The Blacksmith’s Arms, Isle of Wight

Fresh seafood & breathtaking views at a child-friendly pub

It is so easy to find disappointing pubs on holiday. Usually, the food is bad. Often, the beer is bad too. Pubs on holiday too often are visited by merit of their location or simply because the kids are starving and/or they need the toilet. “Are we going to the pub, mummy? Look, mummy, there’s a pub! STOP MUMMY STOP! There’s a pub RIGHT THERE!”

However, The Blacksmith’s Arms surprised us. We followed a half-broken sign near our holiday park. The second half of the pub’s name was gone, so we only knew we were going to the Black-something. We followed the sign because it said “fresh local seafood”, but we weren’t holding out much hope.

When we arrived, it was a little worrying that nobody seemed to be there, but it was only just 12pm, which is the absolute latest lunchtime our monkeys will stand for. We decided to go for it and found a table in the terraced garden, which had an absolutely breathtaking view over the Solent.

The view was not advertised on the broken sign. But I’m pretty sure I’ve never been to a pub with a better view. I’m also awarding extra marks for providing tables with sun umbrellas, as we are slightly vampirish in our ways and don’t like being in direct sunlight.

Inside the pub, we received a friendly welcome. There was a large specials board and an even larger menu, and a bit of local real ale on tap (and other more girly drinks as well, obvs). I ordered the local dressed crab with salad and new potatoes, Husband got salmon with a prawn sauce, and we ordered sausage & mash for both boys.

The kids ate more food than they’d eaten in days. You don’t get sausages like that in every random pub with a broken sign. Husband loved his salmon and my crab salad was quite good too. My only criticism was that the salad could have used more dressing. There were only a few splats of balsamic vinegar and full-on vinaigrette would have been much nicer. Also, the portions were huge. This can only be a good thing, but worth knowing if you’re planning to order starters or pudding.

After lunch we enjoyed the playground with the kids. It’s not flashy, but there’s enough there that both our children had tantrums upon being asked to leave. It had a basket swing, a normal swing, and a little wooden castle with a tunnel.

I also can’t sign off without mentioning the ladies toilets. They are clean and a very plush changing table resides within a carpeted sitting room containing leather sofas. It’s so nice to be able to change the baby in a public toilet without feeling like you need a shower afterwards.

The Verdict

ShelliconShelliconShelliconShelliconShellicon5 out of 5 shells – best holiday pub ever

 

Garlic & chilli heaven on the Isle of Wight

Breathing fire and smelling like a dragon

That’s right. We devoted an entire day of our holiday to two of my very favourite ingredients. Both of my pregnancies had me fairly obsessed with garlic and chilli, to the point that I carried a bottle of Tabasco in my handbag and used half the bottle of garlic piri-piri sauce every time I went to Nandos (which was a lot).

So you can imagine my excitement to find that The Garlic Farm and House of Chilli were within a short drive of one another. We also accidentally discovered some other fun stuff at Holliers Park, where House of Chilli was based.

House of Chilli

This place is a shop, a tourist attraction and a way of life all rolled up into one. Their homepage says their aim is “not just to help the hardened chilliheads feel the burn, but to offer a rangehouse of chilli of products suited to all tastes”. The walls of the rather large shop were lined with chilli-based sauces beyond what you’ve ever imagined.

The main attraction of the shop is their extensive tasting table. The large table in the middle of the shop had about 20 different things to taste, including salad dressing, mayonnaise, pickles, chutneys and salsas. The mechanism for transferring condiment to mouth were some rather lovely tiny pieces of tortilla. I tried everything. My favourite was the Chip Shop Curry Sauce.

There was also a smaller table with an actual health warning on it. About 5 sauces that are not for chilli rookies, arranged in order of hotness. I managed two of the milder ones and was temporarily deprived of the ability to speak (a very rare occurrence). Husband tried the hottest one and he was stoned on chilli endorphins for the next half hour.

