My friend Sam takes a zero-planning approach to an Isle of Wight holiday.
He drives to the end of the road and then says "OK then, shall we go left or right today?"
Sometimes he ends up swimming in Colwell, sometimes he ends up at the cinema in Ryde watching an Adam Sandler comedy.
This attitude is understandable when you are young and child-free but Sam has three young children.
I've mentioned this story before but I've never really got over it.
I much prefer to check these four things before heading to the beach on the Isle of Wight.
To help you remember it, I've summarised it as Tides, Turds, Surf and Sunshine. You wouldn't get that sort of thing from Visit England...
Tides are not just for sailors. They can make or break a family trip to the beach.
Colwell and Totland are terrific sandy beaches at low tide. At low tide, you'll be sat up on the sea wall with a tearful toddler holding a bucket and spade.
Priory Bay is a beautiful beach but at high tide you have to climb through woodland to get to it. At low tide, you can walk between the rocks on the beach.
Appley in Ryde is pleasant at low tide or high tide. However, at high tide the sea is only a few paces from the esplanade. At low tide, it has an enormous beach which is great for running around and flying a kite. If you want a swim, you'll need to allow 10 minutes to walk to the water's edge.
At low tide, Freshwater Bay and Bembridge are good for rockpooling. If it's high tide, you can leave your fishing net at home.
I prefer swimming at Compton Bay at low tide, as the lower water reveals where all the rocks are. It's also much prettier on a low tide in the evening.
At high tide, Shanklin and Sandown's beaches can get unpleasantly crowded on a busy sunny day. At low tide, there's plenty of space.
Tide times vary a bit across different Isle of Wight beaches on the same day so you might want to see our tide times guide. Personally, I like to turn up at a beach about an hour or two before low tide so we get the longest possible time with a lot of beach.
2. Turds (i.e. The safer seas Website)
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for sewage to be pumped out into the sea around the Isle of Wight.
This isn't just an Isle of Wight issue, it happens all over.
According to the BBC, "During periods of heavy rain, water companies are permitted to divert untreated waste water away from treatment plants, discharging sewage straight into the environment to prevent sewers backing up."
Apologies if you are eating your lunch at the moment. If this outrages you then you might like to support Surfers Against Sewage.
Thankfully, there is a map created by the charity Surfers Against Sewage which shows you if there have been any recent, er, discharges around the UK.
On a typical day you might find that Shanklin's water is cleaner than Sandown's or vice versa. Personally, I like to be the only floater in the water so I check this before diving into the water.
3. Surf forecast
Whether you are a surfer with long blond hair or a dad with no hair, it is useful to check the surf forecast.
This is only available for a Bart-Simpson-handful of places on the Isle of Wight including Sandown, Compton Bay, Ventnor and Freshwater Bay.
I use the surf forecast to decide what to take to a beach.
If it's quite choppy, I take bodyboards. You don't need a huge amount of surf for children but if it's completely flat you've got no chance.
If it's flat as a pancake, you might like to try paddleboarding or kayaking. You can hire boards from various locations on the Isle of Wight including (as of 2021) Colwell Bay, St Helens, Sandown and Shanklin. See the watersports section of our guide to days out for children for advice on where to hire boards.
A flat sea is less daunting for small children and is better if you actually want to swim some lengths. However, I love it when there's a bit of surf as you can leap around and behave like a teenager. It also feels warmer as you are constantly moving. A flat sea is more like a cold bath.
4. Sunshine (i.e. the Weather forecast)
This is an obvious one, but we spend a lot of time chasing the sunshine.
The Isle of Wight is big enough that one side can be wet and the other side can be blazing hot.
You can compare weather in different locations on our weather page.
For short term planning, I tend to use this radar from Accuweather which shows you how rain clouds are moving.
When you check the forecast it is also worth checking the wind direction. If you're sitting on the beach beneath a cliff or a sea wall, it is much better to have the wind behind you rather than walloping you sideways.
One other thing worth saying is that some Isle of Wight beaches are much better for heat waves than others.
We've found pleasant shady spots at Appley, Priory Bay and Woodside Bay. Appley is the easiest to access of those three, particularly if you park in Puckpool Park and walk through to the Dell Cafe.
Other beaches are much more exposed and offer very little shade, such as Compton Bay.
Sandown Bay and Shanklin Beach are certainly exposed but there are places which will hire you a parasol.
