Dinosaurs, zorb balls and giant jumping pillows; there’s more to the Isle of Wight than beaches and cream teas, discover Amanda Statham and family
Was it a herbivore?’ enquired my six-year-old son Sonny. We were gazing up at a 3m iguanodon in the Dinosaur Isle museum. ‘Yes,’ I replied, quickly scanning some factsheets. ‘And 120-million-year-old iguanodon bones were actually found here in the 19th century.’ ‘Wow,’ he replied. Meanwhile, my two-year-old son Sol sat nearby playing in a box full of sand, merrily sweeping away grains with a paintbrush to unearth plastic dino bones beneath. I was impressed that, on a rainy day, there was enough palaeontology play to keep both kids amused. Right from the start, the Isle of Wight reveals its appeal to families, with the ferry ride from Portsmouth to Fishbourne proving short enough not to be boring, but long enough for kids to feel they’re going on an adventure.
Sol waved and shouted ‘Bye bye!’ at the shrinking Solent coast for 10 minutes after departure. Less than an hour later, we were driving off the ferry to Whitecliff Bay Holiday Park, our east-coast base for three days. Part of the Away Resorts chain, it’s a cheerful chalet, caravan and camping set-up, with the usual clubhouse, pool and games area. But it’s the swish new TriBeCa Lodges that had caught my eye. These large ‘static caravans of the future’ boast a shiny kitchen, open-plan dining and lounge, two bathrooms, kids’ room with bunks and a lovely master bedroom with freestanding bath and five-star-hotel-like soft white linen. The vibe is more luxe Airstream than ’80s caravan, and we all ended up in the outside hot tub each night, complete with giggling, screaming and cold dashes indoors afterwards.
On our first day, we immersed ourselves in the resort, including taking part in a superheros’ dance competition (Sonny) and a gentle stroll down to Whitecliff Bay (everyone), where the kids paddled despite the water being the temperature of an Alpine stream in winter. Then, feet in sand, we all tucked into ice creams from the beach café. It would’ve been easy to spend our entire holiday splashing in the two pools, jumping in the soft-play area and ordering homemade chilli from Nab Bar but, in the interest of research, we did manage to extract the kids on day two.
Steephill Cove, on the south coast, is what the Isle of Wight is all about for me, and the perfect day out. Reached via the coast path from Ventnor (or cheat, and park above the botanical gardens), it’s a trek (if you’re aged two) to get there along a stunning stretch of coastline, including a large, sloping field dotted with daisies, which I can confirm is immense fun to roll down (why should kids have all the fun?) Once you reach Steephill, it’s like time has stood still.
There are stripy deckchairs for hire, lobster pots piled against the sea wall and a cluster of pretty holiday houses every tourist wishes they were staying in (but which are booked up years in advance). Impressively, for such a tiny place, there are three excellent eateries: The Boathouse for fresh fish and white wine in a driftwood setting, a basic café for fish and chips or doorstep sandwiches and, best of all, the Crab Shed, which serves award-winning homemade crab pasties.
You can’t book, so it’s a case of queuing and hovering by a table ready to pounce when someone gets up to leave (while the kids dig endless holes on the beach). No arcades, no rides, not even a hotel; Steephill is the seaside holidays of my childhood, and yes, they also included a tired walk back along the coast path, spirits bolstered with songs, snacks and shoulder lifts. No arcades, no rides, not even a hotel; Steephill is the seaside holidays of my childhood, and yes, they also included a tired walk back along the coast path, spirits bolstered with songs, snacks and shoulder lifts.
On day three, rain hit, and it was also time to move accommodation, so we packed up and drove, via the fabulous dinosaur museum, for a three-night stay at The West Bay Country Club & Spa, a hotel close to Yarmouth. I’m a sucker for all things coastal, so the clapboard cottages instantly put a smile on my face, as did the lawns with Boden-esque kids in stripy tops tumbling around. There’s a high-end vibe here, with the country club offering a beautiful Liz Earle spa and indoor and outdoor pools. We were lucky enough to check into the two-bedroom House of Liz Earle, an immaculate New England-style cottage where a stay includes a goodie bag of the Isle of Wight-born skincare guru’s products. There was also a welcome hamper packed with delicious island produce (the IoW Garlic Farm makes a divine infused olive oil), which excited the rest of my family, but I was too focused on my new beauty haul to care (I couldn’t resist smugly Instagramming my lotions and potions). With a spotless white kitchen and a hamper of grub, there was no excuse not to do some cooking.
However, we did also try a takeaway from the country club’s Bay Bistro – the sweet potato fries and homemade chicken goujons were devoured in minutes. There’s plenty on the west side of the island to keep families occupied, such as The Needles Landmark Attraction, which is full of fairground rides, sizzling food stalls and a chairlift down to Alum Bay. When we visited in the summer holidays, it was packed and, at first glance, didn’t look like somewhere we’d want to spend a whole day (or, at least, I’d to spend a whole day).
The kids, however, had other ideas, and raced towards a stand with inflatable zorb balls on water and patiently queued for a five-minute session to run around like hamsters in floating spheres (‘awesome’, apparently). A couple of hours later, after rides on a carousel, paddleboats, vintage cars and rotating giant cups and saucers, we gathered together a picnic from the stalls (candy floss for dessert) and walked down to the pebbly cove below (the queue for the chairlift being way too long for an impatient two-year-old).
Despite some steep steps, the descent was fun, and we ate our lunch sitting on warm rocks overlooking the famous white Needle Rocks. The highlight of our trip came on our last day with an impromptu trip to Tapnell Farm Park, after a tip-off from a local. It’s probably the best farm we’ve ever been to. The kids got to pick up piglets, peer at meercats, stroke a donkey, slide down hay bales, go karting in a barn and bounce on giant jumping pillows. Meanwhile, we got to recline on some grass and munch freshly baked cookies from the farm café.
Unexpectedly, this little pocket of the Isle of Wight turned out to be parent and kid utopia come sunset, with locals and tourists chilling out catching the last rays of summer sunshine at what felt like a mini festival, complete with live music, gourmet burgers (from the excellent Cow Co Restaurant & Bar) and white wine in plastic glasses, while children ran around chasing bubbles and making new friends.
How to get there
Wightlink offers summer ferry crossings from £57.50 return for a car with four passengers, from Fishbourne, Lymington, Portsmouth or Ryde Pier Head.
Where to stay
TriBeCa at Away Resorts sleeps 4 adults and 3 kids from £609.60, based on a 2-night stay.
Cottages at West Bay sleep up to 7, with prices from £355, based on a 2-night stay, sleeping 4 people.
Out and about
Tapnell Farm Park and the Cow Co Restaurant, located on the farm and is open Thursday-Sunday.
The Needles Landmark Attraction is open 7 days a week.
Dinosaur Isle museum is open 7 days a week.