Traveller's Guide: Isle of Man

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The keystone to the Irish Sea is British, but not in the UK. Welcome to an intriguing outpost, says Chris Leadbeater

It is always easy to assume that, in terms of travel, your home country is a known quantity – a well-trodden path of familiar pleasures and long-acknowledged attractions. But the British Isles, for all their recognisable appeal and comfortable, documented contents, have places that come swathed in cloaks of mystery. And the Isle of Man – at 221 square miles, larger than the Isle of Wight or any of the Channel Islands – is one of them.

Popular opinion on the island probably amounts to the head-nod that it lies somewhere in the Irish Sea, and that it plays host to the yearly tyre-squeal of the TT (Tourist Trophy) motorcycle race-meet in the first week of June. But beyond this, there is a limited perception of an outcrop that, with its rearing hills, rugged coast, raw beauty, pretty resorts and varied history, merits closer inspection by visitors of all ages.

Our collective blind-spot – and with it the Isle of Man's image as an Avalon-esque realm lost in the mist – can surely be tied to the fact that here is an entity rather hard to define. Indeed, the terms "home country" and "Britain" should bear asterisks in relation to the Isle of Man. It is part of the British Isles, and a British Crown Dependency, but not part of the UK. It is European in geography, but not a member of the EU. The Queen is its head of state, yet it self-governs through the Tynwald – an institution that, dating to 979AD, is arguably the world's oldest continuously sitting parliament. And it revels in an individuality that shines in its emblem the Triskelion (three conjoined legs, caught in a circle of constant motion), and its firm motto Quocunque Jeceris Stabit ("whichever way you throw it, it will stand").

It has long been thus. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Isle of Man was inhabited as far back as the seventh millennium BC. Waves of population have pulled ashore since: Celtic settlers arrived in the fifth century AD, bringing with them a language that still survives today in Manx; the Vikings followed in the ninth century, adding a warrior mentality; in 1266, the island became part of Scotland; in 1405 it fell under the remit of the English crown. Yet none have entirely modelled it as their own.

One glance at a map explains why it has been so coveted. The Isle of Man is the keystone to the Irish Sea, lying in reach of four countries. Scotland is 21 miles north, England 30 miles east; Northern Ireland 40 miles west and Wales a similar distance south. Stand atop Snaefell – at 2,034ft, the island's highest peak – and, on a clear day, the full quartet should be visible.

This proximity lends itself to solid transport links. Several airlines land at Ronaldsway Airport, just outside Castletown in the south (01624 821600; iom-airport.com). Flybe (0871 7002000; flybe.com) is the most prolific, flying from Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Jersey, Liverpool, Luton, Manchester and Southampton. Manx2 (0871 2000440; manx2.com) flies from Belfast, Blackpool, Gloucester, Leeds-Bradford and Newcastle. Aer Arann (0870 8767676; aerarann.com) operates from London City, while easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) hops across from Liverpool. The airport is also the obvious option for renting the hire car that, realistically, you need to explore the island. Outlets include Mylchreests (08000 190335; mylchreests.com), Isle of Man Rent a Car (01624 825855; iomrac.com) and Athol (01624 822481; athol.co.im). Alternatively, the Steam Packet Company (08722 992 992; steam-packet.com) runs ferries from Liverpool, Birkenhead, Belfast and the Lancashire port of Heysham. Boats dock in the island's east-coast capital Douglas, at the Sea Terminal, where you also pick up tourist information in the main Welcome Centre (01624 686766; visitisleofman.com).

The majority of museums on the island are pooled under the "Story Of Mann" umbrella, and share contact details (01624 648000; storyofmann.com, which apply to any institution mentioned below, unless otherwise stated). Most only open between April and October. Times may vary subtly – but generally, admission hours are 11am-4pm, daily, in April, May, September and October, and 10am-6pm, daily, from June to August. Multiple-entry passes (either for five sites or 10 days – both £16) can be bought at any of the museums.

