The Isle of Man is a fantastic holiday destination for anyone – and the pints are pretty cheap too
The foaming waves crash onto the rocks as the seagulls scream in the blue sky above me and I utter a little yelp of excitement – a seal has emerged from the sea far below my clifftop vantage point.
The shiny black dome of his head glistens in the sun as he looks around, whiskers bristling, showing no care for the salty water slopping over his brow. He floats for a moment, basking, before diving back into the Irish sea. In the distance, on a tiny islet, his corpulent pal inelegantly hauls himself onto a rock to make the most of the sunshine – and I curse my lack of binoculars.
I can see why the seals would gather at such a place. After all, The Sound on the very southern tip of the Isle of Man is considered one of the most scenic places in the British Isles. It boasts a majestic coastline with soaring, craggy cliffs carpeted in grass, ferns and splashes of purple gorse. We stride along the coastal path breathing in deep lungfuls of the fresh sea air, imprinting this seaside idyll in our minds. Although popular with tourists due to its natural beauty, we only meet a few walkers despite the peak season.
This is, in fact, a recurring observation during my trip. The island was once a hugely popular holiday destination for Victorian Britons, with visitor numbers peaking in 1913 when 663,000 people visited the Isle of Man. Yet in 2017 the destination saw a nine per cent slump in arrivals with just under 267,000 tourists heading to the island.
Isle of Man: Holidays on IOM go beyond the TT races – what to do on the British island
Nevertheless, part of the island’s charm, at least for me, is that it doesn’t seem to try too hard to impress. There’s a time-warped feel about the place. Americans on the search for the all-British olde-worlde experience would be well-advised to make the hop to the Isle of Man. The beauty of the island doesn’t need dressing up – it’s a microcosm of the British coast and countryside, and its castles, landscape and friendly inhabitants speak for themselves.
And indeed, for such a small place, the island has an amazing selection of castles. Castle Rushen (with the entertaining storybook address of Castle Street, Castletown) in the south is considered one of the best-preserved medieval castles in the world.
It was originally built in the 12th century for a Norse king and developed by successive rulers until the 1600s. It’s been used a fortress, a mint and even a prison. An enormous place, there’s plenty to learn about at Castle Rushen – complete with mannequins of moaning castle guards on the toilet (or rather, garderobe) and dressing up options to keep the kids happy. The views from the top of the towering limestone walls are impressive across the picturesque Castletown and out to sea. I’d recommend giving yourself two hours to comfortably explore.
Of course, if you really want a show-stopping vista from within castle walls your best bet is to head to Peel Castle on the east coast. The 11th-century fortress was built by Vikings and was later home to Christian missionaries and Kings – grab the free audio guide for the full history. It’s now mostly ruined although the outer walls remain intact. Its hilltop position with the backdrop of a ruined 13th-century cathedral (complete with an eerie crypt beneath) and the breathtaking coastline in the distance make for a Romantic’s dream. The spot is well-known for its sunsets, too.
Romance and magic also spring to mind over at Dhoon Glen on the west coast. If fairies live anywhere it’s here. Visitors to this beautiful place could be in any era – although modern-day walking boots are definitely advised.
One of the Island’s most dramatic glens and waterfalls, Dhoon Glen is nestled within a steep-sided, forest-covered valley. The rocky path down is lined with ferns and moss-caked trees, the sunlight filtering in through the rustling canopy of leaves. The water rushes down, cascading over boulders, winking where the sun hits the water. Occasionally we stumble across an ancient stone bridge – I can only assume the trolls were hiding that day. At one point I spot a miniature house sticking up from a rock, built with intricate detail. The fairies are excellent craftsman, is surely the only explanation.
Once we reach the bottom of the waterfall, it’s clear it’s no match for its Icelandic rivals or Niagara, but Dhoon Glen waterfall has a quiet poetic majesty of its own. Water pours over the rocks breaking into millions of glistening drops as it hits the sharp edges and falls to the pool below. I like to think star-crossed, forbidden lovers would have once met at the picturesque spot.
Isle of Man: The Sound is considered one of the most scenic places in the British Isles
Isle of Man: Peel Castle offers a show-stopping vista from within castle walls
Isle of Man: Romance and magic also spring to mind over at Dhoon Glen on the west coast
Continue the walk along and you’ll end up at the isolated pebble beach at Dhoon Bay. We meet no one during our time here, making it the ideal tranquil spot for a moment of reflection (or an amorous clinch for the aforementioned lovers). It would also make an excellent picnic spot – provided you’re willing to lug the provisions all the way there!
