It was once the ultimate bucket and spade resort, remembered fondly from family holidays or school trips. When I was a deckchair attendant in the 1960s families would return year after year to the same beach, even trying to bag the exact spot on the sand they had the previous year.

When foreign holidays became accessible and affordable the island's resorts took on a "past their sell-by-date" air. Let's put this politely: they looked a little frayed around the edges, in need of a good lick of paint.

I have known the island all my life - I grew up there - and return regularly. The good news is that the island has definitely pulled its socks up.

Sure, it is still a great place if building sandcastles and stretching out on a sunbed is your idea of an activity holiday. With its numerous long sandy beaches it could not help but be so. There is also beautiful countryside.

And it really does have the best of the country's weather. Shanklin on the island's south-east coast has regularly held the record for most hours of sunshine. No wonder it is known as the Sunshine Isle.

You can sometimes stand on the island's downland in bright sunshine and see the mainland, just a few miles away, cloaked in grey clouds. So mild is the climate you will see plants growing in Ventnor Botanical Garden on its southern tip found nowhere else in the country.

Contrasts
But the Isle of Wight is more than just sand and sun. Despite its size - just 13 miles by 22 - it is a place of contrasts.

It is a place where Charles I and Jimi Hendrix made their mark - for different reasons, you will appreciate. You can get an intimate glimpse of Queen Victoria's private life just a few miles from daredevils paragliding over cliffs or surfing waves.

Residents and visitors agree the pace of life slows down when you cross the Solent. If you come by car, forget motorways. There aren't any. There is one dual carriageway but it is no more than 300 yards long.

Proud of its past, the island has adapted to the present demands of tourism without losing its charm - or its sense of history. There is no better example than Dinosaur Isle at Sandown (www.dinosaurisle.com) - a state-of-the-art museum showing fossils and life-size reconstructions of dinosaurs. The island is the most important site for dinosaur remains in Europe thanks to erosion along the coast.


Fast forward to Roman times and superb remains of a villa at Brading (www.bradingromanvilla.com) are described as one of the finest Romano-British archaeological sites in the UK with beautifully preserved mosaic floors and an extensive collection of coins, pottery and tools.

Royal connections
Oh, and that earlier reference to Charles: 800-year-old Carisbrooke Castle is where the unfortunate king was imprisoned before his execution. According to popular myth, he tried to flee only to get stuck in the window through which he was trying to escape. Houdini he was not.

The new Edwardian-inspired Princess Beatrice Garden, celebrating Queen Victoria's daughter who was Governor of the Isle of Wight, opens in June at the castle, which is one of the properties on the island administered by English Heritage
(www.english-heritage.org.uk).

Another is Osborne House, and this is a real gem. Queen Victoria fell in love with the island as a young princess, saying: "It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot". After her marriage to Prince Albert, the couple built Osborne as a
country retreat.

Step inside today and it as though the couple have only recently left. Wander through the Queen's bedroom, the couple's study and the amazing Indian-themed Durbar Room, a reminder of when most of the world map was coloured red.

The royal couple's love for the island catapulted it from sleepy backwater to trendy resort. Think of a 19th century St Tropez or Nice to which the rich and famous flocked. People like the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Victorian equivalent of a media star, commemorated by Tennyson Down near Freshwater (there are spectacular views of the West Wight from here). His home, Farringford, is now a hotel.

Railways and seaside holidays If the royals did wonders for the island's image, then the coming of the railways created the institution of the seaside holiday. The beaches loved by Victorians and Edwardians are numerous and still attractive today. Among them are twin resorts Sandown and Shanklin, where the long, sandy beaches are some of the safest for swimming. Ventnor, the most southerly resort, has a fine beach at low tide. Freshwater Bay, in the west, is small, charming but pebbly, while the sands of Colwell Bay and Totland are softer on the feet.

Seaview is an upmarket seaside village with a sailing tradition. Talking of sailing, Cowes is an international centre, home of the Royal Yacht Squadron, probably the poshest yacht club in the land, and venue for Cowes Week (www.cowesweek.co.uk) - one of the premier events on the yacht racing calendar.

