“Johnny Depp nearly bought my friend’s house” isn’t what you expect to hear while thrift shopping on the Isle of Wight, but after a few days there, these stories were getting less and less surprising.
The island’s high-profile call sheet includes stars ranging from Kate Winslet and Benedict Cumberbatch to the Minghella family, as well as musicians such as Bryan Adams. In Ventnor, on the southwest coast, the Smoking Lobster restaurant had hosted one of the country’s most celebrated rock stars the night before I arrived. “He’s in every week or so,” a front-of-house staffer said.
“We kind of ignore them,” one Ventnor shopkeeper told me as I walked along the beachfront, which manages to be touristic without feeling overrun. Her nonchalance makes sense: celebrities have always holidayed in Ventnor, in particular, to exploit the unique microclimate.
Here, olives grow naturally and temperatures are often around 5C higher than in the rest of Britain. The weather lends the town the reputation of ”Britain’s hottest garden”; in the 1800s it was fashionable for the great and good to summer here to “take the air”, believed to help with overcoming illnesses such as tuberculosis. Charles Dickens was one such frequenter; he spent a summer in the nearby village of Bonchurch while writing David Copperfield, inspired by the countryside.
In Ventnor, grand Georgian townhouses are framed by dramatic hills that seem incongruous with southern England. A 10-minute amble along the coastal path to Steephill Bay and there is a clear example of the type of discretion towards which A-listers have always radiated. One house stands completely isolated, with wrap-around sea views. You could sunbathe in your birthday suit and spot the paparazzi hauling their kit down the single-track path a mile before they would spot you.
An exciting new scene
The island’s burgeoning 21st-century magnet is the town of Cowes. The bougie sibling to the more bohemian Ventnor, Cowes is where the ferries go to Southampton, so it is a practical place to live, which naturally draws in a well-heeled clientele that needs to dart back to the mainland at short notice to sign off on a script, or to wine and dine in the capital. Its annual Cowes Week and Round the Island boating events bring cache to the place; multiple celebrities can be seen wandering around town during the former, away from intrusive lenses.
Cowes is amid a creative and gastronomic golden era, with Coast seafood restaurant having lit the spark for the foodie scene when it opened 12 years ago. I visited Cowes in cooler weather, but outdoor heaters were on at 10pm at a number of restaurants, catering to the diners who couldn’t be accommodated inside. At Gastronomy, I had an Isle of Wight tomato salad, because you simply have to in the place where the produce is grown. “We don’t have a private dining room, but the celebs don’t tend to be noticed,” Christianne, the owner, told me. At Wine Therapy down the road, the owner wouldn’t tell me which resident Hollywood actor has bottles delivered.
Get in on the action
It’s not often that I have been served croissants and Earl Grey by a Hollywood executive, but when I checked into the newly opened Foresters Hall, it was Peter Sussman who greeted me, the man behind CSI – the world’s most-watched television programme – as well as Schitt’s Creek and dozens of other shows. He liked the Isle of Wight so much that he and his wife, Sara Curran, a producer, ditched transatlantic lives lived out of suitcases to move here.
They work on scripts in the hotel’s common areas when they aren’t clearing glasses or serving breakfast. A high-profile Hollywood talent agent lives nearby, so they have a community; during Cowes Week, A-listers were messing around in their robes on the back lawn. They feel at home knowing Sussman and Curran are in charge.
“We call this the Judi Dench Suite,” Curran told me as we swept into one bedroom, with views of the estuary dividing East and West Cowes. Beyond lies Osborne House, where Queen Victoria took her last breath. It’s fun to imagine Dench standing here in the mornings, taking her coffee before the long days filming Victoria & Abdul.
“It doesn’t matter who we are,” says Curran, who worked on The Favourite and The Night Manager. “We just want guests to come and enjoy the hotel.” Celia Imrie, Dench’s co-star in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is a Cowes resident, having bought her first house on the island in 1991.
Sussman “has fun” on calls with Hollywood executives who have never heard of the Isle of Wight, let alone Cowes: “I remind them of the Beatles song When I’m 64 – they talk about having a place on the Isle of Wight.”
In a true transplant of LA, Foresters Hall has a heated outdoor pool, around which I spent a lazy afternoon. There is nothing like sunning yourself in a quintessential English garden, with flowers and colourful houses to admire. There is one exception to the rule of discretion: the Hut, a half-hour drive from Cowes in Colwell Bay, which offers a slice of Ibiza in Britain. At this ostentatious seafood restaurant, waiters dance in conga lines. Kate Winslet loves it here, as do boatloads from Bournemouth and Lymington who pop over the water for lunch, aided by the Hut’s private speedboats.
After local lobster and too many cocktails, I certainly understood the glamorous pull of this island. Forget Cannes, it’s Cowes for me.
ISLE OF WIGHT
Vehicle ferries and hovercraft sail from the south coast of England ports Southampton, Lymington and Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight.
Foresters Hall offers doubles from £295 per night. Forestershall.com