A small outcrop sat in the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man is one of Britain’s hidden gems, with miles of craggy coastline, an unspoilt interior and a fascinating history that dates back more than 7,000 years. Wildlife is another big draw, with seals, dolphins, whales and even the occasional basking shark to be found in local waters. Ruth Styles explores the natural charms, historic sites and culinary treats of this unsung destination.
Start the day with a slice of toast made from homemade bread at Patchwork Café (Bay View Road, 01624 836 418) washed down with a strong cup of tea and a gorgeous view of the bay. Next make your way to the docks at Port St Mary and head out on a boat tour through the Calf Sound (a body of water separating the Calf of Man Island from the Isle of Man) where you can expect to see some of the island’s resident seals huddled on the rocks. At certain times of year in the deeper waters dolphins, killer whales and basking sharks can all be spotted, as can huge flocks of sea birds. Endangered minke whales and rare harbour porpoises occasionally put in an appearance too.
Board the steam train at Port St Mary station for a Merchant Ivory experience. This original Victorian locomotive runs the narrow gauge railway between Douglas in the east and Port St Mary in the south. Perhaps not the smoothest of rides, the charm of this old boneshaker makes up for the occasional judder as it puffs through golden wheat fields and sunlit meadows studded with long-horned Laughton sheep. A one-day Island Explorer ticket entitles you to unlimited travel on trains, buses and trams.
Douglas is the Isle of Man’s main city, albeit one that is home to just 27,000 people, and there’s no shortage of things to do. Start with the Manx Museum (Kingswood Grove, 01624 648 000), a small exhibition space that nevertheless boasts a sizeable hoard of Viking gold, a fascinating section covering the Tynewald (Manx parliament) and a display documenting the WWII internment camps that once occupied parts of the island. There’s a small café called the Bay Room on site but for something a bit more stylish, try Artisan (28 Victoria Street, 01624 667 917). One of Douglas’ cooler eating spots, the seasonal menu is served in a light and airy dining room enlivened with stylish touches such as the mirrored wooden bar.
Head north towards Ramsey after lunch along the spectacular TT Mountain Course, which takes you through the Isle of Man’s rugged interior while offering an almost aerial view of the coast. The village of Maughold sits six kilometres outside of town and is home to the ancient Cashtal yn Ard – or Castle of the Heights – the largest Neolithic tomb in the UK. Dating from around 2000BC, the burial spot is thought to be a communal one with generations of chieftains and their families interred there. The village church has almost as ancient a pedigree and is believed to be the final resting place of a minor saint named Machaoi. Once the site of a Celtic monastery, construction began around AD600 and was completed four years later.
In Ramsey itself is Milntown House (Lezayre, 01624 812 321), a handsome 16th-century estate set in six hectares of gardens and woodland. Once the home of the illustrious Christian family, among them Fletcher Christian who gained notoriety as the head mutineer on HMS Bounty, the Gothic mansion house makes for interesting exploration. With its long history, Milntown is also said to be one of the most haunted locations on the island. Isle of Man Ghost Tours (15 Ash Close, 076 2441 6824) offer private bookings and ghost walks around Milntown and other atmospheric locations.
Taking inspiration from its naturally harmonious location in the lush Andreas countryside, Brightlife (Andreas Road, 01624 880 318) is a luxurious wellness centre and spa offering a holistic range of therapies for mind, body and spirit. Alternatively, drive on to Peel and take a boat to St Patrick’s Isle for a walk around the atmospheric ruins of Peel Castle, an 11th-century sea fort once home to a Viking chieftain who went by the name of Magnus Barefoot. Along with the castle, the islet is also home to a crumbling church and, according to local legend, a ghostly apparition called the Moddey Dhoo that appears in the form of a black dog.
Nicknamed ‘Sunset City’ by locals, Peel is a colourful old fishing port with narrow winding streets, tiny fisherman’s cottages and interesting shops for browsing. Known locally as ‘Aladdin’s Cave’, The Old Bonded Warehouse (29 Castle Street, 01624 844 565) houses an impressive collection of curiosities and the friendly owner isn’t adverse to a spot of haggling should something catch your eye. Unsurprisingly, given its seaside location, Peel’s restaurants specialise in fresh fish, with some of the best to be found at The Boatyard (Mariners Wharf, East Quay, 01624 845 470), which sources its fish straight off the boats. Served with views over Peel Marina and St Patrick’s Isle, everything is homemade while the menu changes to reflect the seasons. For truly excellent fish and chips, pop in to Peel Fisheries (6 Christian Street, 01624 842 408), which serves truly excellent fish and chips.
A number of drinking venues in Douglas, the island’s capital, offer late nibbles with live music and film screenings, while some host pop-up art galleries. At the Bath and Bottle cocktail bar (6 Victoria Street, 01624 845 400), you can enjoy a Fig and Pear Smash with a tasty sharing plate, or take your Bakewell Tart-ini down to the basement for the secret cinema screenings. The Railway Inn (Banks Circus, 01624 670 773) is a stylish whisky bar with a southern flavour where you can listen to live blues and rockabilly music over a gourmet burger, while The Courthouse (Athol Street, 01624 672 555) serves delicious tapas in the upstairs bar with regular DJs in the nightclub below. Also worth checking out is Villa Marina (Harris Promenade, 01624 600 555), the island’s main live music venue and home to the Broadway Cinema.