Once the Isle of Wight was a haven for the knotted-hanky brigade. Now hundreds of Londoners wanting to escape the capital at the weekend can take advantage of its lower house prices, proximity to London (about a two-hour drive and a 25-minute ferry ride) and promise of more sun - the island clocks up more sunshine than anywhere else in the UK.
Finding places to stay, however, has been tricky in the past. Five years ago, you couldn't even count the good places to stay on one hand. But things have changed, with accommodation offered in the form of a field full of funky, revamped 1950s Airstream caravans to the latest boutique hotel with fancy-pants dining and uninterrupted sea views.
The Hambrough hotel opened its doors in Ventnor last summer. It took 18 months to transform it from a run-down, 14-bedroom hotel to the latest in chic seaside sleeping and dining, with seven bedrooms, complete with free-standing Starck-style tubs (rooms from £130 to £200), plus a smart 30-seat restaurant and bar, and function room for 20. It also has a hot chef in Simon McKenzie, who did time with Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White among others, and who appears to have his sights set on a Michelin star.
Who owns the place? Well, they're keeping shtoom. "Let's just say they're a wealthy London couple who weekend nearby, who wanted somewhere good to eat out," offers general manager Frédéric Sol, who used to work at Midsummer House in Cambridge before coming to the island.
It's not quite as simple as that, of course. They're not stupid, this well-heeled London couple. First they opened a little neighbourhood restaurant in the next-door village of Bonchurch, called the Pond Café, which promptly won two AA rosettes. Then they decided to cash in on the island's burgeoning property boom and open the hotel in Ventnor, which is still the hottest spot to buy, say all, with its many peeling Victorian mansions with their faded, wraparound verandas, just begging for a revamp.
On a brilliant blue day, if you squint slightly, you could be in a chic resort in the South of France, with its tree-covered cliffs rising up majestically behind the town. Open your eyes and you're in a perfectly preserved slice of seaside Victoriana, complete with stripy deck chairs, crab shack and ice-cream parlour.
Not that Sol was thinking about how lovely Ventnor was earlier this year. In truth, he was more worried about the business. The island may be idyllic, but there are a host of problems peculiar only to the Isle of Wight. Finding staff is Sol's biggest challenge - a sentiment echoed by many in the hospitality industry on the island. "It's a nightmare," he confirms, momentarily glum. "I only have half the staff I need."
Suppliers, too, are a constant headache. Many won't deliver on the island, and if they do, they want a minimum order. "You can't always get what you want on the island," explains Sol, "so I've set up a freight company that will deliver every day. It does mean there's the cost of delivery which you don't have on the mainland, but it means the easier we can get the ingredients the more fine-
dining places and hotels here, and the better things will be for business." Sol is equally frustrated by Isle of Wight Tourism which, he claims, hasn't shown much in the way of support yet. Despite the influx of Londoners, Sol still maintains the reputation of the island could be improved beyond its tearoom-and-pensioner image.
But instead of letting it get to him - "it's character-building", he grins - Sol has sprung into action, setting up his own network of like-minded souls on the island for a spot of brainstorming - the likes of Andrew Palmer at the Priory Bay hotel near Seaview, and fellow general manager Jacki Everest at the George hotel - who meet every two months. They have been involved in cultivating a relationship with the Red Funnel ferry crossing company, whose brochure Chic Treats now features the Hamborough among others.
Business was quiet in the winter, but is significantly improving coming into the summer season. The hotel is at 50% occupancy on weekdays and 100% at weekends, while the average achieved room rate is £160. The restaurant is doing about 160 covers a week. Sol confidently predicts that average occupancy will be 85% for the rest of the year.
Sol's other boast is hiring the island's only sommelier, Hendrik Houvrard, who helped put together the hotel's 90-bin list, arranged by style ("to help both staff and customers"), which the pair promise to take up to 250 bins by the beginning of the summer.
Dijon-born Sol says wine is his hobby. "I'm really into it - I read Decanter," he declares. He puts Burgundian Pinot Noir and Argentine Malbec at the top of his list. In fact, he's been surprised by the level of wine knowledge from his customers, who spend, on average, £35 a bottle - which must be another first for the island. And get this - 60% of his diners are local.