It was also a child-friendly shop with a great big chalkboard at the back where they could draw and a reading area with some children’s books. There was an ice cream machine as well, although that may have been more for those adults who go a little too far with the chilli samples.

Holliers Park

Husband was suffering some serious chilli intoxication after leaving the chilli shop, so we decided to have a nose round the other shops on the property while he sobered up.

First we popped into Island Artisan. I groaned on the way in, expecting it to contain a variety of generic tourist tat. Boy was I wrong. This was a real hub of unusual artisan goods with a number of artists in residence who you could watch in action. steampunk hats

One man had lost many abilities due to suffering a stroke but had found new purpose in doing pyrography. I was very tempted to buy his portrayal of the Lady of the Lake bestowing Excalibur upon King Arthur. I also really wanted to buy one of the steampunk hats. I’m sure those would have multiple uses, mostly involving alcohol consumption. But my house is really small and my two little monkeys are the reason why we can’t have nice things.

There was loads of other cool stuff there and, thoughtfully, they provided toys and colouring to keep the kids busy while the parents nose around.

All of that hankering after hats began to work up a thirst, and it was simply not an option to ignore the property’s Victory Tearooms. “It’s a double-decker bus cafe!” shouted Eldest Victory Tea Rooms on the Isle of Wightin amazement. And right he was – it was a massive double-decker bus filled with wartime memorabilia. You order downstairs from two cheerful women in 1940s attire, and your order is delivered via dumbwaiter to the top deck of the bus.

The service was a little bit slow to us mainland Southerners, but then there seemed to be a general lack of rush across the whole island. We kept reminding each other that we should try to enjoy the island pace of life. And in any case, where else can you eat tea and cake whilst pretending to drive the bus? Cafes don’t get much more fun than this.

The Garlic Farm

The Garlic FarmAnd so, having tired of driving the bus, we proceeded to The Garlic Farm to have our lunch.

The restaurant has a nice atmosphere but a very small menu. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t a larger choice of garlic-related main courses on the menu. Many of the more unique garlicky dishes were part of overpriced sampler platters.

I had the roasted garlic starter, which involves spreading soft, massive garlic cloves on slices of bread. I’ve seen this executed much better. There was not enough bread and the butter was cold, so I couldn’t spread it. The garlic also wasn’t as flavourful as I was expecting. Perhaps it was not the correct breed of garlic.

I enjoyed my main more: a flatbread spread with pesto and piled with a collection of roasted vegetables. The pesto transformed the dish from dull vegetarian option to delicious and the sweet, succulent tomatoes upstaged the other vegetables. I did not eat the ill-considered giant wedges of barely-cooked red onion.

Husband had a sandwich with smoked salmon, cream cheese, garlic puree and some other stuff. He said it wasn’t too bad but that it was weird that it was served hot. Warm sheets of smoked salmon just aren’t really a thing, as far as I know.

The kids menu was large and provided in the form of an activity/colouring sheet, which was nice. But the kids didn’t really eat the food. Not even Youngest, who eats everything.

So, I was a little disappointed with the restaurant and think they could up their game there, but the rest of the farm was brilliant. Especially considering that admission and parking are free.

TOP TIP: Despite my moaning about “not enough garlic”, I really wouldn’t recommend going to the The Garlic Farm restaurant if you’re planning a date, a business meeting, or to take public transport. The garlic smell emitted from our mouths (and other places, perhaps) was truly offensive for at least the next 24 hours. It’s a good thing we didn’t have any guests in our caravan.

Besides the shop (where we bought the pesto from my flatbread and a massive braid of garlic), there was a large room where you could taste the wares, an education room hosting arts & crafts for children, a cafe and an ice cream stand.

Wildflowers at The Garlic FarmWhat we enjoyed most was the walk around the farm. There were beautiful fields of wildflowers and rows of different types of garlic with descriptions for each. I had no idea there was such a wide variety of garlic breeds for all around the world.

