‘We just fell in love with the Isle of Wight,’ said owner David Barrett as he showed me around Haven Hall, one of the newest B&Bs on the Isle of Wight. ‘It’s exactly like England was, 40 or 50 years ago.’
Now this could be a positive or a negative depending on your point of view, but there’s no question that the Isle of Wight has a unique charm which has made it a popular place in which to live or visit – especially during the summer months when the beaches really come into their own. I went mid-week at the end of March and while it was pretty cold it was beautifully sunny and showed off the coastal walks and the rolling hills inland to their best.
From the Easter holidays onwards the pace really picks up, but with Easter a few weeks away it felt as if I had the island almost all to myself. This meant that popular places such as gastro-pub The Taverners in Godshill, which consistently features on Best Pubs in Britain lists and consequently is hard to book, was practically empty when I turned up on spec and so was able to enjoy an excellent meal without the crowds.
I also had the run of two charming B&Bs during my stay as both were gearing up for the summer season. Both were in the town of Shanklin, on the east coast, which has pleasant beaches, gardens, a town which has possibly seen better days and an quirky Old Town where the pubs are thatched, the streets winding and which is probably packed with tourists in summertime.
My first night’s stay was at Haven Hall, a grand establishment on the clifftop with spectacular views along the coast. The coastal path is just yards away making it an ideal place for walkers and with seven self-catering apartments as well as six bedrooms in the main building, you can arrive back from a bracing walk without disturbing anyone.
I stayed in the immaculate Seagulls Suite which had great views, including through its porthole window and a large bedroom which led through to a fully kitted-out kitchen. There was a microwave, Nespresso coffee-maker, hob oven and all the utensils you could wish for (as well as restaurant recommendations if you didn’t want to do the work yourself) and the whole place was very quiet and relaxing, a little bolt-hole of calm.
David and his wife Arielle bought Haven Hall some years ago and re-opened last year after a multi-million pound refit, buying the property next door, individually styling each of the rooms and apartments and landscaping the gardens which contain an open-air swimming pool, grass tennis court and a pagoda, licensed for weddings. (The gardens were named Isle of Wight’s Best Commercial Garden by Alan Titchmarsh last year).
As well as a luxury B&B, Haven Hall plays host to all sorts of events including yoga weekends and lunches (as I left the following morning the house was filling up with attendees of a gardening lunch) and has already attracted a celebrity fan base with previous guests including Colin Firth and Abby and Peter Clancy.
To not disrupt the lunch guests David dropped off two vast baskets of breakfast goodies the night before, including bacon, eggs, sausages, cereal, fruit, bread and even chocolate eggs so I made use of the kitchen and emerged replete to explore the coast including the charming and quirky beach at Steephill Cove.
My second night on the Isle of Wight was at Foxhills of Shanklin, just a few minutes’ drive away. Run by Ray and Ann Snook, who formerly ran restaurants in California before returning to the UK, Foxhills is a classically-decorated eight-bedroom B&B with a lounge, breakfast room and even a jacuzzi hot tub on the ground floor, which is very popular with guests returning after a long day’s walking round the island.
The rooms are all light and airy, with all the necessary amenities such as kettles, hairdryers, toiletries and wifi, and even though it’s on a main road there is no hint of traffic noise. I was also pleased to see not just information about the hotel in each room (which are all named after local towns) but there were also useful hand-drawn maps of the local area and local walks with recommendations of places to visit.
There are gardens at the side and rear of the property for al fresco drinks and dining in the summer months, and over breakfast you might even be lucky and catch a glimpse of Cyril, the friendly local red squirrel.
As a chef himself, Ray is justifiably proud of his breakfasts which cater to vegetarians and vegans as well as meat-eaters and fans of a Full English: I had an excellent avocado on toast with a poached egg and liked the little individual carafes of orange juice served to each person. Ray is currently considering opening the restaurant in the evenings to guests and locals but is waiting to gauge interest before taking the plunge: with his cooking and hospitality I think it would be a great idea.
There was just time for a quick visit to excellent The Garlic Farm in the middle of the island before my ferry back to the mainland but I made the most of it by stocking up on my current obsession – Isle of Wight Blue cheese – and taking a leap of faith with garlic beer. Can this be a good thing?
However places like The Garlic Farm and The Taverners certainly show that there is a lot more to the Isle of Wight than just the seaside – and there’s the 50th anniversary of The Isle of Wight Festival this year, a great excuse to return!
Haven Hall, 5 Howard Road, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, PO37 6HD
Tel: 07914 796 494
The Garlic Farm, Mersley Lane, Newchurch, Isle of Wight, PO36 0NR
Tel: 01983 865378
The Taverners, High Street, Godshill, Isle of Wight, PO38 3HZ
01983 840 707
Crab and Lobster, 32 Forelands Field Road, Bembridge, Isle of Wight, PO35 5TR
Tel: 01983 872244
Visitor information at Isle of Wight tourist board www.visitisleofwight.co.uk