Not a lot of things came to mind when I thought of the Isle of Man. Shameful, I know. Having lived in the UK for 10 years, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time exploring continental Europe but not necessarily what lay closer to home. In fact, all I knew was the Isle of Man was under some vague category of UK control. And that it was a tiny island in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland (thanks to the many times I pored over the route map in airline inflight magazines). So when an opportune long weekend came up, and my routine bedtime Skyscanner searches yielded a cheap EasyJet return flight to the island, I blinked twice and booked a two day visit.
What’s the deal with the Isle of Man?
I’m always confused by the different categories of UK overseas territories and dependencies. In the case of Isle of Man, it is a self-governing Crown dependency. It’s not part of the UK, but a possession of the Crown – which means it relies on the UK for defence and diplomatic representation, similar to Jersey. It has its own independent parliament (Tynwald) and members are elected to the House of Keys, as opposed to the UK’s House of Commons. It also happens to be the world’s oldest continuously running parliament that still passes laws on the island today. While Iceland and San Marino try to steal the Isle of Man’s thunder, they haven’t had the same legislative body standing without break for as long as Mann’s parliament has (since AD 979).
The sea is a constant presence on the island given its small size. It’s almost always visible and from whichever direction the wind blows, you can smell the ocean. According to legend, the island’s name comes from the Celtic sea god Manannan mac Lir, who would protect the island from invaders by enveloping it in mist. The sea around Mann is also littered with hundreds of shipwrecks. Some have been identified while doing survey work; many have not – but they make for great artificial reefs.
Coastlines that impress: Garwick Beach
I’ve seen movies and photos with breathtaking sea views and incredible cliffs in New Zealand, but I hardly expected to find this in the Isle of Man. The weather was definitely on my side which helped. I can completely imagine that an envelope of grey cloud, a haze of lethargic rain that always seems to plague the British Isles and a lack of sun would have resulted in a very different experience. But when I marched out the sun was bright, the sky blue, and the morning light made the brilliance of the blue sea, the green of the moss, and the yellowish browns of the shore sparkle.
I went up to Garwick beach by bus and found myself to be the only person there until a couple came to walk their dog. As the coastline came into view when I walked down the forested slope, I could barely believe what I saw. The fact that it was real, and the fact that this was the Isle of Man – not some remote Seychellois island or somewhere in New Zealand. The combination of the secluded bay backed by the bright green woodlands of Garwick Glen, with the River Gawne winding through, makes it one of Mann’s most scenic locations. This rock and shingle beach is also a favourite among dog walkers; an added benefit for pooch lovers.
Getting there: Bus services to Baldrine include 3, 3A, 13, N3. Bus timetables found here: www.bus.im
TT Motorcycle Races
When I booked my trip to the Isle of Man, it was purely a result of cheap flights coming at the right time. It was only when a good friend alerted me, that I realised I was visiting during the 2 most important weeks on the island’s calendar: the TT Motorcycle Races. I later found out this race is often the main reason that several people are even aware of the Isle of Man’s existence.
The island’s personality undergoes a complete transformation during this fortnight. Thousands of racing fans descend onto the island from near and far. Food trucks and beer tents magically appear. A funfair arrives. Entertainment fills the evenings. And the mood of the island is taken over by an air of festivity and celebration. Then of course there is the race itself. With over 100 years of history, a constant series of bends, and speeds close to 200 mph, it’s a hair-raising experience for any onlooker. Its claim to fame is that no other motorsport event draws people in as great numbers for an entire 2 week period as the TT races (whether this is mild exaggeration or not, I’m unsure).
On the day of my departure several of the roads, including the bus route from Port St Mary where I was staying, to the airport were closed. So I decided to make the most of it and walk all the way to the airport! En route, I climbed over a fence and walked through a field of cows to try and catch a glimpse of a practice race. Little did I know that the cows would be so curious that they’d jog over to sniff me (I thought only dogs did that). Mildly panicking, I tried to remain calm and get to the other end of the field where an amused set of bystanders watched this encounter. After laughing about the cows chasing me, I sat on the wall with the others and watched a few of the practice races. Quite literally all you see is a blur accompanied by a thundering rev as they whizz past.