You could then proceed to take a nature walk through woods and fields, where you may see some cows. The website had implied there was a variety of other animals, but we couldn’t spot them. It was a very hot day so perhaps they were wiser than us and off keeping cool somewhere.

The farm was also a prehistoric settlement and you can see some artefacts that have been found there in the education room.

TOP TIP: If you’re with the kids, remember to get a map before starting the nature walk (I didn’t), and make sure you only attempt “very short nature walk” or “short nature walk”. We did the latter and it was still a big ask for Eldest. At one point, I told him to go have a rest on a random bench, but when he did, it fell over on top of him! So do test any benches before attempting to sit on them.

The walk ended in a grassy area with a children’s playhouse and some free-range chickens. I was a little bit scared that the chickens would attack, so we didn’t stay long.

A day at Shanklin Beach, Isle of Wight

A family day out with possible abseiling and a race against time

Getting there

When I go on holiday, I’m usually a stickler about doing my research. I buy a guidebook and read stuff online, and any day trips are carefully planned. However, this time I was all tired out from planning the umpteen million things I needed to pack to keep my kids happy. So when we decided to go to the beach, I said, “I heard Shanklin’s good”, and blithely chose a Shanklin car park on my sat nav.

So I’m not sure what other people’s sat navs are like, but mine loves going off the beaten track. I have troves of holiday photos of roads that end abruptly in the middle of a field of sheep or that require me to ford a small stream. I therefore should not have been surprised when my blithely chosen car park did get me near the beach. It was just a quick abseil down a massive cliff to get there.

So we tried again and figured out that we wanted the Shanklin Esplanade. This is the bit where you can actually get to a beach without mountaineering equipment.

Our second mistake was deciding we’d turn up at the beach “just in time for lunch”. There were loads of car parks on the Esplanade plus parking along the road, but every single last spot was full. It was an exceptionally nice day, but this was still on an off-season weekday so I wasn’t expecting the busyness. We wasted quite a bit of time driving up and down, stalking pedestrians who might be returning to their car, in the effort to find a spot. We finally gave up on parking on the Esplanade and drove back up the hill, where after a bit more stalking we found a spot. It was a parallel parking sort of one so it’s a good thing my husband was driving. I’m so bad at parallel parking we’d probably still be there, going back and forth, trying to get closer to the kerb.

TOP TIP: Either go early to nab a parking spot or plan to drop your family and beach kit on the beach while the unlucky driver parks the car wherever he or she can.

So we piled all of our stuff out of the car at the top of the hill. And we really brought a lot of stuff. A tent, sand toys, swim kits & towels, a very large changing bag packed to the brim with things I’m sure I couldn’t have managed without … It’s a good thing we have a big pushchair with all-terrain wheels.

However we had foolishly retired the double-buggy extra seat, thinking 4-year-old could now manage without. Not very long after leaving the car and really quite some way from the restaurant we wanted for lunch, my big boy started doing some of his very best whingeing. First it was just “my little feet are tired” and “I’m hungry”. But then he uttered the phrase that strikes fear into my heart: “I need the toilet”.

I learned something on this day. I will go a long way to avoid a public toileting accident. Ever since my son in younger years made a trail across the church hall which the vicar then cleaned up. I guess I was traumatised. So as soon as he uttered these words, I scooped him up and began carrying him as fast as I could to the nearest toilet. However, it seemed everywhere that looked like it might have a toilet either didn’t or required you to queue up with the customers and get a key. So I ended up carrying him (along with the overstuffed changing bag) about half-a-mile all the way to restaurant, sweating and puffing while my son whinged about his bladder and the haphazard way I was carrying him.

TOP TIP: Later in the day, I learned that there were public toilets RIGHT F__ING NEXT TO where my son had first announced his toilet emergency. Near the entrance of the Esplanade near Pirates Cove Mini Golf, which looks awesome, btw. In fact, I’ve later realised that my son often says he wants a wee when he sees a public toilet sign, so that’s probably all it was in the first place.

