It may only be small, but the Isle of Man has a huge heart and plenty to offer a visitor
The Isle of Man is a proud place. Crouching between the four nations of the British Isles, it may look tiny and unassuming – but it is a place packed with character and puffed up with confidence. From the moment you set foot on the self-governing island, the Manx people are desperate to give you tips, tell you stories and show you around their wonderful homeland. After a couple of hours exploring, it was not hard to see why.
In the taxi from the airport – the island’s area is around 221 square miles, so nothing is very far away – the driver suggested I ‘greet the fairies’ when crossing The Fairy Bridge, on the A5 to Douglas. It would bring me ‘luck’ on my visit, he said. The tree trunks lining the road were plastered with notes – wishes and messages to the fairies from superstitious locals. Pretty charming, but not as unusual as the lengths to which locals will go to help you out and make you feel welcome.
I stayed at the newly opened Birchfield House, which has great views of the rugged coastline of Douglas. This charming, homely place – with plush sofas and beds you literally have to climb on to – is run by celebrity chef Kevin Woodford, of Ready, Steady, Cook fame. Manx-born and bred, Kevin had his eye on this 19th-century townhouse since boyhood, and managed to snap it up when it came on the market a few years ago. It was worth the wait, with corniced ceilings, original beams and an old library, where a few tables and chairs are laid out for breakfast and dinner.
Of course, the food dished up there is fabulous – all local, organic produce, served up with the creative flair Kevin is known for. The constantly changing menu included sweet, tender ‘queenie’ scallops and beautifully cooked lamb. The breakfasts will keep you going all day. You can choose the full shebang or a lovely smelly plate of Manx kippers. “The cats will be scratching at the door,” warns Kevin. All of which is perfect preparation for a day exploring the island.
On the first morning of my long weekend, I decided to hire a bike and explore the flat, green north of the island. The narrow roads I pedalled down, past traditional stone walls, streams and working farms, were deserted save for a few chickens scratching about. You can certainly see why Manx people are proud of their fresh, verdant countryside. The wonderful electric railway, which runs from Douglas to Ramsey, in the north of the island, is another attraction worth boasting about.
During the summer, you can also hop on the Snaefell Mountain Railway. This is travel purely for the sake of travel – the track ambles for four miles from the village of Laxey to the top of the island’s highest mountain, Snaefell. From the top, on a clear day, you can see all four corners of the United Kingdom. There is also a working steam railway, which puffs and hoots from Douglas to Port Erin, in the south.
Here, the beach is a hotspot for families and adventure seekers. Braving the North Sea, I headed out for a kayaking session with Keirron Tastagh, who owns Adventurous Experiences. Once in your wetsuit, the cold is just bearable. Unless, like me, you end up doing an impromptu 360-degree turn and plunging into the icy depths. Still, the brief pain was worth it for the spectacular views of the island from the water. Paddling towards the Calf of Man, I passed rolling green hills, sheer charcoal cliffs – and a few very inquisitive grey seals.
For a change of pace, on the last day I got in my hire car and set off on the TT course, a road that skirts the edge of island from Douglas, all the way up to Sulby, through Peel and back around to Douglas again. You might think you know what a hairpin bend looks like – but this twisty, turny, windy road gives Claire’s Accessories a run for its money. This is a road that, each June, around 50,000 motorcyclists travel hundreds of miles and risk their lives to tackle. And all year round bikers and motorists alike come to tour the 38-mile road.
There are so many unique qualities to the Isle of Man. For example, the north is home to a colony of wallabies, the descendants of an escapee from the zoo. Then there are the fairies, the kippers, the three-legged flag symbol (which, they say, reflects the ability of Manx people to always land on their feet). All of this helps to explain why Manx people are so proud of their diminutive island – and why so many visitors come back, year after year, and find something new to explore and enjoy.
Flybe flies to the Isle of Man Ronaldsway Airport from London Gatwick and Luton, from £34.99 one-way, or from Liverpool, from £25.99 one-way. You can also catch the ferry to Douglas in the Isle of Man from Heysham, Liverpool, Belfast, Birkenhead or Larne. Prices start from £17.50 one-way for a foot passenger, or £35 return. A car with up to two people costs from £59 one-way.