Separated from the English mainland by a roughly 30-minute ferry ride across the Solent strait, the Isle of Wight is a microcosm of all that's desirable in a U.K. holiday retreat. The sailing is world famous, the scenery magnificent and the villages unspoiled. There are wonderful hiking trails, pretty beaches and historic homes (both Queen Victoria and the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson lived there) alongside a thriving festival scene. It's easy to see why this is one of Britain's best-loved destinations. Here are five reasons to embrace island life.1 Cowes Week
The world's oldest and largest sailing regatta has been held annually in August at the seaport town of West Cowes since 1826. Thousands of sailors compete for eight days in up to 40 different classes. From shore, the event is a kaleidoscope of vessels at alarming pitch, precariously seated crew and billowing, multicolored sails. The bracing air will work up an appetite, so join the ranks of starving seamen and queue for bacon rolls and mugs of tea at Tiffins, or fresh scampi and chips at Corries Cabin, both on High Street. When the sun goes down, the Yacht Haven, the hub of events in Cowes, comes alive with music, fireworks and open-air bars. See www.cowesweek.co.uk for details, and if all the action on the water inspires you to take to it yourself, Pelican Racing, www.pelican-racing.co.uk, offers an exhilarating two-hour introduction to sailing at just over $45 for adults and $30 for children (ages 7 to 15).
2 Steephill Cove
Only accessible via a precipitous walk down cave-riddled cliffs, Steephill Cove takes determination to reach but when you get you there, you won't want to budge. About 1.5 km west of the town of Ventnor on the south side of the island, and graced by stunning views of the English Channel and a glorious sliver of sandy beach, it's an unexpectedly lovely spot for a culinary treat. Brothers Mark and Jimmy Wheeler, co-owners of a handful of characterful holiday homes on the beach, fish every day from the cove. You can gorge on the fruits of their labor at the Boathouse restaurant or at Wheeler's Crab Shed, a beachside café run by Jimmy's wife Mandy (go for the lobster salad, crab pasties or the mackerel ciabatta). Then loosen your belt, pull up a deck chair and wave goodbye to the rat race, for a little while at least. See www.steephillcove-isleofwight.co.uk.
3 Osborne House
Rumor has it that this former royal retreat in East Cowes was Queen Victoria's favorite home. Set in 138 hectares of lush, landscaped gardens, designed in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo and overlooking the Solent, it's not hard to see why. These days, history buffs can tour the well-preserved staterooms. There's the royal nursery to peek into, the Indian-inspired Durbar Room and, for the morbidly curious, the bedroom where Queen Victoria died. When the sumptuous frescoes, sculptures, paintings and fountains begin to overwhelm, head to the Terrace Restaurant for afternoon tea. Visiting in summer? Listen out: the grounds double as a popular seasonal venue for rock concerts. For details, visit www.english-heritage.org.uk.
4 The Needles
An iconic landmark, this row of three chalk pinnacles (and a lighthouse) rises out of the Solent, off the western tip of the island close to Alum Bay. The rocks and their environs have long held strategic value. In the 19th century, a fort was built on the headland as a defense against the threat of a French invasion, and between 1955 and 1971, the area was a secret rocket-testing site. These days, though, the Needles are home to much more peaceable activity. You can take a cruise around the tapering stacks, indulge in a carousel ride at the nearby Needles Park or stock up on local glass products at Alum Bay Glass, www.alumbayglass.co.uk.
5 The Tennyson Trail
This 22.5-km hike of breathtaking ups and downs, beloved of the great bard himself, is often rated one of the best walks in Britain. Seasoned walkers hit the trail in Carisbrooke, in the center of the island, and roam ridgeways, forest, downland, ancient burial sites and striking cliffs before inhaling a final few lungfuls en route to the finishing point at Alum Bay. A challenge it may be, but those who rise to it will be richly rewarded with soul-stirring, ballad-inspiring views. Details can be found at the Isle of Wight's official tourism site, www.islandbreaks.co.uk.
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