Cruising to the Isle of Wight

Portsmouth to Ryde FastCat passenger serviceThe great charm of the Isle of Wight is that you feel that you are getting away, heading off on an adventure, as you drive onto the Wightlink Ferry at Portsmouth (or Lymington).

It’s a cruise, well for 40 minutes or so, as you admire the Solent views through the panoramic windows, grab a late breakfast or a light lunch and relax before you drive the final leg of your journey. Alternatively, you can travel as a foot passenger and then use the Island’s bus network to get around.

Victoria, before she became Queen, was introduced to the Isle of Wight by her mother. She had fond memories of afternoon tea at Fishers Hotel in Ventnor.

Subsequently, after that majestic patronage, the elegant hotel was renamed The Royal Hotel.

Royal Hotel VentnorVentnor has a micro-climate so warm that it is called England’s Madeira. It’s Botanical Gardens host plants that are found nowhere else in the UK. Yet, The Royal is so sheltered that its garden hosts red hot poker plants and flourishing palms. Guests, basking on the sun-loungers, tend to say, “Warmer here today than Athens / Madrid / Rome as appropriate.”

A grand-dining room, with chandeliers and royal-crested carpets, helps the Royal pay tribute to the Island’s regal past as well as giving residents and non-residents the chance to enjoy the AA two-rosette fine-dining restaurant. Nostalgic black-and-white photographs recall an era when visitors cycled Penny Farthing bicycles around the island, women headed for the beach in their crinolines and buttoned-up blouses before using those new-fangled bathing machine contraptions to take the waters.

Afternoon tea at the Royal Hotel VentnorIt was Queen Victoria’s love of the Isle of Wight which developed its reputation as a holiday destination. Once the Railway Age brought Portsmouth within three hours of Windsor, Victoria and Albert ushered their children, and there were eventually nine of them onto the Royal Train, and made for the Royal Yacht, to cruise across to the Isle of Wight. One conspiracy theory is that if Victoria was pregnant then Albert could rule …

Today, Osborne House is a full day out. It’s takes a couple of hours to tour the main house. The Exhibition revealing the Queen’s relationship with Abdul Karin, the Indian servant, “the Munshi”, who taught her about the her vast country of India, which she never visited, was the subject of the Victoria and Abdul film. You should also take in the Ice House. Although the severe winter of 1859 provided 60 cart-loads of ice, Victoria preferred clear ice imported from Massachusetts.

Osborne House, Isle of WightVictoria and Albert were determined that their children should have a childhood away from the stuffy protocols of Windsor Castle. Schedule, into your day, a visit to the Swiss Cottage, designed by Albert for the children’s play and also to Osborne beach. You can either walk through the grounds down to Osborne Beach or take a shuttle bus. Albert was an enthusiastic designer and he choose the Italianate look for both the house and the formal gardens.

If you are keen on English Heritage properties, or have membership, Carisbrooke Castle is a quintessentially romantic English Castle dripping history. It was an Elizabethan artillery fortress, prison for King Charles Il before his execution and a royal summer residence in happier days.

The Needles, Isle of WightEven if you do not plan to walk all 57 miles of the Island’s Coastal Path it is worth dipping into. Maybe Alum Bay for the iconic view of the Needles, even more spectacular during Cowes Yacht Racing week, and also the rugged section, doused by sea spray, leading to Steephill Cove. The walk is a good excuse for amazing sea food lunches at the cafe and restaurant. Look out for the Skipper’s Platter of Lobster, Crab and Prawns.

Quite rightly the Isle of Wight claims it has all the attractions of a country in its own right. It’s history starts with the sheer quantity of dinosaur fossils that give it the title of Dinosaur Island. Then there’s a Roman Villa at Fishbourne. The island has its own Steam Railway, Vineyard and a plethora of museums, including one chronicling the many shipwrecks around its coasts.

Then, of course, the trip’s not quite over, you can look back at the island’s shoreline, spotting Osborne Beach where Queen Victoria’s children played, as you cruise back to the mainland.

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Stay at The Royal Hotel, Ventnor

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Michael Edwards

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