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“We’re going on holiday to a special island,” I told my three-year-old son last month, by which time his memories of foreign travel had all but faded. Jake has now spent almost half his life in a pandemic (“coronavirus” is his longest word). “There’ll be beaches and ice cream and to get there we have to drive on to a boat!”
Jake’s eyes lit up. This was going to be our first “overseas” family holiday since a week in France two years ago. This time we’d avoid restrictions on real foreign travel to explore a 22-mile-wide chunk of chalk three miles off England’s south coast.
For people older than me, the Isle of Wight will always be synonymous with an instantly legendary music festival in 1970. When Jimi Hendrix played on fields on the island’s western tip, as many as 700,000 people went so wild that a new law was passed to ban such large gatherings.
The Isle of Wight otherwise has a quieter reputation as a kitsch bucket-and-spade affair with little to rival, say, Cornwall or Devon. I know people who’d rather drive seven hours to Salcombe than hop on a ferry down to Ventnor. But I’d heard that an island of beautiful beaches and verdant hills has been enjoying an overdue resurgence.
There was certainly a buzz on the ferry from Portsmouth but we rolled off 45 minutes later only to find all the pubs fully booked for Father’s day lunches. Betty, my eight-month-old, waits for no man, so our holiday started inauspiciously with sweaty sandwiches in a Sainsbury’s car park.
Happily, nowhere is more than about 45 minutes away, and we were soon crunching over gravel at East Afton Farm, site of the 1970 festival. The Turney family of Northampton bought it and the neighbouring Tapnell Farm for their cows in 1982. Vanishing margins on milk later prompted a shift to tourism.
It started with glamping in 2012 — and a challenge. “We were trying to find things to shout about but even finding somewhere decent to eat was a struggle,” says Tom Turney, 34, who has taken over from his father.
But the Turneys saw potential and have grown Tapnell Farm into a charming family holiday park that clings to its rustic roots. The farmhouse in which Turney grew up is now a holiday home and our base for the week. There are also wood cabins, bell tents and cottages, as well as a farm shop and The Cow, a restaurant with unimprovable burgers.
Giant barns house a petting zoo and pedal-powered kart track. Trampolines set among stacked straw bales are inspired by Turney’s memories of running wild as a boy. Outside, there’s a waterborne obstacle course and giant bouncy “pillows” the size of tennis courts.
A rising tide has lifted other boats, too. Turney now needs both hands to count the island’s destination restaurants. The Hut, at nearby Colwell Bay, is an alfresco magnet for the island’s increasingly youthful yachtie crowd, while the newer Bay Café at Totland Pier sells magnums of Domaine Saint Mitre rosé with its sea-salt fries. “None of these places were even here 10 years ago and now they’re absolutely heaving,” Turney says.
Elsewhere, the old Victorian seaside town of Ventnor has for a few years drawn a cooler crowd to the south of the island. To the east, Ryde and Appley have the loveliest beaches. It’s hard to know whether Jake was more in awe of the tidal sandbanks that appeared like secret islands, or the Paw Patrol ice cream that was his reward for agreeing to go home.
Turney tells me bookings have been buoyant since domestic travel has been permitted. The island is well positioned to capitalise on a staycation boom that looks like lasting all year. Yet even as demand rises, Turney says the ferries control the crowds; spontaneous day-trippers and weekenders can’t besiege the beaches if the boats are already full.
I had failed to book much at all, of course, and spent most mealtimes chiselling Weetabix off the heated stone floor of our kitchen. I did manage to escape on my bike for off-road loops of hills and forests (the island is amazing for cycling). But, whether it was the illusion of overseas travel or the spirit of a destination on the up, I rolled back on to the ferry wondering why we would need to go anywhere else.
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