Review by Fiona Duncan, published 1st October 2006.
Why haven't we been here before? As we descend from the pretty Victorian cliff-top town via the Winter Gardens to the esplanade, with its sandy beach, oddball cafés and shack selling crab and lobster, we are instantly smitten by Ventnor. It's a world away from the Isle of Wight's north coast, from where I've just picked up my son who's been crewing on a racing yacht. His diet of beer and sandwiches must have got to him, because he's agreed to ditch après-sailing tonight and instead accompany me to a "gourmet dinner" (first Thursday of every month) in the Hambrough Hotel.
The Hambrough stands mid-way between the High Street, with its eclectic shops (from fuschia-pink and sunflower yellow tearooms to an old-fashioned haberdashers, a tattoo parlour and intriguing dens full of antiques) and the seafront. It overlooks the brightly planted Cascade Gardens and the little harbour, with views of the lush green Undercliff as it stretches away to Blackgang Chine. Sister to the excellent Pond Café in nearby Bonchurch, it has seven spacious bedrooms (there were 14 before its chic makeover), a restaurant and a small sitting room and bar. "We don't do much," says French manager Frédéric Sol, "but what we do, we try to do well and at a reasonable price."
By and large they succeed admirably. The restaurant is making waves locally and the set-menu six-course "gourmet dinners", companion wines included, are a notably good deal at £45 a head, as are the lunches at £14.95 for three courses. A serious kitchen (complete with "chef's table" from where guests can watch the action) opens off an all-white dining room with no pictures on the walls or curtains at the windows to distract from either food or view. I can almost see that elusive Michelin star being chased round the gleaming stoves as a parade of artfully arranged, postage stamp-sized offerings issues forth.
The feast starts with a doll-size portion of Reisling-poached foie gras with pear and continues with roasted scallops accompanied by tiniest teaspoon of butternut squash purée and a miniature bacon crème caramel. The atmosphere is animated: it's not often that I end up swapping addresses with the total strangers on the next table, but I do tonight.
Having dispatched the well-fed son back to Cowes in a taxi, I spend a night of absolute quiet in my spacious room. Muted colours, large bed with cotton waffle (and extra merino wool blanket), sofa facing the window, DVDs, minibar, espresso machine.
The brilliant morning brings Ventnor's famous micro-climate while the rest of the country, so my plasma-screen TV assures me, is under a cloud. If it weren't for the sunshine I could quite happily spend the day in my bathroom: two basins, a separate shower and from the oval free-standing bath a bird's-eye view of the sea. The toiletries are by Molton Brown; very nice, but what a shame not to have products by that the superb Isle of Wight-based organic skincare company Liz Earle.
I like the Hambrough very much, although I find the mystery surrounding its ownership disconcerting. "Who owns this hotel then?" I ask Frédéric. "Oh, just some finance here and there," he says with a Gallic shrug, changing the subject. Well, it's a pretty nice place, Just Some Finance. Keep up the good work.
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Hambrough Road, Ventnor, Isle of Wight (01983 856333; www.thehambrough.com). Doubles from £95 to £175 including breakfast