The Isle Of Man may lie just off the coast of Britain, but it has its own very different way of doing things, providing a foreign escape on your doorstep
It certainly has a British feel, but the Isle of Man is a self-governing isle, neither part of the UK nor the EU, and very quickly you’ll realise that the Manx have done their own thing in their own way for a very long time. The result: a delightfully dated, if a little racy, short-break escape.
Douglas, the Isle of Man’s capital, is a grand old Victorian seaside resort on the east coast where, by day, a crinoline and parasol or top hat and cane wouldn’t look out of place. But by night the seafront clubs and bars party hard and an off-the-shoulder number and no coat is de rigueur even when the Irish Sea breeze is crisp.
It may be hard to get a cab at closing time but next day you can clear a fuzzy head by taking a horse-drawn tram ride along the prom. Known locally as riding the toast rack, aboard you’ll feel like an extra in a scene from a Cameron Mackintosh movie. Hop off and on to the Manx Electric Railway, continuing your car-less journey along the east coast in a vintage carriage to Laxey.
There are two reasons to stop at this pretty former mining village - the Snaefell Mountain Railway and the Laxey Wheel. Known as Lady Isabella, this huge red, white and black waterwheel attracted crowds from across the island when she was first set to work in 1854. She still strikes a pose today, a skyscraper against the two-up-two-downs. Lady Isabella pumped water from Laxey’s pit bottom, where men worked up to 2,000 feet underground, removing lead, zinc and silver.
Climb the 95 steps to the top to get a true sense of her size, then follow the Mines Trail to see what life was like for the pit workers. You can even don a hard hat and head down a short section of the mine yourself.
Back in the village climb aboard the Snaefell Mountain Railway for a scenic journey to the island’s highest peak, Mount Snaefell. Climbing steadily up the heather-clad hillside you’ll reach Murray’s Motor Cycle Museum and cross part of the TT race course, where the island’s famous motorbike road-race is held each year (May 30 to June 12 in 2009). While you can happily do without a car until this point, there is nothing like navigating the chicanes of this legendary circuit yourself – within the speed limit of course.
You’ll also need your own wheels to cross Man to Peel, where one of the best beaches on the island is backed by a fortress and rolling hills. There’s also a fabulous ice cream shop along the prom called Davidson’s where you can savour a delicious bubble gum, Turkish delight or banoffee ice.
As the harbour cuts inland from the seafront, it leads you to the House of Manannan, a fabulous museum where you really get to experience the island’s history.You’ll be led through several theatres - one styled liked a Celtic roundhouse, another a Viking longhouse - as sound and light shows recount stories and legends from the island’s past. The exhibition culminates in a series of portside scenes, where you’ll find Odin’s Raven, a replica longboat being landed by its Viking crew.
Fish and trips
Peel is also the centre of the isle’s kipper industry. Don’t leave without sampling some of these oak-smoked culinary delights - the best come from Moore’s Traditional Curers in Mill Road.
Fortified, head for arguably the most scenically dramatic spot on Man, the Sound Visitors' Centre and its restaurant, at the southwestern extreme of the island. Watch as waves clash in the channel between the mainland and the Calf Of Man, a towering island just offshore, now a nature reserve and bird sanctuary.
If you want a closer look take a boat trip out from Port Mary. Aboard the Hannah Louise we were treated to sea shanties, seal sightings and a spot of mackerel fishing - as well as the lowdown on the region’s geology and birdlife we were expecting from the merry crewmen.
If you still haven’t succumbed to the charms of the Isle of Man, try this walk at Glen Maye. Conveniently, it starts at the Waterfall Hotel public house, which serves excellent food. Facing the pub, take the country path to your left and descend down into the glen by steps and cross a bridge to a hidden waterfall, which cascades in a haze beneath the viewing platform.
Back in Douglas try L'Expérience
(Summer Hill) for some of the best food in the capital. A bistro-style French restaurant on the prom, its fixed-price menus start at £23.95 for three courses. It’s just a stroll from the Sefton Hotel, where a sea-view or atrium-view room (with balcony overlooking its wacky indoor water garden) will set you back from £95 for a double. Golfers might prefer the country club retreat of Mount Murray Hotel
, where doubles cost from £94 per room.