Lunch at The Waterfront Inn

Chosen via an extremely brief and careless Google search, mainly based on its location, I was happy with my lunch there. To be honest, after our mad dash for the loo, the most important part of my lunch was the beautiful cold pint of cider.

But the atmosphere was great. There was terraced outdoor seating at the front of the restaurant looking out towards the beach, and most of it was in the shade. You have to order at the bar, but there were still plenty of smiling and helpful staff about to get highchairs, advise where to park the buggy, etc.

View from The Waterfront Inn, Shanklin, Isle of Wight

I ordered the seared tuna with salsa verde and husband had mussels in a Thai-flavoured sauce. There was a lot of variety on the kids menu. Older boy had lasagne with garlic bread and youngest had fish and chips. The kids food was very good quality (I stole a lot of it), and they ate as much as they usually do when the food in unobjectionable (i.e. not a whole helluva lot). Husband seemed to enjoy his mussels too. My only complaint is that my seared tuna was fully cooked through. I thought seared tuna meant it was a bit raw in the middle. But it was still perfectly edible and I cleaned my plate.

And now to the actual beach…

The beach is all sandy and beautiful and there were plenty of places to “cop a squat“, as they say in Pretty Woman.

Now, those of you, dear readers, who grew up in England may be no strangers to pitching a tent on the beach. I suppose the weather here often necessitates that sort of thing. But I had never before had a tent on a beach. I grew up in the USA where I’ve never seen that done. But, boy am I converted. We had shade, a place to hide our stuff where it wouldn’t get blown away, and best of all a place to change without seeking out a changing room. I am never going to the beach without a tent again. So worth carrying THAT down the hill.

So we pitched our tent and we all changed into our swim kits INSIDE THE TENT. Okay, I’ll stop going on about it.

It’s simply a brilliant beach. The English Channel water is really freeze your arse off cold though. And if you can handle the cold, be sure you wear some aqua shoes because even though the beach is sandy, it’s very rocky once you’re inside the water. But other than that it’s clean, sandy, spacious and scenic.

It was my youngest son’s first time at the seaside. He hurtled himself towards the water yelling “Sea! Sea! Sea!”. While my oldest dug himself a hole full of water to make a nice safe paddling pool. Good times.

The verdict

I reckon if you’re visiting the Isle of Wight during beach sort of weather, Shanklin Beach is a must-see.

ShelliconShelliconShelliconShellicon4 out of 5 shells (I had to penalise them one for the parking fiasco, even though it was mostly my fault)

Red Funnel ferry to the Isle of Wight

Enjoying the Solent crossing with snacks and pretending to drive the boat.

My last post was about our Isle of Wight holiday and this one gives credit to an important part of us getting there. Should you wish to visit the Isle of Wight, I highly recommend Red Funnel ferries.

The boats were spacious with plenty of air-conditioned indoor seating and outside deck seating. There were several different places to buy food. We had coffee, juice and cake during our outgoing morning crossing and ice cream on the way home. There is a special pet-friendly lounge if you’re bringing your dog, and more importantly a child-friendly lounge featuring a giant computer touch screen with games. It also had a little table for playing trains, although unfortunately people had stolen all the trains. Nevertheless, my 1-year-old enjoyed pretending the train tracks were bricks and climbing over and under the train table.

Best of all, if you ask nicely and the weather is good, you can visit the bridge and meet the captain. My 4-year-old asked to meet the captain and so the two of us crept up the narrow stairs to the bridge. My son got a little intimidated once we were there and didn’t want to sit in the captain’s chair, but he did begrudgingly accept the captain’s binoculars. I restrained myself from sitting in the captain’s chair despite desperately wanting to.

