travel - the isle of wight - an isle within an isle

though we all live on an island, sometimes we all need to get away to one. jonathan crouch gets away to the isle of wight

You don't have to go abroad to get away from England. How about an island with a temperate climate, cheap accommodation and superb fish & chips? If you haven't already guessed, I'm talking about the Isle of Wight.

If it's not your first choice for a motoring holiday break this year, then that's not surprising. The island, pitched just off Portsmouth and Southampton, tends to be lumped in with Eastbourne and Bournemouth as a retirement haven, good only for pensioners and the bucket and spade brigade.

Which is a pity in one way, because the place is so much more than that. But good in another because large chunks of Wight still remain undiscovered. Michael Palin once spent six weeks here living in a houseboat at Bembridge making a BBC TV series and still didn't manage to fit everything in.

It's also a place in which you need your own transport as I remember from my childhood days. The buses were great when they came but sometimes it could be a long wait. It's no place, of course, to go if you've a need for speed - there's hardly a dual carriageway on the island. Still, if you like slow, meandering roads that take an age to cover even the shortest distances, you're in for a treat.

Only two ferry operators will take you there and your choice will largely be dictated by which is the most convenient port for you to sail from. Red Funnel Ferries sail from Southampton but we tried the Wight Link service from Portsmouth, possibly more convenient if you're travelling down from the Midlands or the North. For a guideline cost allow around £60 in season, though off peak, the figure could fall to not much more than £30 for a family with a car.

The service takes rather a long time (35 minutes) considering how short the stretch of water involved is, but then the rest would be a relief if you've had a long journey to Portsmouth. Particularly as the Wight Link Service is clean, comfortable and efficient.

Once the ferry arrives at Fishbourne on the island, you've your choice of busy, unspoilt family resorts like Ryde in the North or sleepier beach towns like Ventnor in the South where we stayed. There's plenty of accommodation at very affordable prices. Our choice was the Hotel Picardie - a first floor room with a sea view right on the sea front, for £20 per head per night.

What you do from then on depends on what you're into. There are all the elements of the traditional British family holiday if you want them - deckchairs, amusements and ice creams - but it doesn't have to be like that.

We took jet skis, playing in the bays, chasing the ferries and exploring the beautiful coastline. You can hire them too (jet ski dealers BMS in Bembridge will give you all the details). If all that's a bit too frenetic for you, then just take a leisurely drive through the lanes. You could take in some pony treking, maybe visit Osbourne House or Carisbrooke Castle or just wander round some of the sleepy villages.

This is the kind of place in which the pace of life slows down and you lose track of time. Get there while it's still a well-kept secret.


HOW TO GET THERE: Wight Link from Portsmouth every 1/2 hr (0990-827744)

ACCOMMODATION:? Isle of Wight Tourist Board (01983-525450) / Hotel Picardie - Ventnor 01983-852647

WHAT TO DO? Beaches, jet skiing, pony tracking, amusement parks and much more.