A quirky capital

Pinned to the wide natural bay that made it the obvious point of arrival on the island in the pre-aviation era, the Isle of Man's capital has seen better times. This is not to criticise its modern appearance, more to note that, a century ago, Douglas was a holiday resort of immense popularity, tourists streaming over from the mainland to enjoy its breezy charm.

So much is apparent in the Manx Museum (year-round, 10am-5pm daily except Sundays; free), the island's main cultural showcase – where, alongside assorted chunks of the past (TT motorbikes and race folklore, mining and fishing exhibits), paintings by Manx artists recall the glory days. A Summer Afternoon, Douglas Promenade, 1888, by John Miller Nicholson, is a precise snapshot: parasols, Victorian finery and visitors elbow-to-elbow.

While plenty of Douglas is 21st-century-formulaic (the shopping drag Castle Street could be anywhere) there are still echoes of its youth: the horse-drawn trams that clank along the Promenade; Davisons Manx Dairy Ice Cream Parlour on Harris Promenade (01624 844111; davisons.com), where a Strawberry Dream sundae is £4.50; what seems to be a giant sandcastle, in the bay on St Mary's Isle – an 1832 refuge for sailors wrecked on this jagged shelf, dubbed the "Tower Of Refuge" by a touring William Wordsworth. Drive to Douglas Head, at the south end of the bay, and you can see all this from a dramatic angle.

A west coast jewel

Midway up the west coast, Peel has long played a significant role in island life. Evidence of this is its majestic, ruined castle, on the rocky shard of St Patrick's Isle (linked to the town by a causeway). Viking (and 11th century) in origin but 14th century in structure, it keeps a suspicious eye on the water, its interior a dank mix of decapitated towers, defensive viewpoints and the graves of shipwreck victims (entry £4).

Peel has another day-trip possibility in the House Of Manannan (year-round, daily, 10am-5pm; £6), which spells out the history of the island in engaging child-friendly format (videos, waxworks and spooky tales). But the town's predominant appeal is its prettiness: its sloping wedge of sand, great for family afternoons and beach-combing; its marina, where yachts and fishing boats bob happily together; in the tasty, unfussy fare sold at the waterside Creek Inn (01624 842216; thecreekinn.co.uk).

Here you should try the Manx speciality of "queenies" (a fleshy variety of scallop, usually served in a bacon and garlic sauce; £11.95). And then there's the splendour of the sunsets, which flare gloriously above the castle walls.

History and heritage

Beyond Douglas and Peel, the Isle boasts other totems of yore – of which the brightest is the Great Laxey Wheel (£4). A pristine slab of industrial heritage painted a vivid red, this 70ft wheel first turned in 1854, pumping water from the adjacent Glen Mooar mine. More than 150 years on, it still spins gracefully on its hill above the eastern coastal town of Laxey.

However, the historical motherlode is in the south. Huddled at the south-west tip of the island at Cregneash, the National Folk Museum (£4) is a village frozen in time – an attempt to preserve the rural landscape of the 19th century in crofters' cottages, blacksmiths' forges and busy looms. Elsewhere, Ballasalla village does ghostly sadness in the remains of Rushen Abbey (£4) – one of the last religious houses to fall to Henry VIII's dissolution policy (in 1540).

Then there is Castletown, the aptly named former capital, where Castle Rushen (£5.50) juts out its jaw as the medieval fortress that protected the ruling Lords Of Mann.

Directly below, the Old House Of Keys – a squat building that housed the Tynwald's lower chamber until 1874 – is impressive. Its main chamber has been cleverly reimagined so visitors can "take part" in crucial debates from the Isle of Man's past (weighty figures speak from TV screens disguised as paintings, a robotic speaker leads matters), including the revolutionary 1881 discussions that gave women islanders the vote, 47 years before full suffrage in England (visits daily, 11am and 3pm; £4; tickets sold at Castle Rushen).