Alum Bay has a bit of a wow factor. It boasts cliffs of multi-coloured sands which as children we could collect in bottles. Amid concerns for erosion and, I guess, health and safety, you can no longer do that - sand for sale is imported. But you get a spectacular view of the Needles, the much photographed chalk stacks which have come to symbolise the island.

Music festivals
A few miles away at Afton Down is a natural amphitheatre in the chalk downs, and one of the original sites of music extravaganza the Isle of Wight Festival. The third such festival, in 1970, was the venue for the last show by one of rock's greats - Jimi Hendrix - just a fortnight before his death. Others at early festivals included Bob Dylan, The Who and The Doors.

Revived in recent years and now located near Newport, the island's capital, the Isle of Wight Festival (www.isleofwightfestival.com) is the first of the season in the UK festival calendar. Performers this June include The Prodigy, Basement Jaxx, Pendulum, The Ting Tings, The Stereophonics and Neil Young.

In recent years it has had an island rival, Bestival (www.bestival.net), staged in September at Robin Hill Country Park in the middle of the island. This year's acts include Lily Allen and Mercury award winners Elbow.

Adrenalin activities
If neither festivals nor lying on a beach appeal, the island offers a range of opportunities to learn a skill or get your adrenalin pumping. X-Isle Sports is one of the UK's biggest kite-surfing schools (www.xis.co.uk) and Wight Waters (www.wightwaters.com) offers courses in surfing, windsurfing, bodyboarding and kayaking. Medina Valley Centre at Newport (www.medinavalleycentre.org.uk) and the UK Sailing Academy at Cowes (www.uksa.org) provide sailing courses.

But don't get the impression it is all surfing and rock music. The Isle of Wight has managed to update itself without losing its family-friendly appeal. Children's attractions range from Blackgang Chine, the country's first theme park, to a model village at Godshill, and from the Isle of Wight Zoo, where ITV's Tiger Island was filmed, to the steam railway at Havenstreet.

Being such a small island you are never far from the sea. Do not leave without sampling the seafood. The village of Bembridge is as good a place as any. You can take up a fishing rod for a trip with the optimistically named Catchalot Charters. Nearby, and with an even catchier name, is The Best Dressed Crab in Town, a shop selling shellfish straight off its own fishing boat. A short distance away the aptlynamed Crab and Lobster is one of many fine pubs on the island.

The island is still that little bit different - not quite abroad, yet not quite England. And, as an old islander told me with a line he probably spins to many a visitor, the reason it is diamond-shaped is because it is a little gem.

Isle of Wight facts

Getting there
There are six ferry routes from the mainland to the island. Wightlink (www.wightlink.co.uk) operates two car ferry services: Portsmouth to Fishbourne and Lymington to Yarmouth. It also operates a fast catamaran service between Portsmouth and Ryde. Red Funnel Ferries (www.redfunnel.co.uk) operates both a car ferry service and the Red Jet passenger service from Southampton to Cowes. Hovertravel (www.hovertravel.co.uk) operates hovercraft passenger services from Southsea to Ryde.

Accommodation and information
The Isle of Wight has a range of accommodation from luxury hotels and guest houses to self-catering and caravans.The Isle of Wight Tourism website (www.islandbreaks.co.uk) has details, an online search facility and email booking service as well as informaon about the island.
Tip: Many places offer discounted ferry tickets when you book accommodation so it's worth enquiring before you arrange a crossing.

Attractions
Among the island's main attractions are:
Osborne House (www.english-heritage.org.uk/osborne) - Queen Victoria's holiday palace and gardens.
Carisbrooke Castle (www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/nav.14466) - 800-year-old castle and the new Princess Beatrice Garden, from June.
St Catherines Oratory (www.english-heritage.org.uk/stcatherines) -14th century octagonal lighthouse, known locally as the Pepperpot.
Brading Roman Villa (www.bradingromanvilla.org.uk) - one of the finest Romano-British archaeological sites in the UK.
Dinosaurisle (www.dinosaurisle.com) - Britain's first purpose-built dinosaur museum and visitor attraction.
Isle of Wight Steam Railway (www.iwsteamrailway.co.uk) - five miles of track with rides by historic locomotives and carriages.

All prices and details were correct when pubilshed, please check before  visiting the Isle of Wight.