I totally geeked out asking the captain how he drives the boat and “what does that do”. He was very kind and informative, and even posed for a picture with us. I didn’t ask him if I could post his picture so I’ve just posted a picture of boat-driving wheels and walkie-talkies. Well, I found them exciting.

The crossing takes about an hour and it costs us £65 round trip for our car with roof rack, using a Sun newspaper discount that came with our holiday. The Solent crossing is well-known for being the most expensive crossing in relation to distance, but at least the boat was good.

The verdict

This was the best short-haul ferry I’ve ever been on.

ShelliconShelliconShelliconShelliconShellicon5 out of 5 shells

Thorness Bay Holiday Park, Isle of Wight

A review of Thorness Bay Holiday Park, Isle of Wight

How did we end up there?

So I have a confession to make before we even get started. I love going on so-called “Sun Holidays”. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean holidays in the sun. I mean holidays purchased through The Sun newspaperNow I don’t personally read The Sun at all, and my husband claims to read it “only for the sport”. So for me it is a purely mercenary relationship. The Sun offers extremely discounted holidays to caravan parks in the UK and parts of Europe, and at the prices they offer, you really can’t go wrong. You usually have to collect vouchers by buying the paper a few days in a row and then book online.

Before I first went on one of these holidays, I scoffed at the idea, but have since been completely converted. Caravans offer loads of space in a quiet rural setting, while the park still offers many facilities you might find at a hotel, such as a swimming pool, bar and evening entertainment. With young children in tow, it’s great to have a kitchen to clean their special cups and bibs, prepare their snacks and emergency meals, and to keep some beer/wine/gin for yourself on standby. My husband and I also really love putting the children to sleep in their own bedroom and having adult time afterwards – something you don’t get in most hotels.

This holiday to the Isle of Wight is the first time in ages (and certainly since we’ve had kids) that we’ve had a “staycation” that didn’t involve visiting family. My husband is always keen to go abroad, but I want to see more of the UK because I grew up abroad and this country is just as exciting to me as anywhere else. So we finally agreed on the Isle of Wight because it’s <slightly> exotic, being an island and all. It looked to have nice beaches and slightly better than average weather for the UK.

My first choice of caravan park on the Isle of Wight was sold out, and I was offered two alternatives. I duly did my research and decided which of my remaining choices was better, and then accidentally booked the one I’d deemed the worst based on existing reviews. I wasn’t even drinking wine at the time. Like it or not, we were Thorness Bay bound.

Getting there

One of the great benefits of the Isle of Wight is that it’s quite a quick journey compared to some other popular UK destinations, such as Cornwall. I haven’t been to Cornwall for a long time, but I seem to remember 7-8 hours drive culminating in winding single-lane roads where you had to back up to let oncoming traffic pass. It took us about 2 hours in rush hour traffic to get to the Southampton Red Funnel ferry terminal from Surrey, plus another (pleasant) hour on the ferry. It was then only about 15 minutes, give or take, to the holiday park. I’ve written a separate review about the ferry crossing.

TOP TIP: The ferry docks in East Cowes, which has a river separating it from Cowes (I don’t know why it’s just Cowes and not West Cowes). There is no bridge. I hear that the islanders are generally opposed to bridges. So you can either drive round the river or take the chain ferry. The chain ferry comes (supposedly) every 10 minutes and costs £2.20 for a car (cash only; exact change recommended). You queue up and wait an indeterminate time to squeeze onto a tiny ferry that is propelled across the river on, um, a chain. My 4-year-old (A) enjoyed it. Generally, it seems faster to drive round unless it’s rush hour, and of course you can then avoid the toll.

The accommodation

We paid extra to upgrade to the platinum caravan, which gains you an early (1:30pm) check-in. The early check in pretty much buys you an extra day to enjoy your holiday. The check-in was fast and the service was friendly.

