Beyond the kippers and fog
It doesn’t bode well when one of the main websites promoting the Isle of Man can only dredge up the kipper curing museum as atop highlight and mentions a sea fret which descends on low lying areas as another key attraction.
Perhaps this inability to blow its own trumpet has contributed to the island remaining somewhat under the mainstream tourist radar. Or it could just be that the locals know they have a good thing going and want to keep it to themselves.
Either way, this tiny island has much more to offer than smoked fish and fog. Sandwiched between England and Ireland, it has complicated history and culture and is also rather spectacularly beautiful, in a stark, sea-spray kind of a way.
So it’s worth taking the trouble to visit this rock in the Irish Sea to find out what the Manx, as the inhabitants are known, are keeping secret from the rest of the world.
Getting there and around...
The most convenient flight connections from Malta are via London or Manchester. If you prefer the ferry or want to take a car with you, there are connections with Liverpool, Heysham, Dublin and Belfast. Return passenger ferry tickets start at around €22.50 with day trips slightly cheaper.
The island is only 85km by 33km but having a car will make sightseeing easier. A road runs along the entire 120km coastal route, ambling through nostalgic old villages and past spectacular views of the sea and a snow-capped Snaefell mountain.
Where to stay...
Accommodation is plentiful in the capital Douglas, but for something different, head south to Aaron House in Port St Mary.
This guesthouse has a Victorian theme which infuses everything from the cooking to the antique furniture.
Attention to detail is what makes the place and you’ll even be offered cake baked from a Victorian recipe on arrival.
Visit http://aaronhouse.co.uk , prices from £35 per person, per night.
Where to eat...
The unusually titled JAR (Just Another Restaurant) is located on the promenade in Douglas, but you don’t come here for the view.
Garlic and tarragon veloute, sautéed wing of skate with courgette ribbons and Manx cream, and chocolate cheesecake are just some of the delicacies on the menu.
The presentation is exquisite, more work of art than plate of food. It’s not the cheapest place on the island to eat, but it’s certainly one of the best ( http://jar.co.im ).
Tanroagan in Douglas ( http://tanroagan.co.uk ) also has an excellent reputation for seafood.
Get an adrenaline rush...
If the idea of motorbikes zipping past at improbable speeds on public roads raises your heart rate, then time your visit to coincide with the famous TT races.
This annual event is phenomenally popular, despite, or perhaps because of the huge risks the riders take on the tight country lanes. There have been around 200 deaths since it started in 1907.
Should watching the competition bring out the boy racer in you, then the island is the perfect place to go full throttle; there’s no speed limit outside built-up areas so you can emulate the heroes of the race the very next day if you so choose.
What to sample...
Having derided the idea of naming kippers as an attraction, it’s time to admit that they are actually rather good. Peel is the place to eat the ‘Ree ny Marrey’ or King of the Sea in Manx Gaelic, since they’ve been smoking the fish for over 140 years there. Locals dish them up with oatcakes (traditionally) or potatoes. Moore’s kipper factory offers free tours to see the whole process and a chance to buy the fish. You could also try the national favourite of ‘chips, cheese and gravy’ after a few pints in the pub.
What to see...
To immerse yourself in a time gone by, visit the National Folk Museum at Cregneash near Port St Mary. It’s a living museum showing a crofter’s life, where cart horses still plough the fields, peasants sit outside thatched cottages spinning and the Manx language can be heard.
The unique four-horned Manx sheep are a particular draw and a local informs me that they also hypnotise the hens here; she was hazy on the reasons for this, but perhaps it is to help them bear the unbridled drudgery of a return to life in the 19th century. Entry is €4.50
If the minutiae of farming leave you cold, then there’s the Laxey Wheel, the largest water wheel in the world, which was used to pump water out of the local mine. It’s an impressive piece of 19th century ingenuity and worth a couple of pictures. Entry also €4.50
If your children are now craving a bit more adventure, take them on the Snaefell Mountain Railway. More of a tram, strictly speaking, it grinds out of Laxey to rattle noisily ever upwards. You’ll pass through truly spectacular moorland scenery and finish at the summit for some cracking 360° panoramas and, of course, a pub.
The locals joke that on a clear day, you can see six kingdoms from here: Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, Mann and Heaven. Perhaps this view of the neighbours helped to confirm the islanders’ fierce independence. Mann belongs neither to the UK nor the EU and the island’s symbol ‘The Three Legs of Man’ represents this pride and means ‘whichever way you throw, it will stand’.
The train looks alarmingly like it might be running away as it piles back down the hill, which should keep your offspring entertained. Return tickets cost around €11.50, or you can take a single and make your own way back. Operates April to September.
Get some good luck...
On the A5 to Douglas, you’ll pass the Fairy Bridge. It has become tradition to greet the fairies in order to procure some good luck. Visitors and locals have covered the trees around the bridge with requests and messages, so feel free to stop and add yours to the piles.
TT racers apparently take the ritual very seriously, but given their high levels of mortality in the race, they can’t have enough luck on their side.
Brush up on history...
The island has strong Celtic and Viking roots. Tynwald Hill is a burial mound later used by the Vikings as a very early parliament. The Mull (or Meayll) Stone Circle near Cregneish is also worth a visit for its windswept, atmospheric setting. It contains a chambered tomb and six pairs of graves dating back 5,000 years.
The island also has two stout castles at Peel and Castletown. Peel Castle, which dates from 1392, houses the oldest Celtic cathedral in Britain, while Castletown’s castle has a tower 24 feet high with 3.5 feet thick walls; clearly the architects were expecting trouble.
Where to watch wildlife...
The Calf of Man is a two-square-kilometre islet managed by the Manx National Heritage. It’s a paradise for seabirds such as puffins, razorbills and Manx shearwaters and there’s an important population of the beautifully sleek chough. You might also spot grey seals, basking sharks, dolphins and minke whales along the coast.
You can get to the Calf by boat from Port Erin or Port St Mary. It’s possible to stay overnight (call Manx National Heritage on + 44 (0) 1624 648000 to book) but you will need to take all your own food as there are no shops. Visitors do occasionally get marooned on the remote islet, so check the weather forecast before you go.
Rather oddly, another wildlife spectacle is the red-necked wallaby colony in the north of the island. A single pair escaped from the wildlife park in the 1960s and apparently failed to notice that they were in quite the wrong continent. They took to island life so well that there are now around 100 hopping around, entirely free. Isle of Man Wildlife Tours will take you to see them (www.iomtours.co.uk).