A motorcycle circuit, a tax haven and what else?
The Isle of Man crams as much history, legend, scenic beauty, wildlife and folklore into its 227 square miles as whole regions of the British mainland. And its reputation as a haven of petrol-heads and sub-Blackpool boarding houses is entirely undeserved.
Elements of its two main towns, Douglas and Ramsey, notably the number of failed shops and businesses, suggest that the world has moved on and left it behind. But the island is re-modelling itself for the modern breed of active, ozone-seeking visitors who bring more to their holiday than a bucket and spade.
Big money has been spent upgrading its many cultural attractions, which now form a cohesive circuit of castles, industrial relics, Celtic antiquities, restored houses and gardens, and museums – this week Manx National Heritage won a prestigious award.
Aside from that, nearly half the island remains undeveloped: a latticework of scenic walking trails and quiet roads, with plenty of options, too, for the golfer, bird-watcher, angler and mountain biker.
The isle also has a whimsical side: last week it claimed to have renamed itself the "Isle of Sam", in honour of Sam Barks, the Manx finalist in the BBC show I'd do Anything.
Whimsical? With quiet roads? But what about the tt?
Yes, the tranquillity is disturbed during the two-week motorcycle festival straddling late May and early June, and on a few summer weekends when the island stages other motorsport events.
Otherwise, they're a driver's delight. In fact, the competition that began life as the "International Auto-Cycle Tourist Trophy" has surprisingly little impact on normal life: the TT circuit of just under 38 miles is confined to the northern half of the island and occupies only 6 per cent of the road network.
It may not be to everyone's taste, and it puts a severe strain on the small island's infrastructure – there's not a hotel room to be had anywhere during the event – but the TT is one of the world's great sporting spectacles, and it's free to watch from any number of roadside or panoramic vantage points.
It's claimed to be the only international motorsport event to be held on public roads, with the fastest machines exceeding 200mph on a scenic route that takes in the two main towns, the coast and the hills.
At one point the circuit climbs to 1,400ft, skirting the base of the island's only mountain, Snaefell.
This year, up to 40,000 visitors are expected, before normal island life resumes in mid-June – usually unhurried, even though it is one of those rare places that has no speed limit outside built-up areas.
Less frenetic island transport?
Unusual ways to get around are a Manx speciality. Most of them date back to the island's Victorian heyday and are preserved primarily for tourism.
A narrow-gauge steam railway runs from Douglas to the south coast beauty spot of Port Erin between Easter and late October – a slow, 15-mile chug through rolling farmland. The photogenic steam engines and well-restored carriages are an enthusiasts' dream – and popular with day-trippers too.
Every summer since 1876, horse-drawn trams have rattled along on the curving, two-mile promenade at Douglas, where the proud names of the hotels and boarding houses – Grosvenor, Empress, Imperial, Savoy – recall the era when holidaymakers flocked here on steamships from the mainland.
In 1895, the Manx Electric Railway (MER) completed the quirky trio of trains, running up the coast to Ramsey, with a spectacular mountain branch line almost to the summit of Snaefell, 2,036ft above sea level. This summer, sadly, the pretty northern section of the line from Laxey to Douglas is closed for track improvements. But the Snaefell climb is thrilling, especially on a clear day, when it's possible to see the complete set of the major British Isles from the Summit Hotel at the end of the line.
An Island Explorer ticket allows unlimited travel on all the trains, as well as the island's excellent bus service, for £13 (one day) or £26 (three days). Tickets and timetables are available from the Isle of Man Welcome Centre at the Sea Terminal in Douglas (01624 662525), which opens Mon-Sat 8am-7pm; Sun 10am-3pm.
I want to explore on my own
Measuring just 33 miles north-to-south, and 13 miles east-to-west, the Isle of Man contains a microcosm of the British countryside and coast.
The relatively flat, agricultural north, with its sturdy churches and pretty villages, resembles parts of eastern England, while the heathery central hills could belong to the Scottish borders.
You can bag a mountain in the morning, cross some moorland in the afternoon and be trekking across sand dunes and beaches by sunset.
The rivers drop from the high ground to the sea at such a rate that they carve deep gullies into the landscape, creating steep, leafy glens that are so cherished by the Manx that 17 of them are owned and maintained by the government.
Taking one at random – Glen Maye, near Peel on the west coast – I followed the path from a pub car park, pausing to admire a spectacular waterfall and explore a ruined Victorian watermill, before descending towards the sea beneath a canopy of u o trees, with ferns and aromatic wild garlic growing on the riverbank.
Two wooden bridges carried me across the fast-flowing water, until I emerged into full daylight on a deserted pebble beach, washed by the Irish Sea. After an easy ascent back along the opposite bank, I returned to the car park just as the Waterfall pub was opening for the evening: all the ingredients of the perfect short walk.
Elsewhere, the central, sparsely populated spine of the island mainly consists of springy-grass moorland, while the 100-mile coastline is punctuated with cliffs, chasms and coves. The coastal path, known as Raad ny Foillan ("Road of the Gull") is a 90-mile circuit of infinite variety, for which a minimum of four days is needed.
The highlight is the cliff-top path around the south-west corner of the island, with wonderful views across the Sound to the Calf of Man, an uninhabited islet that is now a nature reserve. An added incentive is the fine new visitor centre and restaurant, with a giant, crescent-shaped glass wall providing a grandstand view of the choppy waters.
