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Short breaks.

The Isle of Wight is fossilising - and proud of it too!

Because, thanks to finds from a prehistoric fish head to dinosaur bones, this cute, small diamond shaped island - a mere two miles across the Solent - is fast becoming the Jurassic Park of Europe.

And as more monster discoveries are made, even traditional delights are making way for fun-filled days digging up colourful stones, bones and shells from a bygone age.

So much so that Sandown's Dinosaur Isle, Britains only purpose-built dinosaur museum, spectacularly shaped like a pterodactyl, is soaring - or should it be sauring - over other historic rivals.

It certainly bowled us over as a pounds 13 family ticket took us on a Jurassic Journey for a personal eyeballing with the dinosaurs.

Sadly though, we missed the Fossil Walk, which takes you through 115 million years of geological history before a wander along the beach for fossil hunting.

But it sure beat an unscheduled spell of bad weather in the so-called "Garden Island" rightly known for its mild climate.

It was all so different from when my parents took me on my first "foreign" trip - though I, too, must admit to trawling the beaches and rock pools for hidden treasures, from a shiny pebble to an odd-shaped shell.

And today, just as then, when the sun shines, everyone heads to the 13 Blue Flag beaches, strung across 60 miles, from the golden sands of the main resorts of Ryde, Sandown and Shanklin to the small sandy bays of Totland Bay, or Steephill Cove, the locals favourite.

Shanklin, with its sweeping promenade dotted with red, yellow and blue beach huts, proved a perfect short stay find. Even the crazy golf and cafes had an elegance echoing family holidays of yesteryear.

Sandown, a few miles along the coast, is livelier but without losing a sense of good taste; not for nothing is the island known for catering for families and older folk. And thanks to good roads and top-class public transport, no attraction is too far away.

Our car journey though winding byways to Blackgang Chine was a positive assault on the senses, with enticing glimpses of an azure sea and rugged cliff tops topped off with the overpowering aroma of wild garlic.

Perched on a cliff top and described as "a Disneyland designed by Enid Blyton", Blackgang Chine - 40 acres of former Victorian gardens - offers breathtaking views before entering the likes of Frontierland, Fantasy House, Nurseryland and Pirate's Ship. And don't forget the life-size replicas in Dinosaurland.

Should you tire of this and white knuckle rides why not try something less hectic.

Once the island boasted 54 miles of rail. Today it's left to the steam railways, manned largely by volunteers since 1971, to haul you gently through the countryside from Havenstreet station, kitted out as it was in its 19th century heyday.

From here you are off with a hiss, hauled by a pristine loco dating back to the 1860s, lounging in a First Class carriage for a steam and coal amble back through time, complete with guards in original uniforms.

Family tickets, valid for a day, offer as many journeys as you like. And with a museum, playground and tea-room back at Havenstreet, what better way to signal the end of a perfect day - but not the end of our love for this delightful short break island.

After all, there's still the zoo, Victoria Country Park, the model railway and the planetarium and astronomical centre to talk about. Yes, even the dinosaurs have to give a little ground sometimes.

* Ken Bennett's family trip was organised through Wightlink Holidays: 0870 582 0202 www.wightlink.co.uk.

* Wightlink Holidays offers a wide range of accommodation, including bed and breakfast from pounds 51 per person, and half board hotel breaks from pounds 57 per person including return ferry crossings on either the Portsmouth/Fishbourne or Lymington/Yarmouth cross-Solent routes.

* Dinosaur Isle: Tel: 01983 404344 or www.dinosaurisle.com Family tickets (two adults and two children): pounds 13

* Isle of Wight Steam Railway: Tel: 01983 882204 or www.iwsteamrailway.co.uk Family ticket (two adults and two children): pounds 22, third class, pounds 34 first-class.

* Blackgang Chine: Tel: 01983 730052, www.blackgangchine.com Saver ticket (combination of four people): pounds 31.
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Title Annotation:Gazette Letters
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Date:Mar 27, 2006
Words:709
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