a hut on Sandown beach where they are based for lessons and surfboard hire and a van for surfing at Compton Bay.
I went for a group session which lasts for 90 minutes and cost £27.
A couple of days before my lesson I got a text to say that Sandown was the chosen location. Most sessions were fully booked but I’d squeezed in at 8am. Previously, this would have been hugely inconvenient but it actually worked well as I was back in time to take the children out.
I was a keen bean so I arrived early and had a pre-lesson chat with the surf instructor. He had a cool name and a cool haircut and if you asked me to draw a picture of a surf instructor, I’d have drawn him. This provided much reassurance.
There were five of us in the session and we started with some dry land instructions. We were told about the three ways to stand up, including the two proper options and the cheating version where you kneel on the board. I had aspirations for the Olympics in three years time, so I decided I would go for the proper options.
The waves were a good size at about a metre high or perhaps a bit higher. Pro surfers wouldn’t be challenged enough but they were ideal for learning.
The general idea is to lay with your feet at the tail of the board and your hands on the side of the board in line with your armpits. When the wave arrives, you push up with your arms and then gracefully move to a standing position.
This sounds very simple, but over the hour in the water I just about managed to stand up...twice. On both occasions it was very brief and when I was practically at the shore. It also included the instructor giving the board a good shove so I didn't have to paddle to keep up with the waves.
To make matters worse, a 12 year old in the same group as me turned out to be brilliant at surfing. On one occasion, I wiped out badly and was literally pulling seaweed out of my hair whilst he gracefully glided past. I grinned and gave a thumbs up since it wasn’t really his fault that I was useless.
Jealousy aside, I did enjoy the experience a lot. Surfing requires a lot of energy and a relative confidence in choppy waters. I fell under about five times and was walloped by the board a couple of times, but didn’t suffer any damage.
About 18 months ago we stayed at Woodside Coastal Retreat over New Year’s Eve. Stories about a virus in China were just emerging but life in the UK was normal.
We had a lovely week pottering around the Island on grey days with the occasional whiff of sunshine.
The Isle of Wight certainly looks more beautiful in summer so we decided to return to Woodside Coastal Retreat for a summer holiday.
Picking the right park for you and the best lodge
There are two adjacent holiday parks alongside Woodside Bay in Wootton. They’re both owned by Darwin Escapes and the booking is handled by Hoseasons.
Both sites offer holiday lodges which are much more spacious than standard caravans. They both have hot tubs in some lodges. The ones with hot tubs are described as ‘Premier’ in their names, such as Nettlestone Premier or Carisbrooke Premier.
The key differences are that:
You can walk to the beach from both very easily and you can use the restaurant regardless of which one you stay in.
For us, a sea view is the key so we went for Woodside Coastal Retreat again.
On this occasion, we booked more than a year in advance so we had the chance to pick the lodge we wanted.
There are five or six lodges on the front row at Woodside Coastal Retreat. My advice is to get one of these if they’re available. They are the ones with the word ‘view’ in the title.
We travelled with another family so we booked numbers 28 and 29 at Woodside Coastal Retreat.
On our first visit we were on the second row back but on this visit we had a 180 degree view of the Solent. The beach was literally a stone’s throw from the balcony and we were treated to a constant stream of activity on the water.
Over the week we must have seen at least 10 cruise ships sail past, as well as 20+ container ships and dozens of ferries. We saw jet skis racing along, paddleboarders wobbling and windsurfers trying to stay afloat. When the sailors and swimmers had gone home, flocks of birds whooshed across the top of the water.
Whether it was pouring with rain or perfectly still there was something interesting to watch. I felt like I could have stayed on the balcony for a decade and not got bored of the view.
On one morning I (involuntarily) woke up at 5am and sat outside on the balcony for three hours tapping away on my laptop. The Solent was flat as a pancake and I could hear every word of a conversation two people were having on a small boat in the middle of the water.
We made use of the beach at Woodside Bay, which we hadn’t really done during our January visit.
Woodside Bay certainly isn’t my favourite Isle of Wight beach. Swimming is quite a rocky experience and less appealing than the occasionally-blue waters of Totland, Freshwater or Colwell. There isn’t much sand but at low tide you can do a little bit of rockpooling
However, we visited during a heatwave, so it was a real bonus to be able to walk 50m and then sit under a tree rather than getting back in the car. There’s a woodland which links the two adjacent parks which was another welcome bit of shade.
I also enjoyed strolling up and down the beach with the children and collecting buckets of shells for absolutely no reason at all.
If you decide to go for Woodside Bay Lodge Retreat instead then you’ll find that you have a bigger range of accommodation to choose from. It’s a much large site with about 3 or 4 times as many lodges.