Where to stay

The Isle of Man is notably short on very luxurious accommodation, but there are pockets of comfort in all corners.

Albany House (01624 845623; manxbedandbreakfast.com) is a cosy guesthouse in Peel, where double rooms start at £80 per night, with breakfast.

Ballachrink Farm (01624 880364; ballachrink.co.uk) runs a similar service on a working farm near Bride, in the north of the island. Doubles cost from £70 including breakfast.

The Claremont (01624 617068; sleepwellhotels.com), pictured below, is an elegant four-star, slotted into an unremarkable line of hotels on Loch Promenade in Douglas. Double rooms start at £105 with breakfast, and the in-house restaurant Coast does Manx lamb cutlet for £18.95.

Coasting along

Although it cannot claim the sort of soft, sandy flanks where sun-worshippers can baste to brown, there are plenty of lovely stretches along the Isle of Man's 99 miles of shore. In addition to the sweeping bays at Douglas and Peel, there are wave-dabbed curves at Port Erin in the south-west and Ramsey in the north-east, ideal for bracing walks and fresh air.

It is at its extremities, however, that the Isle smiles for the camera – notably at the south-west tip, where the Calf of Man keeps its counsel as a bird sanctuary, split from the main landmass by the narrow channel of the Calf Sound. A lighthouse warns of the Calf's bite – a trend repeated 32 miles away at the Point of Ayre, the Isle of Man's most northerly moment, and again at the easterly Maughold Head. It is well worth striding out to this latter landmark, as the trail from the village of Maughold conducts you past the parish kirk, where Celtic crosses adorn the graveyard and weatherbeaten headstones remember the Victorian dead.

Easily missed, but also worth visiting, the Langness Peninsula spears out from the south coast, ebbing into St Michael's Isle. Here, the Derby Fort, a circular stronghold built in 1540 as part of Henry VIII's boosting of his realm's defences, glares darkly at the horizon.

Full steam ahead

The Isle of Man is heaven for those in thrall of train travel. The flagship is the Isle of Man Steam Railway, which operates between March and November, from Douglas to Port Erin. Its 15-mile line is but a one-third remnant of when it was a 46-mile network (opened in 1874), but there is a jaunty rattle to its progress (returns £11.60).

In the east, the Manx Electric Railway (March to November) is a tramway that hugs the coast between Douglas and Ramsey (returns £11.60) linking, at Laxey, with the Snaefell Mountain Railway (April to October), which clambers to the Isle's rooftop (returns £10). All three are classed as public transport (01624 662525; iombusandrail.info) and can be ridden using the Island Explorer Ticket (one day £16; three days £30; one week £45).

Action and adventure

The Isle of Man's cocktail of craggy slopes, deep valleys and gap-toothed coast makes it a fine environment for breaks with an adrenalised edge. Adventurous Experiences (01624 843034; adventurousexperiences.com) offers sea kayaking trips from Fenella Beach in Peel (from £45), where there is a chance of encountering basking sharks and choppy waves. Other exploits include coasteering (scrambling and swimming along the shore), gorge scrambling (an inland take on coasteering) and climbing – all £40.

For more speed, Ballacraine Farm (01624 801219), just outside St John's, is an agricultural enclave that has branched into quad-biking. A two-hour session, darting past startled cows, then bumping across muddy gorse-strewn terrain, is £45 (all year).

Mountain biking is also possible. Trails, such as the 16 miles of the "Camel's Back", at the heart of the island, can be downloaded at visitisleofman.com.

Of course, the Isle's keynote adventure is the TT. And while it can be surprisingly difficult to hire a motorcycle, there is still a thrill to driving the circuit on four wheels. The most famous route, the Mountain Course, is a 38-mile loop that roars west out of Douglas on the A1, turns north at Ballacraine and follows the arc of the A3 to Ramsey – then tears up the steep body of Snaefell on the A18, before plunging back south towards the capital. Roads that form the track are marked by iconic black-and-white kerbstones ( iomtt.com).

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