If getting out onto the sea itself for an active adventure is more your thing, why not try sea kayaking. I joined an excursion at Peel with the fabulous team at Adventurous Experiences, and, while it turns out sea kayaking is not my natural forte (although I strongly blame the choppy waters and wind for any ineptitude), it was great fun and definitely a hearty workout.
Guided by very jolly and infinitely patient company founder Keirron, we kayaked out past Peel Castle and along the beautiful coastline. Learning techniques as we went along, we explored caves hidden in the cliffs only accessible by water, weaving in and out of the rocks rising from the sea. The team were keen to push us to challenge ourselves but understood the limitations of the participants (read: me) when it came to battling the elements. When we were offered the choice of a more “white water” route back to the beach I knew it was time for me to bow out.
Should guaranteed hair-raising be what you’re after then this can certainly be achieved on a trike ride over the island with IOM Trike Tours. Ideal for motorbike buffs and fans of the world-famous TT race, it’s also fascinating for total novices and for people for whom TT springs caffeinated beverages to mind rather than burly bikers (read: me). The trikes see an expert sit up front manning the vehicle while two people can sit behind, firmly strapped in and kitted out with helmets and protective gear.
We follow the route of the TT race all over the island while learning about the intriguing history of the event and its famous riders. While we ride at a considerably lower speed than the racers (think around a mind-blowing 130mph if not more at full pelt) we do hit a whopping 90mph that leaves my cheeks flapping in the wind and contemplating whether one’s head can clean blow off while offering up a silent Hail Mary.
Thrill-seeking aside, the tour is another great way to admire the beauty of the Isle of Man. We go all the way up to Snaefell mountain from where, on a clear day, they say six kingdoms can be seen from the top: the Isle of Man, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Heaven – and the views certainly are pretty awe-inspiring.
Isle of Man: Harriet poses with a trike on a IOM Trike Tour – they follow the route of the TT race
Isle of Man: For leisurely way to see the island on wheels, there’s the Manx Electric Railway
Isle of Man: The Great Laxey Wheel is the largest surviving waterwheel of its kind in the world
For an infinitely more leisurely way to see the island on wheels, there’s the Manx Electric Railway. Built between 1893 and 1899, it connects the Island’s capital, Douglas, with Laxey in the east and Ramsey in the north and is acknowledged as the longest narrow gauge vintage electric railway system in the British Isles.
The train itself is enchanting with its wooden benches and bright red and brown chirpy exterior. Amazingly, two of the trams in use are the oldest regularly operated tram cars in the world. Particularly charming are the stops we pass on the way – tiny little colourful huts with the stop name emblazoned in big white letters on the roof while large hanging baskets of pretty flowers adorn the exterior – they’re like something right out of an Enid Blyton tale.
At Laxey itself, be sure to check out the Great Laxey Wheel – the largest surviving waterwheel of its kind in the world. Theme park ride-like with its red and white paint, the wheel in fact had a very practical purpose back in the day, serving the mine for 70 years. The bay is picturesque, too.
We stay in Douglas at the comfortable Halvard Hotel which is perfectly positioned on the seafront, offers Netflix in the rooms and is within easy walkable access to restaurants, bars and shops. There’s great food to be had in the town and I particularly recommend seafood restaurants Ocean and Tanroagan.
You might be perplexed by the frequent mention of “Queenies” on the menu. It turns out these are miniature scallops, and, at Ocean, they’re little, salty, buttery mouthfuls of goodness. At Tanroagan I can vouch for the deliciousness of the ‘Asiette’ starter – the local kipper pate is to die for.
As for drinks, make sure you sample some artisan Fynoderee gin while you’re on the Isle of Man. Not only are the bottles absolutely beautiful, but the unique blends also feature Manx grown or locally foraged botanicals. There’s one for every season, too, so it’s always the right time of year to try.
In a recent HSBC Expat Survey looking at 33 countries, the Isle of Man was revealed as the best place to live in the British Isles and 12th best in the entire world.
Having now visited the Isle of Man myself, I can easily see why so many people are happy there. One local man we spoke to may have done the place no favours by jokingly describing it as “800,000 alcoholics clinging to a rock in the middle of the Irish sea,” but the island has certainly cast its spell over me. Now, if I say “I do believe in fairies” three times, do you think they’ll make an appearance?
For more inspiration on an Isle of Man holiday go to www.visitisleofman.com.