The lodges towards the bottom of the hilly site are much closer to the beach. I’d say you’ll be able to get to the beach in under a minute from some lodges.
The lodges at the top of the site have a bit of a sea view, but it’s only really the top of the Solent over some trees.
We'll certainly be back.
In the last few years we’ve been working our way through the Isle of Wight’s Treasure Trails.
You pay £10 for a set of clues and then spend two or three hours solving the mystery.
It’s a thinly disguised excuse to get children walking but it’s worked well for us. Sometimes we complete them in one go, other times we have to come back at a later date because one of the children has reached their limit. On one occasion, there was a 12 month gap between hunting sessions, by which time a key clue had disappeared.
Our most recent Treasure Trail was around the Needles and Alum Bay on a breezy day.
To be fair, nearly every day at the Needles could be called a breezy day. You’ll often hear it mentioned in news report with wind speeds that will blow your hat off. It would be a terrific place to fly a kite if there wasn’t a high chance of being dragged off a cliff.
The trail warned that it wasn’t suitable for wheelchairs or pushchairs.
We faced a dilemma – should we follow the advice and risk carrying the younger child or ignore the advice and struggle with a pushchair? The other factor is that children tend to walk much less enthusiastically when there’s the option of sitting down.
After much discussion we went for the pushchair, mostly so that we didn’t have to carry the lunch bag and essential souvenirs that we might pick up en route. Ours is an off road pushchair - you certainly wouldn’t have a hope with a four-wheeled thing designed for shopping trips.
The route was pretty familiar and predictable but it must be one of the Isle of Wight’s best short walks.
We started at The Needles rapidly-filling-up car park. This caused some consternation with my mother who wasn’t keen to pay the £6 parking charge. Most Treasure Trails have a cheap or free parking option nearby but it’s very hard to visit The Needles without either paying to park or catching a bus.
The first couple of clues required us to compete with the hoards queueing for the chairlift. The route sent us down the steps, so we split into two parties with one group watching the pushchair and the others sent to collect the clues. The decision to take the pushchair was already looking a little iffy.
We then headed to the road which leads to the Old Battery with clifftop views of Alum Bay.
Halfway along, we climbed again and headed for the New Battery which is the free part of the site. Getting the pushchair up the steps was a two-man job but we managed it with only a small amount of rage and huffing. The children learnt a few new words, so it was kind of educational.
The exhibition part of the New Battery was padlocked shut but we still had a good wander round and collected more answers to our clues.
There is one point on the route which offers perhaps the best view you’ll get of The Needles without paying anything. It requires a walk past the coastguard’s hut and then you follow some steps on your right.
It was 11.35, so we decided to round the time up to noon and declare that it was lunchtime.
We then faced another choice – should we enjoy lunch with a view on a very windy bench overlooking the Needles – or should we cower in a sheltered tunnel.
Cowering in a tunnel was the winner since we couldn’t face our cheese and ham rolls flying out of our hands and into the Solent.
The climb down to the entrance of the Old Battery was perhaps the windiest section of all. I removed my hat to avoid it being removed involuntarily. The Old Battery isn't on the trail, but if you have National Trust membership you can get in free to admire the views. The tunnel is good fun if you aren't claustrophobic.
By now, we had about a quarter of the clues left to collect and we began to walk along the road which connects the Old Battery with the Needles Pleasure Park. It’s a terrific stretch of road as you feel like you’re on a cliff edge, but there’s actually a bit of grass either side so the actual risk of death is relatively low.
As we approached the final half-mile of the walk, the younger child announced that she urgently required the toilet. I won’t give too many details but squatting by a footpath overlooking one of the wonders of the Wight wasn’t an option.
And so, I raced ahead with the pushchair, resembling one of those Supermums who does a park run with triplets and an off-road buggy.
My decision to bring the pushchair was finally vindicated. Who knows what horrific situation we might have faced without three wheels to help us?
The others completed the trail, albeit with a bit of help from the Treasure Trails organisers for the fiendish final clue.
All in all, I’d rank this Treasure Trail as one of the best we’ve done. Ventnor to Steephill is my other favourite so far but this one might just trump it.
The parking cost at The Needles is a big irksome and it’s not easy with a pushchair but even my mother would probably admit that the views are probably worth £6.
We've been eating outside a lot this summer.
It's partly a lingering caution about Covid (for reasons which I won't go into here) and partly because I like to spend every possible moment outdoors when the weather is good.
I thought I'd share a little of our recent experiences for others who are looking to eat outdoors on the Isle of Wight.
