Cowes and East Cowes
Popular with visitors since Victorian times, the vibrant towns of Cowes and East Cowes make for an interesting and enjoyable day out from the mainland.
Osborne House, Queen Victoria's much loved summer retreat, the historic St Mildred's church at Whippingham and the pretty sailing village of Gurnard are also within easy walking or cycling distance.
Cowes, situated on the west bank of the Medina River is the larger of the two towns, offering speciality shops, some great eateries and plenty of watering holes. Although it can rightly claim to be the home of the world's first yacht club and the spiritual home of international yacht racing, there's much more to Cowes than speed and adrenalin.
Back in the 13th century, East Cowes was known as East Shamblord and was originally more important than West Shamblord (West Cowes), although settlement was minimal. Under constant threat from the French, King Henry VIII built castles on both banks of the Medina to guard the river, although the 'East Cowe' is now gone, 'West Cowe' is the home of the Royal Yacht Squadron. East Cowes became important as a customs clearance port in the 16th and 17th centuries and in the 18th century began to build its reputation as a major shipbuilding centre. Once the engineering industry arrived here it stayed, with Saunders Roe, Westland, British Hovercraft Corporation and GKN all making use of its tailor-made industrial sites. East Cowes is also, of course, noted as the favourite home of Queen Victoria, who lived at the splendid Osborne House, in complete contrast to the industrial endeavours taking place at the bottom of the hill.
Across the river, Cowes became the spiritual home of yacht racing and is home to many Yacht Clubs. The sport remains at the heart of the town, supporting yacht building and maintenance and a hive of social activity with many keen sailors, socialites and spectators visiting the town for the summer regattas.
The Royal Yacht Squadron - The Castle was built in 1539 as part of Henry VIII's defensive plan against the French. 22 guns from William IV's yacht 'The Adelaide' are used to start many of today's yacht races in the Solent.
St Mary's Church - There has been a place of worship on the site since 1657. The present church was designed by Arthur Cates and built in 1866-68. However, it retained the Ward tower and vault designed by John Nash in 1816. The chancel was extended between 1900-01.
Cowes Yacht Haven - Formerly Groves & Guttridge and now owned by a charity, the large marina is the focal point for visiting yachtsmen and many world class yachting and boating events.
Northwood House - The present house, based on a design by John Nash, was built in 1837-42. It was gifted to the Council in 1929 and is now run by a charitable trust as an venue for events.
Westbourne House - Built in 1752, the house bears a plaque commemorating the birthplace of Thomas Arnold, the famous Headmaster of Rugby School 1828-42.
Sir Max Aitken Museum - Next door the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC), the museum displays unique items from Queen Victoria's life on the Island, reminders of Sir Max's former home and some fine maritime paintings. Sir Max Aitken Museum
Benzie of Cowes - founded in 1862, the firm is reknowned throughout the world for its fine and unique pieces of yachting jewellery. It has had no less than 7 royal warrants including Queen Victoria, George V and the Duke of Edinburgh. Unable to get RYS membership, Earl Mountbatten would watch the racing from Benzie's observation tower. Benzie of Cowes
Ratsey and Lapthorn - arguably the greatest name in yacht sails, occupies a former Victorian barracks. Established as Ratseys in 1790 supplying sails for work boats, the company merged with Lapthorns in 1882 and has lofts in Cowes, on the mainland and in New York. Ratsey & Lapthorn
Claire Lallow - founded in 1867 on the existing premises, the firm was run by members of the family until 1996 when it was taken over by an employee. Lallow's made its name building handcrafted wooden yachts and to this day continues to build, restore and maintain boats using traditional skills. Clare Lallow
Cowes Maritime Museum - a small exhibition of maritime memorabilia depicting the yachting and shipping industry in Cowes. The museum is situated within Cowes Libray. Entrance is free of charge.
Cowes Floating Bridge - For non-boat owners this is the only way to get across the river between East Cowes and West Cowes (without going to Newport). Established in 1859, the current chain-ferry carries passengers and up to 20 cars for a small fee.
Cowes Classic Boat Museum - A fascinating collection of over 50 sailing and power boats of local and national interest to both family visitors and maritime enthusiasts alike.
East Cowes Church - In 1798, the architect John Nash, began building his home, East Cowes Castle, where he later entertained the Prince Consort. East Cowes Castle was notable for its Gothic towers, turrets, and elaborate castellation. Nash died in 1835 and is buried in the tower of East Cowes Church which he also designed. East Cowes Castle was demolished in the 1960s, although the ice house remains and is visible in Sylvan Avenue.
Venture Quays - To celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the Queen's coronation in 1977, the main hangar doors of what was then the British Hovercraft Corporation (a successor to Saunders Roe) were painted with the world's largest image of the Union Flag.
East Cowes Heritage Centre - staffed by volunteers, the shop is well worth visiting for anyone who is interested in the towns shipbuilding, aeronautical, royal and wartime past.
Slightly further afield...
Osborne House, beach & gardens - The magnificent country retreat of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. After the Queen's death in 1901 Edward VII gave the estate to the nation - open daily from Easter to late October & selected dates in winter.
St Mildred's Church - dedicated to an Anglo Saxon princess, a church has existed on the site at Whippingham since the Norman Conquest. The extraordinary design of the present building was influenced by the Prince Consort - Queen Victoria worshipped here for many years.
Gurnard - A pretty village with amazing views across the Solent just to the west of Cowes just beyond Egypt Point. The Woodvale and The Little Gloster offer great food and hospitality.
Whether offshore or onshore, Cowes boasts events for sailors and land lubbers alike. From Christmas celebrations at Queen Victoria’s palace by the sea, to international sailing regattas, arts and food fairs, the renowned literary festival in October, competitive races, and vintage bus weekends! There’s something for everyone.