So what's the big surprise there, then? Well, McKenzie's food is fancy, to say the least, and the island doesn't do fancy. He cites Michel Bras as an inspiration and admires Ferran Adrià, Shane Osborn, Eric Chavot and Phil Howard. And there's a chef's table, which seats six and is booked, on average, about 10 nights a month.
Dishes include mi-cuit organic salmon, cauliflower bavarois, quail's egg, and beetroot vinaigrette, and almond-glazed veal sweetbreads and velouté of smoked garlic and bay leaf. Three courses are £35 and the tasting menu is £45.
The espuma gun came out twice during the eight-course tasting menu - first with an amuse-bouche of rocket jelly and tomato foam; then with the chilled watermelon soup and brioche croûtons. "Everyone who comes here raves about the foams. I don't do them because they look good, I do them because I think they work," says McKenzie, who also looks after the kitchen at the Pond Café, where he offers a simpler, brasserie-style menu. He's less concerned about the Michelin star than Sol. "If it comes, it comes, but I'm not going to cook for it," he declares.
Like Sol, McKenzie is also struggling with staff. "And suppliers," he splutters. "It amazes me that there's so much good stuff here on the island but no one seems to be knocking on my door - it takes me two days to get local crab. I think the island should wake up," he adds, clearly frustrated.
Sol is certainly doing his best on that score. He spent the early part of the year courting the press, and managed to get some coverage in Condé Nast Traveller, the Observer and the Daily Express. "We're very confident about the business," he says, "but also we need partnership and we need the media, Isle of Wight Tourism and people like Red Funnel to push the island. We should be promoting the Isle of Wight as a chic place with fantastic accommodation. Forget the tearooms - you can have tea anywhere. We should be talking about the surfing instead."
Isle of Wight - A quick who's who
When the George hotel in Yarmouth won a Michelin star 10 years ago, many thought it was the start of a culinary revolution on the island that offered crab salads at best and scampi and chips at worst. Well, it's happening - albeit slowly - as already established hotels and restaurants raise their game and newcomers, such as the Hambrough hotel, cash in on renewed interest in the island.
As far as other hotels of note on the island go, the oldest kid on the block is the Royal hotel in Ventnor, which has been doing its four-star AA thing for more than 50 years. Then there's the Seaview hotel near Ryde, now owned by islander Brian Gardener, which began to turn heads back in the early 1980s when previous owners Nick and Nicky Hayward restored the place to its former glory.
Around the headland is the Priory Bay hotel, owned by Andrew Palmer, founder of the New Covent Garden Soup Company. The 70-acre estate boasts its own beach and nine-hole golf course, plus 18 bedrooms and self-catering cottages.
So have any of them noticed any significant changes to the island recently?
"We're definitely seeing a different profile of customer coming through these days - younger, and many trendier city types or whatever you want to call them, including a fair few gay couples - which is a good indicator that things are changing," says the George hotel's general manager, Jacki Everest. "Business is buoyant - we had our best winter yet, and the future looks good. We get a lot of repeat business, but lots of new customers, too - some of whom we have noticed have fallen in love with the place and have bought a house of their own here, and that's got to be a good indicator. Hottest place on the island? Ventnor, without a doubt. I've been saying it for ages - it's so obviously the place that's set to happen."
So is it the same story on the other side of the island?
Andrew Morgan took over as general manager of the Seaview hotel just over a year ago. "Things are getting really serious now. People are realising that they no longer need to travel to France and it's a lot nicer travelling over on the ferry," he says. Morgan is seeing his customer profile get significantly younger as time goes on - and their expectations are getting higher. "But that's a good thing and we're building on that - literally," he says. "We have seven new bedrooms with state-of-the-art bathrooms, complete with TV screen at the foot of the bath. We've upped the ante on the food offering, too - making good use of the great local produce available, like fantastic tomatoes and great chicken. The island has a lot going for it."