The Isle of Man (Ellan Vannin in Manx Gaelic) is a glorious island nation roughly equidistant between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Just 30 miles (48km) long and 10 miles (16km) wide and with a stunning natural landscape, the island is a Unesco Biosphere Region of green glens, farmland and sandy bays. Islanders have their own currency (though the pound is accepted), cats (of the tail-less variety) and rule of law (it’s neither in the UK or EU). It’s a unique escape on our doorstep with much more to offer than just the TT (Tourist Trophy) motorcycle races.
On the island, legal requirements for social distancing have been removed, but air and sea borders remain closed to all but essential travellers. It remains to be seen when restrictions will be lifted and whether the Isle of Man will introduce quarantine measures for visitors.
Douglas and the east
Follow in the footsteps of the Victorians
There might not be horse-drawn trams trundling along the seaside esplanade of handsome Douglas this year – covid-19 and major roadworks are bumps in the road for 2020 – but stroll south beyond the quayside, to the promontory of Douglas Head for something that remains unchanged since Victorian times. Here, from a grassy clifftop slope, the panoramic view extends across the town and sea.
Insider’s tip: The restored Victorian Grand Union camera obscura sits on Douglas Head, but has very limited summer opening hours (and may not reopen at all in 2020). If the flag is flying, it’s open.
Contact: 01624 686766; visitisleofman.com
Price: Free; camera obscura £
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See the six kingdoms from the summit of Snaefell
The highest peak on the Isle of Man is Snaefell (2,036ft, 621m) and the usual route to the top is by mountain railway from the town of Laxey, 12km north of Douglas. The summit is often shrouded in snow or mist and there’s a little café to shelter in. On a clear day, there are phenomenal views of “six kingdoms”: The Isle of Man, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales – and more fancifully, Heaven and Manannán (the sea).
Insider’s tip: If the mountain railway isn’t operating then it’s possible to park at Bungalow (the railway’s penultimate stop) and follow the rough trail to the peak (roughly one hour each way).
Contact: 01624 686766, visitisleofman.com; 01624 662525, manxelectricrailway.co.uk
Price: Free; mountain railway ££
Admire the largest working watermill in the world
A marvellous feat of Victorian Engineering, the Great Laxey Wheel –otherwise known as the Lady Isabella –was built in 1854 to pump water from the Laxey mines. Brightly painted in red and white and with a wheel more than 72ft (22m) in diameter, it’s easy to spot in the hillside above town. Climb the spiral staircase for magnificent views of the valley.
Insider’s tip: Laxey also has the last working woollen mill on the Island (itself water powered until the turn of the twentieth century) and you can watch the master weavers at work on traditional handlooms. Wool is from the native Manx Loaghtan sheep.
Contact: 01624 648000, manxnationalheritage.im; 01624 861395, laxeywoollenmills.com
Peel and the west
Explore haunted ruins on St Patrick’s Isle
Once a wooden Viking fortress, today the stone ruins of Peel Castle dominate the small town of Peel and its pretty sandy bays. Cross the harbour footbridge to St Patrick’s Isle and the entrance in the curtain wall and discover expansive ruins with stunning sea views from the top of the Gatehouse Tower. The Moddey Dhoo (black dog) is said to haunt the castle each night after the gates close.
Insider’s tip: You can’t visit Peel and not stop in at Moore’s Kipper Yard beside the River Neb. Moore’s have been curing kippers here since 1884 and you can take a 30-minute tour (once they’ve reopened) or buy kippers, crab meat or smoked salmon from the on-site shop.
Contact: 01624 648000, manxnationalheritage.im; 01624 843622, manxkippers.com
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Take a walk on the rugged coastline
A dramatic bay in a secluded spot on a single-track road south of Dalby Village (don’t miss the thatched cottages at the entrance to the bay, a location for the 1998 film Waking Ned). Niarbyl means “the tail” in Gaelic Manx and the bay was named for the ridge of rocks that curl into the Irish Sea. Come for stunning views – as far as the Mountains of Mourne in Ireland on a clear day – and stay for sunset.
