A Yurt Holiday on the Isle of Wight: Cheap and Cheerful
Cheap Lodgings in a Yurt
By Meredith Bower
The sun rose early on England’s Isle of Wight and we were awakened by a heavy thud on our rooftop, followed by a shriek. Looking up we saw the feet of a large bird gingerly moving down the roof, squawking with each step.
Welcome to life in a yurt. For a family of non-campers, this was the beginning of a totally new experience.
Going cheap and cheerful
When planning a recent trip to England our goal was “cheap and cheerful,” as they say. Frequent flyer miles and a business trip brought the six of us across the Atlantic and our British relatives suggested we meet on the Isle of Wight. It sounded ideal, in addition to beach activities we could look forward to biking and hiking.
Generally when we travel together we rent a self-catering cottage, but with only four nights on the island, off the southern coast of Britain, a cottage was not an economical option. Hotels and B&Bs seemed too confining for our group of 10 and this was not the time or place to explore camping.
Eureka a yurt!
Just weeks before we were set to leave the US, still undecided about lodging, we received a message from our relatives suggesting that we look at the website of The Really Green Holiday Company. “They do yurts,” they said.
But wasn’t a yurt a tent? Didn’t we eliminate camping as an option?
However, the name of the company was intriguing (who isn’t making an effort to be “green” these days) and we still needed a place to stay, so we followed the link. We were sold on the idea as soon as we saw that the yurts came furnished with full-size beds (some four poster), and could each comfortably sleep five people.
With two yurts reserved, we began talking about our vacation plans with friends. Most people had never heard of a yurt and asked how it was spelled.
Some people had a vague idea of a yurt being like a tent and based on the name, guessed that it was an Ikea product.
We decided to set them straight. “It’s shaped like a giant cupcake,” we described. “It’s raised off the ground, furnished with proper beds and has all the comforts of home.”
In fact, yurts are traditional tent-like shelters used for centuries by Central Asian nomads. Although relatively uncommon in the United States, today they are popping up as an easy, environmentally friendly vacation accommodation.
Sturdier and larger than most traditional camping tents, the circular, canvas structures are erected on platforms, using tension and compression. With a diameter of 16 feet they offer plenty of headroom and are usually furnished with beds, tables, chairs, rugs and a wood burning stove.
According to Allison Martin founder of The Really Green Holiday Company demand for yurts is growing. “More people are interested in sustainable holidays and the recession in the UK means more people are holidaying at home,” she says.
What’s a yurt
“From what people tell us, we are popular because we are different and fall between traditional camping and a holiday cottage. I also think most people are more aware of things like recycling and reducing our carbon footprint, and we are one of the few holidays in the UK that genuinely try to make it easy for guests to be as green as they want to be.”
Going Green and Cheap
Since we were going green, cheap, and cheerful we abandoned the idea of renting a car and took a train from London and a ferry to the town of Yarmouth on the western side of the Isle of Wight.
We were shuttled to Afton Park Orchard and there, nestled among the apple trees, was a crop of four yurts, each completely and comfortably outfitted. From lanterns to linens just about everything in the yurt appeared to be from Ikea.
A quick tour of the site revealed the many environmentally friendly features of the compound. Of course there is recycling, and the wood used in the stoves and outdoor grills is collected from local landowners who have cut down dead or unsafe trees. The shower is solar heated and environmentally friendly soaps are provided for bathing as well as dish washing. And then there is the composting toilet…enough said.
We were left with a supply of matches, noted where the spare candles for lanterns and the tealight chandelier were kept, handed us a small cooler filled with a welcome pack of local eggs, milk, bacon and organic bread and we were on our own
Local flavor of Wight
After settling in and catching up with our relatives, who made the trip from their home in the Cotswolds by car and ferry, the first order of business was to check out the local pub, The Red Lion, a half mile walk from Afton Park. It was a great way acquaint ourselves with traditional British fare as well as enjoy the local flavor. And, for some of us, it was a final chance to use a flushable toilet.
