Matt and Cat love the Isle of Wight. They love its history, geology, landscape and wildlife. And of course the food. All of these things make it a great place to live and to visit. Almost everywhere you go you’ll see something that adds to its fabulousness.
Take the West Wight for example. It’s got a long-standing reputation for history and culture thanks to its most famous former resident, Victorian poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson. Then there’s some of the south coast’s most exciting geology: chines, landslips, chalk downland, coloured sands and the world famous Needles. Get up close and personal with the grassland on the heritage coast and you may be lucky enough to see a Glanville fritillary butterfly or a rare lichen. At night, once your eyes have adjusted to the spectacular dark skies, you can enjoy feeling insignificant as you gawp open-mouthed at the Milky Way. The Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty really is a constant delight. It’s easy to see why the this corner of the Island is so popular with visitors – the holiday camps scattered along the clifftop pay testament to this.
But time moves on and the holiday camps’ heyday has waned. Some local camps are now used for other things – such as Isle of Wight Pearl, which is based in a faded 1930s building, once the thriving Chilton Holiday Camp. With its curvy glass windows, bold architecture and views across the English Channel to Dorset, it’s not hard to imagine what drew the ascetic citizens of inter-war years Britain to this remote spot to indulge their new enthusiasm for recreation, health and fitness.
But what Matt and Cat find harder to bring to mind is why pearlmongering is so successful here – as it clearly is. In this extraordinary part of the Island, just a few metres away from some of the most protected landscapes and habitats in the world, what is it that makes so many people feel the urge to look at… pearls? Do they imagine that they will be picking pearls out of the local clifftop oysters? Or that they will meet the descendants of generations of Island craftspeople hand-knurling pearls on their traditional pearlers? Or is it simply that in this remote spot it’s almost irrelevant what you’re selling if you have a large free car park, nice toilets, and a place to sit down and get a cup of tea?
It was particularly the sitting down and cup of tea aspect of the experience that drew Matt and Cat to make their first ever foray into Isle of Wight Pearl. You may have guessed from the preamble that their interest in pearls is pretty much zero. But their interest in cafés and teashops, by contrast, is acute. So much so that when they saw advertised the fact that the Isle of Wight Pearl café was doing a special New Year’s Day breakfast, they shook the excesses of the previous night’s celebrations from their fuzzy heads and made a trip to the wilds of the west to see what it was all about.
On arrival at Isle of Wight Pearl M&C stopped to admire a replica of Princess Diana’s ‘Elvis‘ dress. It was crusty with pearls. Then they paused to wonder at a replica of the largest pearl in the world, presented on a satin pillow inside two halves of what seemed to be unrelated giant clam shells. And that was before they got anywhere near the café. Like finding the bread in a supermarket, to reach breakfast it was necessary to thread one’s way through batteries of counters displaying glistening pearls, staffed by polite ladies in smart uniforms. But once this was achieved, a spacious and bright café opened up before them. A little board announced the New Year’s Day breakfast: there was a choice of all-in-one breakfast pie, or vegetarian breakfast wrap, both served with fresh Italian coffee and a complimentary Bucks Fizz. Certainly something out of the ordinary.
Breakfast was apparently served only up until 11.30am, so Cat made her way to the counter – only to discover that today it would not actually be served until 11.30am. Still, she ordered anyway, there was no reason not to while away half an hour or so sipping coffee in the comfortable venue – and if they got bored, there was always the pearls. Actually, they didn’t get in any way bored. Taking a seat by the window, Matt and Cat were able to admire truly spectacular views across the English Channel. It was a remarkably clear day and they distracted themselves this way for some time. As they were functioning at half-throttle due to their late night, early start and long drive they were happy to gawp unblinking towards the sea.
The meals were served promptly, as promised at 11.30. Matt had the breakfast pie, whilst Cat went vegetarian for the day and chose the breakfast wrap. Both had declined the complementary Bucks Fizz – a classy idea, but before noon on New Year’s Day? Neither Matt nor Cat has the stamina for that, but when it came to eating breakfast, they needed no encouragement.
Breakfast pie £6.95
Breakfast wrap £5.00
Extra coffee £2.00
Fruit juice £1.80
Matt’s breakfast pie was a curious thing. A thick slab of sausage meat supported a generous melange of bacon, mushrooms and fresh tomatoes. On top of this was egg, and eggy bread, all baked together to make a mass. It was certainly a novel variation on the classic English breakfast formula which few dare to tamper with. Matt ate cautiously at first, but with rising enthusiasm as he got into the swing of it. He wasn’t overwhelmed, but equally he would be more than happy to try it again.
Cat’s veggie breakfast was swaddled in a wrap secured with a cocktail stick. Peeking out from its open end were a bisected Quorn sausage and a hashbrown. Peeling back the cover she tucked into the fried mushrooms and a flat concoction of egg – neither scrambled nor exactly an omelette. Perhaps it was baked? Whatever had happened to it did not quite do it justice and Cat made a valiant effort before leaving it and some of the dry flatbread shroud, turning her attention to the tastier veggie sausage, hashbrowns and mushrooms.
And the other food? Well, there was a cake cabinet and banks of coffee machines behind the counter – presumably the daily bread and butter for IW Pearl. Yet the café also had a light lunch offering; soup, paninis and the like. Interestingly the menu made some vague claims about local produce and Cat challenged a member of staff about it. He told her that the bread was from Freshwater bakery and the eggs ‘from a farm up the road’. The mushrooms and tomatoes were from a local wholesalers. A credible effort, and it may be worth highlighting these specific claims on the menu to satisfy any local provenance nerds.
The thing that elevated this jewellery warehouse from being just a coach tourists’ ‘tea and a wee’ venue was the customer service. Other eateries and attractions could learn a lot about the visitor experience from IW Pearl. True, there was no real acknowledgement of the stunning and special location; and Matt observed drily that there was nothing particular for men to do while their wives fussed over the display cases. But there was a very polite welcome for the visitors as they walked through the door, the friendly chap behind the counter kindly upgraded the coffees from UHT to fresh milk in a jug, and the chef herself brought out the meals. All were helpful, enthusiastic and pleasant and made Matt and Cat’s first eating out adventure of 2013 a very enjoyable one.