Quiet, quaint and very rural, the Isle of Wight’s numbers swell in the summer when visitors come to wander the picturesque seaside towns, sail in the Solent and treat kids to sandy beaches and fun days out.
The inland villages meanwhile have an untouched quality about them, woven between rounded chalk downs or atop sandstone ravines. In June tens of thousands of people descend on the island for the Isle of Wight Festival, which began with Hendrix, Dylan and co. in late-1960s and still puts big names on the bill. And in August is Cowes Week, a world-renowned regatta that draws thousands of spectators and competitors.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Isle of Wight:
1. Cowes & East Cowes
For most travellers Cowes will be the first thing you see from the Solent.
The town is on both sides of the Medina Estuary, with a ferry terminal in the east and a more traditional settlement in the west.
Idle along the meandering, car-less high street for cute shops and cafes with nautical themes.
Seafaring is intrinsic to Cowes’ culture and the town is the HQ for the Royal Yacht Club, amongst other prestigious institutions.
Be here at the start of August for Cowes Week, a regatta that started back in 1820 and is one of the largest maritime events in the world, with 40 races a day and more than 1,000 vessels.
The political centre of the island is an agreeable, busy town that has all you need for a shopping trip, with a mix of well-known brands and one-of-a-kind, independent stores.
The market trades on Tuesdays as well as Fridays, when farmers from around the island come to sell their produce.
In converted Victorian warehouses on the Medina is Quay Arts, the Isle of Wight’s main cultural centre, with three galleries, a theatre and cafe.
For an excursion look no further than Carisbrooke Castle, which was built by the Normans in the 1100s and was where Charles I was imprisoned for more than a year as he awaited execution in 1649.
This seaside town in the north first caught the eye of the Victorians and Edwardians who would visit to breathe the curative sea air.
Karl Marx was one, stopping by in 1874 for health reasons.
You don’t need to look hard to know that it was favoured by posher tourists, as the townhouses and the Royal Victoria Arcade, a refined shopping gallery, will make clear.
A century later our motives for coming aren’t so different, as Ryde Beach and Appley Beach are two of the island’s best and largest sandy bays, while there’s a funfair in the tourist season for littler children.
In the countryside is Quarr Abbey, a functioning Benedictine Monastery in an eccentric Moorish-style building.
There’s a visitor centre to give you a sense of monastic life and even a cafe.
A cosy old harbour town on the west side of the island, Yarmouth still has the same grid system that the Normans laid out almost a thousand years ago.
The port is a useful point of departure for boat trips to see the Needles, three offshore chalk stacks that have been dubbed one of the natural wonders of southern England and are best approached from the water.
The town has a few understated attractions to check out: Yarmouth Castle is a Tudor artillery fort guarding the entrance to the harbour, and Tapnell Farm Park has wallabies, cows, sheep, goats and alpacas for youngsters to interact with.
On an island of pretty, upmarket seaside towns, Shanklin may take the prize.
You can pass a carefree afternoon on a deckchair at the beach, or in the leafy surrounds of Rylstone Gardens, with its mature trees, tea rooms and pitch & putt course.
Or you could saunter around the town, where shops selling collectibles, speciality clothing and English seaside classics like rock candy are in graceful Victorian buildings.
The sandstone geology makes for some marvellous seascapes on the way down to Ventnor.
Shanklin Chine for example should be high on everyone’s agenda: This coastal sandstone ravine is the largest of the Isle of Wight’s “chines”, and plummets 32 metres to the bottom.
The high walls create a microclimate that sustains lush subtropical vegetation.
The coastal topography is just as uplifting in Ventnor, which is balanced on a slope descending sharply to the sea.
The beach is a blend of sand and shingle, and is hemmed by a promenade that gives you lovely panoramas of the sea and wooden hillsides to the west of the town.
An interesting fact about Ventnor’s beach huts is that they are repurposed bathing machines, contraptions that once allowed Victorians to bathe in the sea in private.
For a beach off the beaten track, try Steephill Cove, which is a joy at any time of year for its little jumble of fishing cottages, lighthouse and seafood restaurants.
Even though we’re a couple of miles from the Channel in Brading, the town was once one of the island’s key seaports.
Names like Quay Lane are the only sign of this role, which was brought to an end in the 1500s when the surrounding marshland was reclaimed.
There are few old buildings that were around in those times, particularly on the high street, which has the medieval tower of St Mary’s Church at the top of the hill.
Brading Roman Villa is a first-rate archaeological site in which the ground floor of a lavish villa is sheltered by a purpose-built museum.
There are fab mosaics, including one of an odd cockerel-headed man, and the children’s games, jewellery, pottery on show point to the plush lifestyle of the occupants.
If you’re coming to the Isle of Wight with the whole clan, the resort of Sandown meets every need of a smaller tourist.
First off you’ve got a massive golden sandy beach, traced by an esplanade with ice cream parlours and shops selling beach essentials.
But there’s also a number of family-oriented attractions, including two zoos, the Amazon World Zoo Park and the Isle of Wight Zoo.
Sandown sits on what is known as the “Wealdon Outcrop”, where masses of dinosaur fossils have come to light down the centuries.
The museum, Dinosaur Isle introduces little ones to Sandown’s palaeontology with animatronic dinosaurs and replica fossils.
Another endearing nautical town, Seaview is by the Solent, which is a noble sight in summer when sea is speckled with hundreds of white sails on the strait between here and Portsmouth.
The best view is from the Esplanade, which snakes around the seafront and has a few pubs and restaurants with outdoor seating for you to mull over a wonderful scene.
If you’re sea-bound and ready for a voyage there’s a launch ramp right by the road here.
And for landlubbers Puckpool Park is a serene garden on what used to be a Victorian gun installation, while Priory Bay Beach and Seagrove Beach are the best picks if you need sand to go with your sun and sea.
This village has been a genteel getaway for affluent types since Edwardian times.
At the end of a pier you can call in at the Lifeboat Station, where a volunteer will be happy to talk you through Bembridge’s relationship with the Lifeboat Institution.
You’ll get the low down on the Tamar-class craft, which was introduced a few years ago and is designed for the roughest seas.
Every part of the lifeboat is totally watertight and even able to “right” itself after capsizing.
The Isle of Wight’s last windmill is also in Bembridge and operated by the National Trust.
It was built at the start of the 18th century and appeared in a painting by J.M.W. Turner in 1795.
It’s no mystery why this picture-book village is one of the Isle of Wight’s preferred inland spots.
Some of the oldest architecture on the island is in Godshill, along with idyllic thatched cottages with blooming gardens, country pubs and an isolated shop or two.
Get a hit of old-school kitch at the Godshill Model Village, which was crafted in 1952 and includes a model of the Godshill Model Village inside it! Look for All Saints’ Church, a Norman building with a medieval fresco of a crucifix of lilies inside.
The western side of the island is known as Back of the Wight and is cherished for its pastoral and slightly remote character.
This is brought on by the bulky chalk hills and rugged cliffs and rocks on the coast.
At Freshwater Bay you can pause over a view that takes in the Stag and the Mermaid, two chalk stacks beside the cliffs.
In the 19th century Freshwater welcomed many Victorian cultural icons like Alfred Lord Tennyson and Lewis Carroll.
The Dimbola Museum documents this period via the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, a vaunted early photographer.