Cowes hosts an unrivalled number of yacht racing events and cruising rallies every season, with over 10,000 visitors regularly arriving in the resort for major events. During the annual world-famous Cowes Week regatta, the number of sailors and visitors descending on the town can top 100,000.
Both Cowes and East Cowes have a fine selection of watering holes and eateries which include artisan cafe's for lunch with friends to equisite fine-dining for those romantic nights-out. The Food Hamper delicatessen on Cowes High Street can make you a picnic for on board your boat, or just a delicious local crab sandwich for lunch. Freshly made quiches, pastries and cakes are all made in house and just across the road is the Toby's of Cowes cheese shop.
Minghella's ice cream is made on the Isle of Wight and they have an ice cream parlour on Bath Road with loads of different flavours and toppings, and on the High Street Plaza Ices feature Kelly's Cornish ice creams. Chocolate Mad Cowes has delicious handmade chocolates and a small café. You can get fresh wet fish from The Cowes Fish Company, meat from Hamilton’s across the road and there’s a new popular bakery The Well Bread Bakery and Café.
Tiffins café is great for freshly made sandwiches and baguettes and do fabulous yoghurt shakes. The period stained glass frontage of Jolliffe's reveals a café and gallery within. Eegons café is a really traditional establishment where you'll get a slap up breakfast before heading to sea. Coast Bar and Dining Rooms have great pizzas, nice nibbles and a good wine list. Nomads specialise in fusion street food, Murray's have traditional seafood dishes and The Harbour Kitchen specialise in great home-made burgers. The Mess Canteen in Cowes has tasty well-priced dishes as does Mojacs on Shooters Hill. The Steam Coffee Co in Fountain Yard is a great place for a coffee whilst waiting for the Red Jet.
Tonino's Italian Restaurant in Cowes is very popular and Corries Cabin fish and chips do a roaring trade.
In East Cowes, Prego Pizzeria is very near the ferry terminal and the Seabreeze Café in the town centre is very central, as is the Umbrella Tree, where you can get a great breakfast. For fine dining you might like to try The Albert Cottage on the edge of the Osborne Estate or back in Cowes, check-out The Grill or the airy Orangery overlooking the walled garden of the North House hotel.
Cowes has two curry houses, Saffron Flavours on India and Cowes Tandoori and East Cowes has Taste of India. There are plenty of real-ale pubs and wine bars that cater to every taste. Check out Coast wine bar on Shooters Hill and Brawns in the former butcher’s shop in the High Street. Most of the pubs serve food, but the Cowes Ale House specialises in real ale. The Globe and The Union Inn in Cowes serves good food, as does The Yachtsman on the seafront and in East Cowes, The Lifeboat offers great views across the river.
If not sailing you can dine on the finest foods and indulge in some top end retail therapy in the two town centres of Cowes and East Cowes. The eclectic mix of shops supply everything from ropes and tackle to ballgowns. Cowes has one of the best shopping centres on the Island with loads of lovely individual local shops and galleries, along with a few mainland chains. East Cowes has everything you need and more, with quirky shops you'll love to explore.
The major supermarkets are all well represented. East Cowes boasts a large Waitrose and a Marks & Spencer Food Hall can be found in Cowes near the High Street. If you prefer to shop for your groceries independently, there's also a great fruit & veg shop, The Ginger Jar in Cowes and in East Cowes, you'll find Artisan Pear greengrocers who also sell local crafts and fair trade goods.
For clothes Cowes has chains such as Fat Face, Crew Clothing, White Stuff, Joules and M&Co; with Musto and Henri Lloyd for your sailing kit. But there are also locally owned boutiques that you'll love such as Cowes Dress Agency where you can buy and sell good quality clothing. Need matching t-shirts for your crew with your boat's name? Go to World Leisurewear and you could have them printed the same day. For gifts you must pay a visit to Live Like This who have a quirky collection of lovely items and for jewellery there is the beautiful old Benzies shop, purveyors to the royal family for many generations. Or try Drift for something more contemporary and assuredly Fair Trade. Angels Attic has lots of lovely clothing and That Shop has a weird and wonderful selection of stuff you never knew you needed. Buff has gifts for the man in your life and Zabre has bags of bags and quite a lot of shoes too.
If you love sailing photography go to see Ken Beken in his shop at the top of the town – Prince Philip usually drops in when he's in town. Art galleries abound such as Kendalls of Cowes, opened by the late former newsreader Kenneth Kendall, Pelham House Gallery that also has a cute tea shop with tables on the pavement outside, the new 'Green Buoy Arts gallery' that promotes Island artists’ work and Jolliffe’s former chandlery with its beautiful stained glass windows and iconic art nouveau shopfront, which is now a stylish coffee shop and gallery. On the High Street K1 Britannia have upmarket maritime antiques, paintings and furniture. In Bath Road, Kirby of Cowes offer vintage marine period interiors and PHG is a good homeware shop and gallery who offer interior design.
Do spend some time rooting around in That Shop – you're bound to find something in its Aladdin's cave of antiques and bric a brac. The Old Curiosity Shop in East Cowes has antique and second hand goods and East Cowes Emporium has ornamental antiques.
You have to visit the yacht chandlery Pascal Atkey in Cowes opposite the ferry terminal to see its vintage shopfront and interior, although there are several other chandleries such Fynn Marine, and Spencer Rigging for all of your rigging needs. Oh and if you require some refreshment after all that shopping, Wine Therapy have just the thing. You can even top up a 'wine card' and have a tasting session of the wines they are promoting.
For anyone with a sweet tooth, Humbug is a traditional sweet shop with sweeties in jars, sherbet and sugar mice.