Review by Fiona Duncan, published 24th August 2008.
"Where are you taking me?” I called out to my friends Michael and Lucinda as they raced along a woodland track. “Back in time,” they replied. “We can go down by the steps or by the path. Race you to the bottom.”
We’d been lunching in Ventnor and were driving out of town when on a whim Michael pulled into a tiny car park near the Botanical Gardens. They wanted to show me Steephill Cove, a hidden world of its own tucked into the undercliff and accessible only on foot or by boat.
I took the steps that lead steeply down through semi-tropical vegetation and eventually squeezed between two stone cottages at the bottom. Suddenly I was amid a jumble of rocks and a riot of colour – old-fashioned striped deck chairs, fluttering flags, brightly painted beach huts and front gardens filled with hydrangea, agapanthus and exotic palms.
Steephill Cove is small but perfectly formed, lined with pretty cottages, some thatched, plus a seafood restaurant fit for castaways on a desert island, a crab shack and a beach café, all with glorious sea views. The sound of children’s chatter and their yelps of delight as they dodge the waves fills the air; for entertainment there are rock-pooling and swimming, or lazing with a good book in a deck chair, the sort with a shade that shields your head from the sun. This southern stretch of coastline has a tropical microclimate: there’s a much better chance of blue skies than elsewhere and it’s often baking hot.
Britain has many lovely beaches and seaside spots, but Steephill Cove, to which I have often returned since, has a special charm, partly because of its hidden quality, partly because the beach is privately owned (each house owns the portion of shore in front) and partly because of the Wheeler family, who have been fishing from here for around 500 years. Every morning, brothers Mark and Jimmy go out in their boat, and the crabs and lobsters they bring back are served, simply with salads, in the delightful Boathouse restaurant, run by Mark and his wife Vanessa. A wooden beach shack on two floors with an outdoor upper terrace, it’s like something out of Robinson Crusoe, and an in-the-know secret that’s never advertised but booked solid in high season (open only for lunch, May to October). The shellfish are also served as crab pasties and sandwiches and lobster salads, from Jimmy’s Crab Shack just along the beach.
Their father, David, looks after the deck chairs and the beach, and has been appointed MBE for the effort he’s made over the years to keep it safe, clean and unspoilt. “He’s 82 now, but he can still carry six deck chairs at a time,” Vanessa told me proudly. “He loves this place as we do; he still sleeps in the bedroom he was born in.”
A sign on the blue and white painted deck chair store asks customers to put the money in the slot: £2 for all day hire or £1.50after 1pm.
In the middle of the cove is the brothers’ fishing boat, pulled up on the shore and surrounded by buoys, nets and lobster pots. At the far end is an ice-cream kiosk and a queue of children, and Bill and Jayne Nigh’s Beach Café, which does a swift trade in snacks and drinks on its suntrap terrace overlooking the sea, with a jolly mural across one wall of surprised-looking yachtsmen bobbing about in their boats.
Best of all, you can stay at Steephill Cove. Bill Nigh lets Seagull Cottage, which sleeps two, while Vanessa and Mark own three superb self-catering properties: the Crow’s Nest, the Boathouse, next to the restaurant, and the new Lighthouse, built earlier this year, with a fantastic circular master bedroom. If you can’t get there this summer, consider a winter weekend break in one of them, at amazingly reasonable prices.
For further information visit www.theboathouse-steephillcove.co.uk and www.steephillcove.com. For more information about the Isle of Wight, visit www.islandbreaks.com. Wightlink (0871 376 1000; www.wightlink.co.uk) offers a 24-hour shuttle service to the island on a choice of three routes