Guest blog by Robbie from Isle of Wight Guru
The Isle of Wight’s Victorian seaside resorts and stretches of fossil-filled coastline feel a long way from London, but it’s only about 90 minutes by train to the ferry so it’s achievable for a weekend away. Not long ago the Island was named as one the best cycling spots in the world by Lonely Planet. I’m inclined to agree, although I’m obviously a bit biased.
In my view, the best time of year to visit is between April and September, ideally outside of school holidays or you will find yourself competing for road space with a stream of seven-seaters with roof boxes. Winter is much quieter, but I’d leave it to the last minute so you can check the weather forecast.
Bicycles are allowed (with no extra charge) on the one hour-ish car ferries from Southampton, Portsmouth or Lymington. Expect to pay about £20 for a return as a foot passenger. Alternatively you can catch the 20 minute fast ferries from Portsmouth or Southampton, but they have limited space for bicycles.
As a (very) general rule, you’ll find that the Isle of Wight’s quietest routes and roads are in the West Wight which is a mix of sleepy villages and cliffs which are slowly crumbling into the sea. The South Wight is also quiet with steeper hills around the town of Ventnor. The East Wight (Sandown, Shanklin, Ryde) is somewhat busier with bucket-and-spade beaches and loads of places to eat as well as family attractions. The East Wight also has the advantage of being linked by a railway line between Ryde and Shanklin which uses former London Underground carriages for an added bit of quirkiness.
Keen cyclists attempt the Round the Island route, which is about 62 miles and is a mix of coastal and inland sections. You can either get out the GPS and attempt it yourself, or join in with 3000 others who attempt a clockwise route as part of May’s annual Randonee.
If you take part in the Randonee, there are six checkpoints and you can pick which one to start from depending on which ferry port you’ve arrived at. Cyclists from Lymington will arrive at the Yarmouth checkpoint where they’ll head East towards the sailing town of Cowes through a very sleepy selection of Island villages (ask some Islanders about the last time they went to Porchfield or Newbridge and they’ll look blank). The final approach to Cowes is one of my favourite stretches of the Island’s coastline with pretty beach huts in nearby Gurnard and massive container ships to gawp at in the Solent.
Cowes is split in half by the River Medina, so you’ll need to board the short ‘floating bridge’ which links the two sides where you’ll meet cyclists arriving from the Southampton car ferry.
The route then heads mostly inland towards Ryde, through another checkpoint for cyclists coming from Portsmouth before a short coastal section around the pretty village of St Helens and the Island’s easterly point in Bembridge (home to the UK’s oldest working phonebox, in case that kind of thing interests you…).
Next, you’ll head inland again, avoiding the busier roads around the tourist resorts of Sandown and Shanklin. As you head south and nearer to the coast, the terrain gets notably hillier with steep climbs around Wroxall, Ventnor, St Lawrence and Niton. There are no mountains on the Isle of Wight but this is the section where you’ll want to stop frequently and pretend you’re admiring the view.
The final and longest section of the route is my personal favourite, along the Island’s unspoilt south west coast including a spectacular climb over the top of the Military Road at Compton Bay which descends down into Freshwater Bay. In nearby Afton, Jimi Hendrix headlined the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival to a reported crowd of 600,000. Look closely and you might see an ageing hippy still asleep in a hedge on route.
Organisers are keen to point out that the Randonee is a family event rather than a race, with much of the route on quiet public roads. If you’d rather attempt the route yourself and want to break up the journey there are campsites and holiday parks on route.
In late September, the Island hosts a cycling festival, which (remarkably) is called the Isle of Wight Cycling Festival. Its future had been in doubt due to council cutbacks but is due to continue in 2017. Highlights include an orienteering mountain bike race called the ‘seven hills killer’ which covers about 26 miles, with the winner finishing in a couple of hours.
If you’re looking for something more gentile, I’d consider the 23 mile Red Squirrel Trail which is mostly former railway lines, so large chunks of it are flat and off road.
Most day visitors start the trail in Cowes after catching the ferry from Southampton. You’ll then amble along the former railway line which runs alongside the River Medina towards the county town of Newport and on towards Merstone.
The route then splits off, with a circular section which heads towards the old-fashioned seaside towns of Sandown and Shanklin. Both have an abundance of seafront cafes selling chips, ice cream and more chips so it’s a good place for a lunch stop. If you’ve got time there are also seafront attractions, including Isle of Wight Zoo, Dinosaur Isle, Jurassic Bay Minigolf and Sandown Pier.
Once you’ve finished building your sandcastle the route heads back towards Merstone through a route which is more suited for off-roaders, particularly if it’s been raining. You’ll then link up again with the former railway line which takes you back to the ferry at Cowes.