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“We are going on holiday to a special island,” I told my three-year-old son last month, when his memories of foreign travels almost disappeared. Jake has now spent almost half of his life in a pandemic (‘coronavirus’ is his longest word). “There are beaches and ice cream, and to get there we have to drive to a boat!”
Jake’s eyes burn. This would be our first “overseas” family vacation since a week in France two years ago. This time we would avoid restrictions on real foreign travel to explore a piece of chalk 22 miles wide three miles off the south coast of England.
For people older than me, the Isle of Wight will always be synonymous with a legendary music festival in 1970. When Jimi Hendrix played on fields on the western tip of the island, as many as 700,000 people went so wild that a new law adopted was prohibited such large gatherings.
The Isle of Wight otherwise has a quieter reputation as a kitsch-bucket-and-shovel relationship with few opponents, for example Cornwall or Devon. I know people who would rather drive seven hours to Salcombe than get on a ferry to Ventnor. But I have heard that an island with beautiful beaches and green hills is experiencing a revival too late.
There was definitely a buzz on the ferry from Portsmouth, but we rolled 45 minutes later to just book all the pubs full for Father’s Day lunches. Betty, my eight-month-old, is waiting for no one, so our vacation unfortunately started with sweaty sandwiches in a Sainsbury’s parking lot.
Luckily, there is nowhere more than about 45 minutes away, and we were soon grinding on gravel at East Afton Farm, the site of the 1970 festival. The Turney family from Northampton bought it and the neighboring Tapnell Farm for their cows in 1982. Disappearing margins on milk later caused a shift to tourism.
It started with brilliance in 2012 – and a challenge. “We tried to find things to shout about, but it was a struggle to even find a place to eat,” said Tom Turney, 34, who took over from his father.
But the Turneys saw potential and grew 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 log cabins, bell tents and cottages, as well as a farm shop and The Cow, a restaurant with unfavorable burgers.
Giant barns house a pet zoo and a pedal-powered karting track. Trampolines nestled between stacked straw bales were inspired by Turney’s memories of wildlife as a boy. Outside there is an obstacle course on the water and giant bouncy castles as big as tennis courts.
A rising tide also lifted other boats. Turney now needs both hands to count the island’s destination restaurants. The Hut, in nearby Colwell Bay, is an alfresco magnet for the island’s ever younger yachts, while the newer Bay Café at Totland Pier sells magnums of Domaine Saint Miter rosé with its sea salt fries. “None of these places were even here 10 years ago, and now they are absolutely excited,” Turney says.
Elsewhere, the old Victorian coastal town of Ventnor has been attracting a cooler crowd to the south of the island for several years. To the east, Ryde and Appley have the most beautiful beaches. It’s hard to know if Jake was more in awe of the tidal sandbanks that seemed like secret islands, or the Paw Patrol ice cream that was his reward for agreeing to go home.
Turney says bookings have been lively since domestic travel was allowed. The island is well positioned to take advantage of a boom that seems to be year-round. Yet, although demand is increasing, Turney says the ferries control the crowd; spontaneous day hikers and weekend goers cannot besiege the beaches when the boats are already full.
Of course, I could not book much at all, and cut off most meals at Weetabix from the heated stone floor of our kitchen. I escaped on my bike for off-road hills and forests (the island is amazing for cycling). But whether it was the illusion of foreign travel or the spirit of a destination, I returned to the ferry and wondered why we should not go anywhere else.
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