When I started driving, I filled the car with everything I would need for any eventuality. There’s still an emergency Mars Bar and a 1999 road atlas wedged in with my spare tyre.
If you’re visiting the Isle of Wight in summer, my advice is to leave the snow shovel at home and instead fill the car with every possible item you might need at the seaside.
I started doing this after a trip to Shanklin about seven years ago. I didn't fancy swimming and I had never thought of Shanklin as a place with good surf, so I left my bodyboard and trunks at home. Upon arrival I found the most perfect waves for bodyboarding I had ever seen. I went for a swim in my pants but still regret not having my bodyboard.
My preparation policy paid off with a recent trip to Compton Bay with two friends who had never seen The World’s Greatest Beach before.
In Carisbrooke, the weather looked a bit iffy and I questioned whether we'd feel like swimming when we actually got on the beach. Plus, the surf forecast was not all that good and we were a bit tight on time.
I shoved in the wet suits and bodyboards, regardless.
As we were without children, we parked up at the Compton Farm end of the beach and carried down our wetsuits and bodyboards. The steps are steeper than those at Hanover Point but the views are better. The beach at the bottom of the cliffs is sandier and quieter.
On arrival, it became obvious that we needed to get in the water.
The sun was a perfect temperature and the waves were slightly bigger than had been forecast. They weren't exactly huge but they were big enough for the two visitors who were first time bodyboarders. The beach was completely empty which always adds to the fun.
"What's the best technique for bodyboarding?" one of them asked me.
"Er, wait for a wave and then lie down" I replied, perhaps demonstrating why I didn't become a watersports instructor.
We splashed around, high fived each other whilst on the boards and generally behaved like children for half an hour.
The outing also provided the chance to carry out a very scientific experiment about water temperatures on the Isle of Wight.
One of us wore trunks, one wore a 3mm summer wetsuit and I wore my brand new 5mm winter wetsuit.
I am usually a complete watery wimp and feel cold on the hottest day of the year. With my new winter wetsuit it was like walking into a bath. I still can't believe I spent decades freezing my bits off when such technology existed.
For a long time we've promoted the savings that can be made by getting a ferry at an odd time of day.
We wrote this back in early 2013:
"During Cowes Week 2013, a single car journey on Wightlink's Portsmouth route on Saturday lunchtime cost up to £93 whereas just before midnight it was £22"
The Isle of Wight ferries work much like budget airlines which bump up prices during peak times and lower prices at quieter times.
However, the savings that can be made by travelling at odd times has increased. Well, it had certainly increased in the search that I did with Wightlink today (Red Funnel prices weren't available yet for the dates we were researching).
Take at look at these on peak prices for a family of four taking a car to the Isle of Wight with Wightlink for a week in August 2022.
So, a total of £249.50 for the return 'economy' fare.
Here are the figures for travelling very late at night:
That means you can save yourself a whopping £174 by travelling in the middle of the night. Back in 2013, the saving was £71.
It's also worth noting the overall increases in both the on-peak and off-peak fares.
The night time price has increased by 240% in nine years whilst the daytime price has increased by 168%.
Of course, you would expect prices to rise with inflation. According to the Bank of England's Inflation Calculator, £22 in 2013 was worth £25 in 2020. £93 in 2013 was worth £109 in 2020. The calculator doesn't go right up to 2021 just yet, but I would guess it will somewhere around £28 and £115.
But what if I don't want to check-in at my accommodation at 1am?
The problem - of course - is that holiday parks, campsites, hotels and self catering cottages don't tend to allow you to check in at 1am.
We also find that our children don't travel well at night, so a lunchtime ferry is a much better option.
How to lower that £249 Isle of wight ferry price
Here's some practical money saving advice. These are covered in more detail in our guide to discount Isle of Wight ferry travel.
1. Buy a multilink pass
If you're an Isle of Wight resident or you are lucky enough to be a second home owner then buying a Wightlink Multilink pass is worthwhile.
A return is available for about £60, albeit with some legwork and limitations. Read our Multilink guide for more details.
Red Funnel's equivalent is a card where you pre-pay £1000 and then get 20% off the standard fares.
2. Get your accommodation provider to book the ferry
Most hotels, guest houses, campsites and holiday parks get a special rate on the Isle of Wight ferry. Some just pass on the saving whilst others take a hit themselves and give you an extra discount.