Four of the best al fresco meals we've had this summer have been at The Blacksmiths, just outside of Carisbrooke, The Cow near Freshwater, The Hut in Colwell and The True Food Kitchen at Castlehaven in Niton.
The Blacksmiths and The Cow had technology working like a dream when we visited.
On both occasions, we were given a QR code and ordered our food at our tables. It promptly arrived and we managed two excellent courses in an hour.
My mother was sceptical when I told her and said she wants more of a ‘personal touch’ when she eats out. I pointed out that a ‘personal touch’ is the last thing you want from a stranger during a pandemic. If you prefer to make your evening meals last a little longer then you can order each course separately.
The ordering process at both was as simple as buying anything online. Neither meal required us to step inside the building at all.
The Blacksmiths didn't have a cover over our table but they had some parasols, blankets and cushions to make the outdoor dining experience more pleasant. The Cow had a large covered area which was welcome with rain forecast. In the end, the sun was shining which made it a very pleasant evening.
The True Food Kitchen was also excellent, although it worked slightly differently.
The location is right by Castlehaven beach which is one of the Isle of Wight’s lesser known beaches. I’d estimate that 90% of Isle of Wight visitors have never seen Castlehaven beach or perhaps even heard of it.
It took us 10 minutes to walk down from the car but we were without the children so it was a nice stroll rather than an ordeal. We parked at the top of the road down. In hindsight, we should have parked near the Buddle and taken the footpath down as that cuts off a corner.
There was no app or website for booking, probably because the phone signal at Castlehaven is very iffy. However, the whole place is outdoors and spacious and the service was quick.
In fact, the whole experience at The True Food Kitchen was outstanding. The steak was the best Mrs Guru had tasted and the combination of a warm evening and sea views was something special. It genuinely felt like we were in a different country, at least until the sun started to drop and we started to shiver a bit.
The Hut in Colwell was another positive experience of outside dining. It was busy and buzzing despite being 10am on a Thursday.
The restaurant is cleverly designed so that the roof can be opened when the sun shines.
Our table was set back some way inside but it was a warm day so the roof was open and the large doors were opened so it just about felt like we were outdoors.
If you want a 100% outdoor dining experience then you would need one of the tables along the front at The Hut.
We ate brunch at The Hut because it was fully booked on most days. It's very popular with red trouser wearing sailors and Instagram darlings and has had various celebrity visitors in the last couple of years.
I enjoyed the view and our meal greatly and will certainly return. That's despite not being a Trendy Wendy myself, which was hammered home by a couple of things:
1) I was wearing a pair of £1.49 sunglasses from Home Bargains, whilst most other diners were making more of an effort.
2) Mrs Guru pointed out that my shorts had a huge baked bean stain on them from the previous day. I think I got away with it.
Some of our other experiences of Covid-safe outdoor dining on the Isle of Wight this summer:
I'd be keen to hear other recommendations of Isle of Wight pubs and restaurants which are offering 100% outdoor dining experiences.
I’m not a big fan of stately homes.
I certainly enjoy the gardens, the tea rooms, the playgrounds and the gift shops but the actual homes I can take or leave. I appreciate they are fascinating to some people but they remind me too much of school trips with clipboards.
This may be the reason why I’d not taken the children to Appuldurcombe Manor in the South Wight.
We found ourselves with an hour to fill after a trip to the Isle of Wight Donkey Sanctuary. I suggested that we took a three minute detour to explore the Manor.
Despite being free, there were only two other cars in the car park when we arrived at about 3pm during the school holidays.
About a third of the house is still very grand whilst two thirds is a ruin, with outlines of fireplaces, blocked off cellars and steps which lead to nothing.
An estate agent would describe it as an ‘ideal project’ and that it was ‘in need of some modernisation’.
The children much preferred this ruinous state to a home where everything is intact and on display. There were no volunteers sat on chairs in the corner of the rooms and no audio tours. For most of the time we were there, we didn’t see another person.
As a result, we were free to shout ‘echo, echo’ at the top of our voices and play hide and seek. I couldn’t help feeling it would be a great location for my Sega Lock On laser gun set from the 1990s.
I’m also a sucker for grand buildings which have fallen to ruin. I briefly felt as if I was recording one of those ‘abandoned Isle of Wight’ videos where people trespass their way onto locked up buildings. This feeling was shattered when I spotted an elderly couple taking photos of the fountain.
So, if you’re after a day out at a magnificent stately home with a coffee shop and hours of entertainment...then Osborne is your best bet.
However, if you want a romantic historic building where the children can run around without knocking over a vase then Appuldurcombe Manor is a great choice.
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