Port St Mary
Purely based on price, when I was exploring accommodation options, I came across the seaside village of Port St Mary. I stayed in a large Victorian house which belonged to a Christian charity/mission, part of the Scripture Union movement. It typically is just for people participating or coordinating youth groups, workshops and camps, but opens its doors to visitors like me during the 2 weeks of the TT races. It was right on the waterfront promenade in Port St Mary with a beautiful view of the sea and a kind lady who made me feel very much at home.
While on the bus here from Douglas (the capital), I slowly understood that Manx folk are quite superstitious. There was a message on the bus tannoy as we passed Fairy Bridge, reminding us to greet the magical creatures. Not entirely sure what happens if you disobey…
Douglas – the Manx capital
My limited time on the island meant I didn’t spend much time in Douglas sadly. So I didn’t experience the historic Horse Trams that have been around for more than 140 years – originally introduced to capitalise on the flourishing tourist trade in Victorian times. Still popular with tourists today, it’s apparently quite a surreal experience to sit in a traditional tram car drawn by horses, with stunning sea views as you roll down the promenade. One on the list for next time.
#FunFact: The Bee Gees – a famous pop music group from the 1960-70s (that my mother loved listening to) are from the Isle of Man
The local chippie does great business here. Fish and chips are a staple, and several family-run businesses do a mean battered cod with peas and chunky chips. I must admit, the unwavering love for peas in Britain is a love I’m slowly getting used to, but the fish was delicious.
Apparently the island’s favourite meal is the local variant of Canadian poutine: chips, cheese and gravy. Except instead of cheese curds, the Manx use their own cheddar cheese. I got my fill at the Port Erin Chippy and Diner. A 30 min walk from Port St Mary, the seaside village of Port Erin with a sandy beach on the southwest coast was ideal for watching sunset. The portion size was so large, I had it for two meals!
South of the Island: Calf Sound
On my second day, I took the bus all the way to the southern tip of the island: Calf Sound. The towering cliffs make for an ideal view point of the ferocious waves hurling against the rocks below. Just further beyond is a rocky islet called Kitterland and another small island called the Calf of Man – a hotspot for sunbathing seals.
The Cafe at the Sound has a mouthwatering selection of homemade cakes (the chocolate Guinness cake I tried was top notch) and is a good stop for a decent cuppa. After refuelling, I took one of the footpaths through farms and the village of Cregneash all the way to Port Erin (there’s also a coastal footpath, but it was sadly closed when I visited).
It was only when I was on the island that I made the connection between the famous tail-less Manx cats and the Isle of Man (anything from the island is referred to as ‘Manx’). I kept a watchful eye out for them as I was walking through Cregneash village but alas, they must have all been hiding, having their afternoon snooze.
Visitor numbers to the Isle of Man have been dwindling. The 270,000 or so visitors that arrived in 2017 is a far cry from the half a million or so that would have visited annually in the 1940s, many lured away by cheap package holidays to the Mediterranean. While secretly happy that I could explore Mann’s postcard-like coastline and majestic cliffs without any bumbling tourists around, I honestly think people are missing out by setting their eyes solely on Southern Europe. Sure, it’s probably not going to be sun-drenched (although it was surprisingly so when I visited) nor will it have the most delicious food, but if you give this unassuming island a chance, its scenery might just take you off your feet.
The Isle of Man has one airport on the east coast (Ronaldsway) from where regular flights operate to/from several London airports. I hopped on an EasyJet flight out of London Luton. From Ronaldsway Airport, local buses take you to different parts of the island. The capital, Douglas, is roughly 30 mins north of the airport; I took the bus south to Port St Mary where I was staying. There’s also the option for those in England to take a train down to Heysham (near Lancaster) or Liverpool and then catch the ferry down to Douglas which takes 3h 45 min or 2h 45 min respectively.