For example, that £249 ferry was reduced to £117 when bundled with a holiday at Whitecliff Bay Holiday Park.
The discount varies, depending on how long you are staying for.
3. Watch out for discount codes and deals
Wightlink and Red Funnel sometimes offer deals of somewhere around 10-30% off. You can get 10% off Red Funnel all year round on our ferries page. You can find that deal and other current offers on our ferries page.
4. Travel as a foot passenger and hire a car or catch a bus
If you're travelling alone, then you'll still pay for the full £249 fare for a peak time sailing. However, if you travel as a foot passenger on the car ferry then it will be more like £20. Foot passenger fares don't fluctuate as much as car fares.
Your option would then be to rely on buses and trains or to hire a car. Buses and trains will be the cheaper option. You'll pay about £25 for a bus pass for the week and you can also use them on the open top buses in summer. However, it's a fairly slow way to get around. The trains only cover the east side of the Isle of Wight, but they are quite quick and were recently upgraded from antediluvian rolling stock.
Out of curiosity, I searched for the price of hiring a car for week in August at Enterprise in Newport.
Hiring a small van seemed to be cheapest (£120 for the week) but I didn't fancy looking like Postman Pat all week. The next cheapest was a 'Toyota Aygo or similar' at £137. You've got to get to Newport to pick it up, but that's still a saving of about £85.
There are other hire car companies in our guide to public transport.
Of course, you might need to leave your car somewhere in Portsmouth. We've found that using a site such as Just Park is cheaper than turning up on the day.
If you're arriving in Portsmouth, Lymington or Southampton by train then you can get an extra saving as a foot passenger if you've got a railcard. There's more on how this works in our ferries guide.
5. Use Tesco Clubcard Vouchers
Another favourite money saver with Wightlink is using Tesco Clubcard points.
Tesco Clubcard vouchers are worth three times as much on Wightlink, so £80 in vouchers would pay £240 towards a ferry fare.
Read more about this in our guide to the Wightlink/Clubcard deal.
6. Check the Red Funnel price
Needless to say, it's worth checking the Red Funnel fare alongside the Wightlink deal. Also check the price for the Wightlink crossing from Lymington to Yarmouth. Prices fluctuate with both companies but the difference between them can be quite significant.
There are several other deals which we won't go into here, such as the discount for English Heritage members and the benefits of travelling on a Friday or a Monday.
The full discount ferries guide is here.
During the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 we discovered that our children are reasonably tolerant walkers.
On a good day, they can manage a mile or two with only minimal complaining, which is far better than I expected. The key is to figure out when they are 50% exhausted so you can begin to return to the car at the exact right moment.
With this newfound freedom, I decided that the walk around Golden Hill Country Park in Freshwater was worth a go.
We parked up in the (free) car park after driving through a mini industrial estate and discussed which route we should take. It’s well signposted and there are a few different routes depending on how energetic you are feeling.
The children were already beginning to get impatient and the grey clouds were gathering so we picked the short circular route.
It circles the six sided Victorian military building in the middle. It’s an impressive structure although you can’t go inside for a proper view unless you’re hiring one of the holiday homes. Back in the 1990s it was used for raves by local yoof, but it’s more of a Pimms and prosecco sort of place now.
The route is described as accessible, and we didn’t have to face any steps. However, it was pretty rough terrain and it had a couple of hilly bits. I would say you’d need a good set of tyres on a wheelchair or pushchair and a bit of perseverance if you want to make it round without swearing.
The main reason for visiting was to visit the rather cool willow maze which was unveiled earlier in 2021.
It’s about half way round the walk and looks a bit like a spider.
Calling it a maze might be pushing it a bit as there isn’t an obvious entrance or exit. It’s more of a sculpture which is ideal for hide and seek, which passed about 20 minutes with our children. Grandparents were on hand which meant we could sit down and figure out what we were looking at from the viewpoint. We decided it was East Afton Farm and the field where the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival took place.
After we’d finished with the willow maze, we carried on walking round and looked at some of the other ruins which were military buildings in the first world war.
The only annoyance from my point of view was the number of dogs off leads. I don’t think the owners were breaking any rules so I can’t really complain.
However, my relaxed state was slightly altered by a dog the size of a small horse which was yomping through the long grass and had no owner in sight.
In all, the walk took us about 40 minutes but I expect if you rattled round without children you could do it in 20 minutes.
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