Insider’s tip: Parking is available at Niarbyl Bay Café. More restaurant than café, with loads of locally sourced food on the menu, they are also open in the evenings if you book ahead (daily in summer, Wednesday–Sunday in winter). The café also has information about the unique geology of the bay’s rocks.
Contact: 01624 686766, visitisleofman.com; 01624 843300, facebook.com/niarbylcafe
Price: Free; café £
Be enchanted by a fairyland
The Isle of Man is famous for its magical glens and Ballaglass Glen, 9km (5.5 miles) north of Laxey, is one of the most picturesque. This cool glen is shaded by beech, larch, pine and oak, and in spring the woodland floor is carpeted in bluebells and wild garlic. On the short circular trail, the only sound is birdsong and the babble of the stream and waterfall.
Insider tip: Children will love the Wizard of Mann tree sculpture and they should also look out for the Little House, a fairy house that appeared here in 2018 (two more are at Dhoon Glen) and made news worldwide (turns out it was clever marketing by the island’s Department for Enterprise).
Contact: 01624 686766; visitisleofman.com
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Attend the world’s oldest continuous parliament
Sitting at the crossroads between Douglas and Peel, Tynwald Hill at St Johns is said to be the world’s oldest continuous parliament. An artificial mound marks the outdoor ancient meeting place, where to this day laws must be proclaimed (in Gaelic Manx and English) on Tynwald Day. If you have an interest in democracy on the Isle of Man, visit the Old House of Keys in Castletown or take a tour of the current legislative buildings in Douglas.
Insider’s tip: Tynwald Day is July 5 (Ancient Midsummer’s Day) each year and it’s a Public Holiday on the Isle of Man. If it falls on a Saturday or Sunday then the following Monday is generally observed as a holiday.
Port St Mary and the south
Cross the Sound to the Calf of Man
Boats leave from Port Erin and Port St Mary to this tiny end-of-the-world islet at the very southern tip of the Isle of Man. The Calf of Man is a nature reserve and bird observatory and Manx Shearwater, Kittiwake, Razorbill and Shag, as well as Peregrine, Hen Harrier and Chough are monitored by seasonal wardens (who have just this week returned). When visitors are once again welcome on the Isle of Man, you must book ahead with the boatmen to arrange your transport and can stay overnight at the observatory’s basic self-catering hostel (bring supplies and a sleeping bag).
Insider’s tip: If you don’t fancy the choppy boat trip there are stunning views of the Calf of Man from the glass fronted Café at the Sound (4km south of Port St Mary).
Contact: 01624 648000, manxnationalheritage; 01624 830200, islandescapes.im; 01624 838123, facebook.com/TheCafeAtTheSound
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Discover the traditions of a Manx crofting community
Cregneash (Creneash) village was one of the last strongholds of the Manx language and today this huddle of thatched cottages is a living museum where you can gain an understanding of the local crofting way of life in the 19th and early 20th century. Costumed guides demonstrate lost skills and you’ll see Manx cats dotted about the place and rare Manx farm breeds in the surrounding fields.
Insider’s tip: You can walk to The Chasms just south of here; deep fissures in exposed rock with stupendous views of sea stacks and pinnacles. The coastal path towards Spanish Head is clearly marked (watch your step).
Contact: 01624 648000; manxnationalheritage.im
Be beside the seaside
The historic seaside resort of Port Erin has a family-friendly sheltered beach with soft white sand and plenty of places to eat and drink. There’s a pretty harbour arm with fishing boats bobbing on the ebbing tide and a picture-perfect lighthouse. All around are green hills and the rugged promontory of Bradda Head is to the east.
Insider’s tip: It’s a fairly easy walk to Bradda Head and Milner’s Tower, you just need to head up the promenade towards Bradda Glen, beyond which a clifftop trail takes you out along the headland.
Contact: 01624 686766; visitisleofman.com