Afton Park Orchard, which leases the land to The Really Green Holiday Company for its yurts, also has a restaurant on the property, the Apple Tree Café, with daily hours from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and dinner on weekends. An adjacent shop sells a variety of organic and local products from pickled garlic to lambs wool and sausage.
No yuck in yurts
Living in the yurt was relatively comfortable, as everyone had a place in a bed. Space was tight however when both the trundle bed and cot were open. In terms of efficiency, we wished the yurt had straight walls and corners in which to put the beds.
But the lattice structure that forms the yurt’s base walls served as the ideal place to hang wet towels and clothes. When the sun was shining, the branches and leaves of the apple trees, cast shadows on the canvas sides of the yurt, like pieces of Asian art.
At night we took the chill out of the air with a fire in the yurt’s wood burning stove and each morning we snuggled under thick duvets.
On the first morning, after waking to the sound of the resident pheasant on our yurt-top (who was probably as startled as we were) we lit a fire in our outdoor grill, made coffee in the French press provided, cooked a breakfast of bacon and eggs and enjoyed it all at the table outside our dwelling. This was about as rustic as it got.
Making the most of our time
The teenagers in our group (six of them)will tell you their trip to the Isle of Wight was fun, but “no day at the beach” — weather did not permit. The Americans in the group had envisioned beautiful, blue water, waves, sand and sun.
The British teens knew better, it’s a rural island with typical English weather — constantly changing. The parents had other ideas which included days spent hiking and biking and, if we were lucky, some time in the water.
Hiking and Biking
Being on the western end of the island we were within hiking distance of the famous Needles Rocks, stacks of chalk that jut out of the tip of the island into the blue waters of Alum Bay. We endured gale force winds as we explored the Battery, a Victorian coastal defense and secret rocket testing site perched high above the bright, white rocks.
Today the Battery is operated by the National Trust and has a lovely tearoom that looks out on the treacherous landmark and lighthouse. After a bite to eat, we hiked four miles along the chalk hills (or downs) of the countryside, overlooking the English Channel, to Freshwater Bay. A five minute walk inland led us back to Afton Park and the yurt
With uncertain weather forecast for the next day, followed by the prediction of rain on the third day, we decided to rent bikes and explore more of the island. The Really Green Holiday Company arranged for the bikes from Wight Cycle Hire and off we went.
We learned two things while biking on the Isle of Wight. First, it’s very hilly. The pictures in the brochures of bikers on a path, with the ocean behind them, are taken along the downs, but you have to peddle to get to the top. Second, there are loads of footpaths through farmland and fields that are accessible to bikers.
This isn’t the case on the East Coast of the United States, so we were amazed to find ourselves riding through herds of cattle and dodging cowpies as we sailed down hills.
After returning the bikes we picked up fish and chips at a local shop and sat by a fire outside the yurt until the promised rains arrived. We fell asleep to the pitter patter of raindrops, knowing that our yurt would keep us dry from top to bottom.
The third day was kids’ choice and they opted for sea kayaking. It was raining and they were going to get wet anyway, so it was the perfect activity for the day.
We ventured to Sandown, on the more populated east end of the island and rented kayaks and wetsuits for seven adventurous members of our clan.
For those who did not opt in, there was a lovely seaside café that provided a clear view of the group, along with a dry seat, and a warm drink.
Our limited time on the Isle of Wight did not allow for exploring the towns that dot the edges of the diamond shaped island, something we could have accomplished with a few more days using the island’s efficient bus system operated by Southern Vectis.
The double-decker buses serve the entire island and can be used as transportation as well as sightseeing. Tickets for unlimited travel are available for one or two days, a week or a month, and there is a stop just outside the gate to Afton Farm
Something for everyone
While the Isle of Wight was not an island in the sun during the time we visited, it certainly offered something for everyone. In June visitors are attracted to the annual music festival (www.isleofwightfestival.com) and in August sailors invade the island during Cowes Week. A walking festival in May and a cycling festival in September insure that active visitors have plenty to do.
And, although hard-core campers may not consider our yurt experience camping, it allowed us to enjoy the great outdoors in an environmentally friendly manner and to try something new. And, isn’t that the beauty of travel?
Meredith Bower is a freelance writer from Baltimore.
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