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COWES, at the Isle of Wight's northern tip, is inextricably associated with sailing craft and boat building: Henry VIII installed a castle here to defend the Solent's expanding naval dockyards from the French and Spanish, and in the 1950s the world's first hovercraft made its test runs here. In 1820 the Prince Regent's patronage of the yacht club gave the port its cachet with the Royal Yacht Squadron, now one of the world's most exclusive sailing clubs. The first week of August sees the international yachting festival known as Cowes Week (Web: www.skandiacowesweek.co.uk ), where serious sailors mingle with visiting royalty. There are dozens of organized events, including a spectacular fireworks display on the Friday night, and a great party atmosphere. In addition to Cowes Week, most summer weekends see some form of nautical event taking place in or around town.
The town is bisected by the River Medina, with West Cowes being the older, more interesting half. At the bottom of the meandering High Street, boat trips around the harbour and the Solent leave from Thetis Wharf, near the Parade (Tel:01983/564602, Web: www.solentcruises.co.uk ). The more industrial East Cowes, where you'll find Osborne House, is connected to West Cowes by a "floating bridge", or chain ferry (pedestrians free, cars £1.40).