The other notable walking trail is the Millennium Way. This runs for 28 miles along the centre of the island from Ramsey to Castletown, connecting a series of ancient hill tracks. The island hosts international walking festivals every summer and autumn. Details of this year's events, between 22-27 June and 9-12 October, are listed online at www.isleofmanwalking.com.
Whether you are planning serious walking or some countryside drives, the Ordnance Survey Landranger map of the island (number 95, price £6.99) is a useful investment.
Wildlife on Man?
In spring and summer, the waters around the Calf of Man are a gathering point for a variety of relative strangers to the British Isles.
Last year, there were more than 600 sightings of basking sharks. Other frequent visitors are minke, killer and humpback whales, as well as bottlenosed dolphins, while colonies of grey seals breed on the inshore rocks.
In summer, Calf Island Cruises (01624 832339) operates regular excursions to the islet, where you can be dropped off to spend half a day in almost total isolation, or stay on board to search for marine life in the surrounding waters.
And for the odd rainy day?
The island has no theme parks. Instead, it offers a themed cultural trail to all points of the compass, unravelling thousands of years of history. Known as The Story of Mann, it was this week awarded the 2008 Museums & Heritage Classic Award.
The logical start of the trail is the excellent Manx Museum and Art Gallery in Douglas (01624 648000; www.storyofmann.com), which has free admission and opens between 10am-5pm every day except Sunday.
From there, make for the pretty west coast village of Peel, the home of an ambitious, £14m heritage centre, the House of Manannan.
The centre (01624 648000; www.storyofmann.com) opens every day between 10am-5pm; admission £5.50.
Other highlights on the cultural trail are two evocative castles, at Peel and Castletown – the latter, Castle Rushen, is one of the best-preserved medieval fortresses in Europe; the world's largest water wheel at Laxey; the Grove Rural Life Museum near Ramsey, surrounding a Victorian country house maintained just as the owners left it, and the restored south coast village of Cregneash, where the thatched, white cottages are now a living folk museum.
Cregneash was the last community where Manx held out against English as the island's lingua franca. Today, Manx is celebrated in one of the old crofts, but although the government is making valiant efforts to keep the language alive, it's rarely spoken.
The Story of Mann encompasses 13 such heritage sites; other than the free-to-enter Manx Museum, the best value is the £11 pass that admits you to any four of them, and is valid from Easter until the end of October. For those who prefer to avoid the prescribed visitor trail, there are numerous stone circles, prehistoric burial chambers and Celtic crosses dotted about the island. The biggest outdoor collection of crosses is in the churchyard at Maughold.
Where shall I stay?
The Isle of Man has no five-star hotels. But at the Inglewood Hotel (26 Palace Terrace; 01624 674734; www.inglewoodhotel.net), the owners have completed a stylish refurbishment of the 14 en suite rooms. Doubles start at £59, including breakfast.
At the foot of the Sulby Glen, within yards of one of the fastest sections of the TT circuit, the 11-room Sulby Glen Hotel (01624 897240; www.sulbyglenhotel.net) is an up-country establishment of great character. It's so near the race-day action that it's already fully booked for next year's TT; doubles start at £70, including breakfast.
The Mount Murray Hotel and Country Club in Santon (01624 661111; www.mountmurray.com) is among the island's best luxury options. The hotel has a two-tier pricing policy: double rooms start at £130 per night with breakfast Monday to Thursday, reducing to £94 with breakfast from Friday to Sunday.
How do I get there?
The island is well connected, with flights to Ronaldsway airport from 17 airports throughout the British Isles. The main carriers are Flybe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com) which has regular services from Birmingham, Gatwick, Liverpool, Luton, Manchester, Newquay and Southampton; Manx2 (0871 200 0440; www.manx2.com), which flies from Belfast, Blackpool, East Midlands, Gloucester and Leeds/Bradford; and Euro Manx (08707 877 879; www.euromanx.com) – flights from Belfast, Manchester, Liverpool and London City. None of these is a low-cost carrier: compared with some UK destinations, flying to the Isle of Man is relatively pricey, with fares from the south of England airports starting at about £130 return.
By sea, there are car ferries to Douglas from Liverpool, Heysham in Lancashire and Belfast, all operated by The Steam Packet Company (08457 585 833; www.steam-packet.com). The fastest crossing from Liverpool is about two and a half hours; from Belfast just under three hours; and about three and a quarter hours from Heysham. The lowest return fare from all three ports is £136 for a standard car, plus £52 per adult passenger. Fares are discounted by 2 per cent if you book online.
Where can I find more information?
Isle of Man Tourist information: 01624 686766; www. visitisleofman.com; for full details of the 2008 TT festival, see the official website: www.iomtt.com.
If the fey place names are to be believed, there are fairies all over the Isle of Man: Fairy Cottage, Fairy Mound, Elfin Glen and the Fairy Bridge on the A5 between Douglas and Castletown.
Legend has it that the bridge is occupied by wingless creatures whom the Manx call "Themselves". Apparently, it's unwise to pass this spot without saying, "Good Morning little people" or in Manx, "Moghrey Mie Vooinjer Veggey".
Local sages will concede that it was a Victorian wheeze to attract tourists. But they add that the real fairy bridge is at Kewaigue. One evening I shared the bus to Douglas with some lads. As we passed the bridge, there was a deep, collective, masculine shout of "Hello Fairies!", with someone adding: "If you don't say hello, you'll die!"
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