A tiny drop marooned in the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man is a true hidden gem, with a windswept coastline, a wild interior and a fascinating history that dates back more than 7,000 years. Measuring just 227 square miles, it’s easy to explore and solid proof that good things come in small packages. A mecca for marine life, the waters are teeming with seals, dolphins, whales and even the occasional basking shark, while all kinds of seabirds squawk across the skies. Bryony Holland delves into the folkloric traditions, natural charms and culinary treats of this quirky, unsung island.
Fuel up on a full Manx breakfast complete with local sausages and homemade soda bread at the cosy Patchwork Café (Bay View Road, 01624 836 418), with gorgeous views of the bay to boot. Next, wander down to the docks at Port St Mary for a boat trip through the breezy Calf Sound to see the island’s resident seals sunbathing on the rocky islet of Kitterland. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, killer whales, basking sharks and minke whales, and whip out your binoculars to study the 33 species of seabird native to the area. If you’re a little shaky on your sea legs, stick to the lattice of walking trails around the peninsula instead, looking out for wildlife along the way.
Grab a warming cuppa at the scenic Sound Visitor Centre built into the headland before boarding the Victorian steam train at Port St Mary station for a nostalgic ride on the longest narrow gauge line in Britain. Hurtling through golden wheat fields and sunlit meadows aboard this Victorian locomotive is by far the most atmospheric way to reach Douglas, the island’s main town. Chugging up the East coast of the island since 1874, the charm of this old boneshaker makes up for the light whiplashing you’ll receive along the way. A one-day Island Explorer ticket costs £16.00 per adult and entitles you to unlimited travel on trains, buses and trams, making it great value for money.
Home to just 27,000 people, Douglas is petite but perfectly formed, with plenty to keep you occupied. The Manx Museum (Kingswood Grove, 01624 648 000) is a great intro to the island, walking you through its 10,000 year history. You’ll find a hoard of Viking gold, a fascinating section covering the Tynwald (Manx parliament) and a display documenting the WWII internment camps that once occupied parts of the island. Afterwards, stop for a spot of lunch at 14 North House (14 North Quay, 01624 664414), an atmospheric quayside restaurant showcasing seasonal produce from the island. For a real local treat, tuck into ‘Queenie’ scallops with homemade pesto washed down with Elderflower ‘Keshal' - traditional Manx champagne.
Let the bubbles settle with a trip north towards charming Laxey on the Manx Electric Railway, a vintage line weaving through glens, villages and gorgeous countryside. When you arrive, swing past the Great Laxey Wheel, known affectionately as Lady Isabella amongst the islanders. Built in 1854, this is the world’s largest working water wheel, formerly used to pump water from the nearby Laxey mines. Afterwards, hop on the Snaefell Mountain Railway for the journey to the summit of the island’s only mountain, 2,036 feet above sea level. On a clear day, you can see all Seven Kingdoms from the top - England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man, as well as the kingdoms of heaven and the sea. It’s slow travel at its most scenic.
Continuing north, the village of Maughold 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. Alternatively, take an afternoon wander around nearby Ballaglass Glen, blanketed in thick moss, fragrant with wild garlic and carpeted with bluebells in springtime. Crisscrossed with rivers and rich with birdsong, it’s like stepping into a sun-dappled fairytale, so be sure to keep your camera close at hand.
Next, cross the island to the West coast in time to catch sunset over the atmospheric ruins of Peel Castle on St.Patrick’s Isle. An unmissable slice of Manx history, this 11th-century sea fort was once home to a Viking chieftain who went by the name of Magnus ‘Barefoot’ Olafsson and was most notably King of Norway (1093-1103). 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. The castle itself will be closed by now, but there’s plenty of time to pick up a locally whipped ice cream from award-winning Davison’s (1 Castle Court, Shore Road, 01624 844761) and sit on the sandy bay as the sun sinks over its battlements.
Nicknamed ‘Sunset City’ by locals, Peel is a colourful old fishing port with narrow twisting streets and tiny fishermen’s cottages. Given the seaside location, it’s no surprise that 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. For a real fishy feast, try the shellfish platter, featuring everything from whole Manx lobster to dressed crab. On a warm summer evening, pop into Peel Fisheries (6 Christian Street, 01624 842 408) and munch first-class fish and chips on the beach before setting off on a spooky ghost walk with Isle of Man Ghost Tours (15 Ash Close, 07624 416824). It’s guaranteed to send shivers down your spine.
Though small, the Isle of Man is far from sleepy. The weekends are positively jumping in Douglas, so join the locals and get in on the action. The Bath and Bottle Bar (6 Victoria Street, 01624 845 400) is a late-night drinking den with some serious cocktail klout. If you’re in town on a Wednesday, check out its Speakeasy Cinema, showing cult films in cosy surroundings with free popcorn to boot. Slick and swanky, The Courthouse (Athol Street, 01624 672 555) is easily the island’s coolest hangout, while Tahiko (Central Promenade, 01624 662662) is a cavernous club spinning commercial favourites. 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. And make sure you look up when you’re out at night. The Isle of Man has some of the darkest skies in the world so it’s one of the best spots in the UK for stargazing.