I absolutely do not regret a single penny of the money I spent upgrading my caravan. The platinum lodge (what people in my homeland, America, would call a “double-wide trailer”) was massive, spotlessly clean and shiny new. Check out the pics:

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We had a massive open-plan kitchen/diner/living room, a wraparound deck, 3 bedrooms, 2 toilet/shower rooms (one of which was en-suite to the master bedroom which also featured a walk-in closet), 4 TVs, a dishwasher and a washer/dryer! I have to admit that these facilities were generally finer than those in my own home.

I obviously cannot speak for the other ranges of caravans, but I’ll admit many of the others on the park looked old and tired, and had no decks, seating area or parking directly outside. To decide for yourself, see the Thorness Bay website.

The facilities

The park has a small indoor pool, a large playground, sports pitches, a Nisa shop, a bar/restaurant and a range of entertainment for kids and adults. It also has direct access to a shingle beach on the bay.

The pool was just fine for young families. It was just the right temperature with a standard leisure pool bit, a toddler pool and a small flume. The changing room was basic but clean and sufficient, and featured free lockers that didn’t even need a temporary coin insertion, which was a real plus for me (I always lose the coin). The lifeguards were very friendly and competent. Various bits of swimming kit were on sale for reasonable prices. Children have to be 1 metre tall to ride the flume and confident to go down on their own (no double riders). My eldest got up the guts to go a couple times but mostly just stood at the top holding up the queue and looking worried. The main unfortunate thing about the pool was its extremely limited opening hours – about 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon – although apparently these are extended in peak season.

The shop had a good range of basics but we didn’t use it much. We were disappointed when it closed at one point outside of its normal closing times, supposedly to bring money somewhere due to an imposed requirement by the park. The park should stop doing that, if that’s really what was going on. We preferred to tour the various island supermarkets. There’s a decent Waitrose in East Cowes, a Lidl somewhere nearish to the park, and a Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s & M&S in nearby Newport.

The restaurant/bar had air-conditioned indoor seating and a lovely terrace overlooking the playground and the bay (pic of the view above). We had lunch there once and the food was fine. Kind of like what you get at your basic chain pub. Nothing special but just fine. The service was cheerful and friendly. We didn’t get round to seeing any of the entertainment but it looked like there was a good range for kids and adults. There was also an arcade attached.

The playground was large and beautiful. It had a range of equipment suitable for both toddlers and older kids. If you have older children you could easily watch them from the bar. Someday I will watch my children from the bar. The sports pitches looked good too but we didn’t use them.

The beach was much better than I thought it would be. There is a short, buggy-accessible walk down to it, or you could drive your car down as there is ample parking. There is a lovely grassy bit near the parking area where you could easily have a picnic or fly a kite. You could walk along the beach itself for many miles. It’s sandy near the top and shingle nearer to the water. When the tide is out there is plenty of scope for rockpooling, and there are lots of shells and rocks for the little ones to collect. The water seemed pretty safe and warmer than the English Channel water on the other side of the island, but you would probably need some of those swimming shoe thingies to save your feet from the rocks.

How much?

I paid £80 to book the basic “bronze” caravan. TripAdvisor reviews made me fear the bronze caravan, and so I upgraded to a “platinum” caravan for £145. I paid the optional bed making charge of £18/person (but you could bring your own sheets), a non-optional service charge of £7.25/night, and entertainment passes for £24/non-infant-person. I also paid £10 to borrow a travel cot. We then paid another £65 for the Red Funnel ferry (The Sun offers another discount for that). So for 2 adults, one child and one infant (under-2), it was £361.65 for a 5 day holiday in what can only be described as luxury accommodation. You obviously could do this for much cheaper than I did (no-frills at £174 or consider upgrading to silver or gold caravans).

The verdict

I enjoyed my holiday immensely, despite accidentally booking the park I didn’t think I wanted. It was basic in some ways but its location was a great base of for exploring the island. It was generally clean and friendly and their top-of-the-range of accommodation was worthy of the name.

ShelliconShelliconShellicon 3 out of 5 shells