Ventnor, the Island’s southernmost town, has always been a bit different from the rest. Out on a limb in its verdant nest on the side of the tumbling cliffs, Ventnor is a rising star in the Island’s constellation.
With a week-long International Arts Festival and Ventnor Fringe in August, the town is buzzing with theatre, comedy, spoken word and music for the whole week and there are camping and glamping options for those attending. The Exchange, in the old post office, is The Fringe’s year-round venue and arts hub, which has a café and vinyl store too.
Not only this but the town boasts its own arts’ club in the former Nat West Bank, VAC (Ventnor Arts Club), which is sometimes open to non-members, especially during Ventnor Fringe week when it is a venue. Or, if you’re a regular visitor, you can apply for membership through their website.
The Victorians descended upon Ventnor in the mid nineteenth century when Queen Victoria would pop over from Osborne House to take tea at the Royal Hotel– which is how it got its Royal moniker. Now you can take tea, lunch or dinner in this 4 AA star hotel. In Queen Victoria’s day the hotel had a bath-house on the front where one could take the sea waters in private. This has now been converted into the very popular Spyglass Inn that draws customers from far and wide for its fabulous views, great ales and hearty food.
Ventnor was a Victorian health spa and eminent physicians of the day especially recommended the waters and the air for those with TB, and an enormous hospital was built for patients with this deadly disease to be treated. Demolished in 1969, the former hospital gardens are now Ventnor Botanic Garden, one of the best in the South if not the whole of England, and it has a splendid café The Plantation Room and an airy restaurant edulis that opens onto the garden.
Beneath the Botanic Garden hides Steephill Cove, a pretty little bay accessible only by foot. Here the Boathouse is good for seafood and always full so make a booking by phone if you want to eat in this beachside bistro. The Beach Café is also popular and very traditional, with tables right on the edge of the sand, and again features the local seafood. Crab and lobster can be bought from the fishermen at the Crab Shed on the beach that also do seafood lunches.
Ventnor was once the hub for the smuggling that went on between England and France and there were certainly many boats with bootie arriving under cover of darkness at the assorted inlets and coves along the coast between Ventnor and St Catherine’s Point. You can tour the coast and hear stories from days of yore on a boat ride from the Haven with Ocean Blue, in one of their Ventnor-built catamarans.
The place to discover more about Ventnor’s salubrious history is the Longshoreman’s Museum on Ventnor seafront, run by the Blake family. During the summer months they hire out the vintage beach huts, once Victorian bathing machines, and deckchairs and sun loungers on the beach.
On the seafront at Ventnor you are spoiled for choice on the eating and drinking front with the stylish Met Bar, the Mill Bay Inn, the Ale and Oyster pub and restaurant and Tides and the Golden Sands cafes with ice cream parlour, Queenies, next to the Met Bar.
Fresh fish and seafood are practically sold from the boat of Geoff Blake and his crew at the Ventnor Haven Fishery on the New England style jetty in the Haven, along with freshly fried fish and chips. Bang opposite here at the base of the beautiful Cascade waterfall Besty and Spinky’s serve great breakfasts and snacks all day.
Bedside the café is the much loved Isle of Wight shaped paddling pool – great fun for the little ones to clamber and play upon. Looking down on the Haven from the top of the Cascade is Ventnor Winter Gardens; a venue, restaurant and bar that has especially fabulous views of the seafront.
Up in Ventnor town there are many antique shops and quirky emporiums and the restaurants and cafés cater for all tastes. The Bistro is an arty, airy eatery with contemporary food and feel and Fogg's of Ventnor has an extensive menu of fusion food. The stylish Italian Tramezzini on the High Street has great coffee and cool food, Cantina has a menu of tasty light bites with an German/Italian theme and Seraphim and Lorraine at El Toto Contento entice people to sample their authentic Spanish tapas with a seafood focus.
Once a butchers’ shop, and retaining its period green-tiled interior, Crave sell their home-made ice creams throughout the summer months, with gluten free options, and a tempting list of sundaes.
The Piano Bar at the Rex has a superb view over the bay, Perk’s Wine Bar is spectacularly patriotic with its Union Jacks and portraits of the Queen and number 24 is a popular wine bar. The Rose pub has frequent discos and pool tables and The Blenheim offers football and sports coverage along with karaoke nights. The Volunteer is one of the smallest pubs in the country and the spiritual home of the Ventnor Comic Jazz Band. (See the carnival below).
Ventnor’s laid-back style and beauty has attracted celebs. Janet Street-Porter walked the coastal path to Bonchurch when she stayed with friends here in 2009. Russell Brand stayed at Rocklands Manor in 2010 and Amy Winehouse had rooms at the Wellington Hotel when she played the IW Festival. The Bonchurch Inn is a special secret and has fab food. Johnny Depp has been known to drop in for a pint – no I’m not kidding!
Ventnor Carnival, one of the most idiosyncratic on the Island, happens during the second week of August, with carnival queens, an eclectic selection of floats, bands of Notting Hill style walkers and a great kids’ section. Ventnor Comic Jazz Band, a diverse assembly of musicians and players, bring up the rear with members from world class musicians to those on kazoo and spoons. Dressed in what can loosely be described as a comic colonial and royal fashion, the band continue to circulate the town’s watering holes long after the carnival has completed two circumnavigations of the town.
Home to a thriving artistic community, Ventnor has been on a rising star for over fifteen years now. Make sure you catch a little of its sparkle.
- Ventnor Botanical Gardens offer 22 acres of exotic plants and tree's, and offer visitors a feeling of being in the Mediterranean more than the Isle of Wight. The gardens are a great escape and there is a modern visitors centre and childrens play park.
- Ventnor's seafront offers a sheltered beach for swimming and sunbathing - the beach is south-facing and so captures the sun's warmth all day.
- There is a coastal path, offering spectacular views of the bay and winding inland to the gardens of Ventnor Park and along the sea wall to the Botanical Gardens.
- There are a host of local shops, restaurants, cafes and tearooms, as well as Ventnor Heritage Centre, which provides visitors with an insight into Ventnor's past.