With an entire empire at her feet, Queen Victoria’s favorite place to relax was the Isle of Wight, just a few kilometres off the south coast of England.
“It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot,” the monarch wrote about her island retreat, Osborne House, in a letter in 1845. Times have certainly changed since then, yet the island remains a popular escape for yachties, cyclists, walkers, romantics, and the sandcastle crowd.
If it’s good enough for an empress, it’ll certainly do me, I thought. And so with husband in tow and riding our own light-blue metal carriage, we crossed by ferry to the Isle of Wight on a sunny spring morning. Once on the island, time immediately seemed to slow down. Maybe it was the palm trees exuding a semi-tropical flair; the narrow roads lined by high, leafy hedges, which dampened the urge to drive faster; or the long, fine sandy beaches with waves slowly crashing to shore. The holiday feeling was there in an instant.
Enjoying the view of the manicured gardens at Osborne House from Queen Victoria’s bedroom, where she died in 1919, I felt like I was transported back in time. Down below on the beach, vacationers relaxed in sun loungers or strolled along Rhododendron Walk to the delightful Swiss Cottage, the royal heirs’ summer house.
The Queen’s ninth daughter, Princess Beatrice, accompanied her mother to Osbourne House before, in her later years, retreating to Carisbrooke Castle for a good part of her own life. The historic motte-and-bailey castle comes with sturdy stone walls, earthworks, a medieval gate, a chapel, and a well house, complete with two donkeys.
“In earlier times, the animals used to work up to 16 hours a day to get water up for the household, but our resident donkeys Jack and Jill work no more than 3.5 minutes daily, and sometimes they don’t feel like working at all,” a staff member explained during the donkey-wheel demonstration.
Another stop on the new Victoria’s Island Trail is the U.K.’s oldest amusement park, Blackgang Chine, which celebrates its 175thbirthday this year. It received the royal seal of approval during the Queen’s visit in August 1853, when she came to see the skeleton of a whale that had washed up on the shore. Blackgang Chine is a colorful wonderland with life-sized dinosaurs, rollercoasters, and twisted houses. My nearly middle-aged husband loved it and not only because a cheeky, extinct bird sang “happy birthday dodo” to us (or so we thought we heard).
Also in 1853, the acclaimed poet Alfred Lord Tennyson moved to the Isle of Wight and was soon invited by Queen Victoria to Osborne House. A correspondence between the two, who both appreciated and sought the anonymity and remoteness found on the island, ensued. His residence, the gothic Farringford House, reopened last year to the public after a complete refurbishment. “If you were standing on the scaffolding in 2011, you could look down to the basement,” said Matthew Slade who oversaw the project on behalf of a private owner.
More Island Attractions
No trip to the Isle of Wight is complete without visiting The Needles, one of the most photographed groups of rocks in the world (though the ensemble shrank from four to three in 1764 when the 36.6-metre chalk rock known as “Lot’s Wife” crashed into the sea). When we arrived under blue skies, a spectacle of nature unfolded before our eyes. Slowly but powerfully, white fog crept over the distinctive shapes and began enveloping them in a shrouded cloud. Soon, The Needles were all but covered in mist.
We moved on to check out the famous tradition of filling a glass shape with layers of different colored sand from Alum Bay. In 1860, gifts made from the sands were first presented to Queen Victoria; today, however, visitors are no longer allowed to collect their own sand but can fill their bottles in souvenir stores instead.
For dinner we met with local Jack Whitewood, the artistic director of Ventnor Exchange, a creative hub combining a theater, record store, and craft-beer bar. Whitewood, one of the brains behind the award-winning performing arts festival Ventnor Fringe, which runs Aug. 7-12, has seen many changes over the last decade.
“We really moved away from being just a beach destination and now offer outstanding arts, culture, and food,” he said. “However, our biggest asset are our people.”
There were many more things I was curious about Britain’s second-longest reigning queen and her favorite island, but before long we were on our way back to Portsmouth. Next to us, the iconic hovercraft, a British invention and unique way to travel, sped like a flying fish across the water. For once, I didn’t mind taking it a bit slow on the ferry, hoping to prolong that royal-island feeling just a wee bit longer.
For more information, visit www.visitisleofwight.co.uk
Wibke Carter is a travel writer who hails from Germany, has lived in New Zealand and New York, and presently enjoys life in London, England. www.wibkecarter.com