How to spend a weekend on the Isle of Man

Alone in the Irish Sea, the Celtic island promises plenty beyond the roar of its famous racing circuit, from wooded glens and rich birdlife to mysterious ruins alive with mythical tales.

Breakwater Head lighthouse at Castletown Head.

Photograph by Shutterstock
By Daniel Stables
Published 2 Jan 2023, 08:00 GMT

An atmosphere of otherness pervades the Isle of Man. A green jewel glittering in the Irish Sea, the island is often shrouded in mist — a veil said to have been cast as a protective cloak by the sea god Manannán, according to Manx mythology. Lift the veil on this Celtic nation and you’ll find tales of legends run even deeper; green glens, crumbling castles and a dramatic coastline are the setting for a cast of characters from demon dogs to hairy ogres. Even today, locals pause to greet the ‘Little People’ said to live beneath the Fairy Bridge between Port Erin and Douglas — and warn that you’d be wise to join in the superstition.

The ruins of once-mighty fortresses feature at coastal settlements like Peel and Castletown, while inland the island is a patchwork of emerald fields, wooded vales and time-warp villages. You’ll also find some of the darkest night skies in the British Isles, making the Isle of Man a spectacular place to stargaze. It all adds up to a scene of sylvan serenity — duly torn apart each May, of course, when the Isle of Man TT race rips through the island’s roads.

Day one: foraging & folklore

Immerse yourself in the Manx countryside by eating its precious bounty, straight from the hedgerows. Head to the picturesque coastal village of Port Erin to meet Pippa Lovell, chef behind the acclaimed restaurant Versa, and let her lead you on a foraging tour. Versa’s ethos is all about sustainability, and, where possible, hand-foraged. This means the menu changes daily according to what’s available, which might include rock samphire, blackberries and rosehips. Learn how local ingredients can be used as substitutes for exotic flavours — hogweed seeds are a dead ringer for cardamom, while gorse flowers give a note of coconut. Head back to Versa for a brunch using the ingredients you’ve just foraged.

After brunch, spend more time exploring the southwest corner of the island, beginning at Cregneash. At this living museum, indigenous Manx breeds such as four-horned Loaghtan sheep laze outside crofter’s cottages, reconstructed to show what life was like for the hardy souls who eked out a living here in the 19th century. From here it’s a 50-minute drive to Glen Auldyn, a pretty wooded valley which echoes with fairy folklore. It’s said that an elfin prince fell in love with a human girl here, and as punishment was transformed into the hairy Fynoderee. Also worth a visit is the Cashtal yn Ard, a remarkably well preserved tomb dating back to 2000 BC with fine views across the water to Cumbria.

The legend of Glen Auldyn is kept alive at The Fynoderee Distillery in the nearby town of Ramsey. Head here to try their superb range of gins, flavoured with botanicals from the Manx countryside — sloes, rosehips, rowanberries — while learning from owners Paul and Tiffany Kerruish about the island’s folklore. Their spirits are inspired by the seasons; the winter gin is infused with juniper, once native to Glen Auldyn and now being reintroduced. Having savoured the produce of the countryside, turn your attention to the coast, with dinner at Ramsey’s Good Stuff. At this laid-back restaurant, pride of place on the menu goes to the catch of the day, with bass, mullet and dogfish among the regular haul.  

Breakwater Head lighthouse at Castletown Head; Port Erin Bay.

Breakwater Head lighthouse at Castletown Head; Port Erin Bay.

Photograph by Visit Isle of Man

Day two: wheels & wine

Each spring, the atmosphere on the Isle of Man ratchets up to full throttle with the staging of the Isle of Man TT. The ‘Tourist Trophy’ began life in 1907, and is the oldest motorcycle race in the world — and among the most dangerous, with fatalities, tragically, an all-too-common occurrence. 
Get a taste for the thrill of the race in a much safer setting, sitting on the back of a motorised trike as you whizz around the course at speeds much slower than those seen in the race itself, but still not exactly pedestrian. IOM Trike Tours’ drivers are fonts of knowledge about the race and the island, will go as fast or slow as you want, and stop off for photos during the spectacular mountain sections. 

Back in Douglas, enjoy lunch at Little Fish Café, where the fruits of the Isle of Man coast — queen scallops, haddock, mackerel — are whipped up into tacos, chowders and curries. Then, having recovered from the white-knuckle trike tour, enjoy a more sedate ride on the Manx Electric Railway, which has been ferrying passengers around the island since 1893. Ride in a vintage Victorian carriage, then jump off at the coastal village of Laxey, where the world’s largest waterwheel presides over the ruins of an old mine and the panorama of Glen Mooar Valley. Take an hour or two to explore, then board the tramway again, ascending to Snaefell, Man’s highest peak.  

Board the train back to Douglas and steep yourself in the island’s history at the Manx Museum. See tools used by the hunter-gatherers who lived here in Mesolithic times, marvel at glittering hoards left by the Vikings, and learn about the Tynwald, the island’s parliament, one of the oldest in the world. Culturally sated, head to the Rovers Return, the oldest pub in Douglas, to sample ales from local brewery Bushy’s. Keep an eye out for the mural of Joey Dunlop, who won a record 26 races at the Isle of Man TT. Wine Down is the place for dinner, where excellent local produce is paired with an extensive wine list; the crab, lobster and prawn cocktail comes highly recommended, as does the steak pie.  

Top five outdoor activities on the Isle of Man

1. Laxey to King Orry’s Grave Walk
Beginning at Laxey’s quaint tram station, this walk winds up the pleasingly-named Ham and Egg Terrace, beneath the shadow of the Great Laxey Wheel and past rusting relics of the mining age, to King Orry’s Grave, a neolithic tomb said to harbour a great Manx king.

2. Raad Daawheeyl Cycle Route
Two modern cycling greats, Mark Cavendish and Peter Kennaugh, hail from the Isle of Man. See why it’s a cyclist’s paradise on this moderate route, which begins at Ramsey’s pier and takes in a dramatic lighthouse at the Point of Ayre.

3. Wildlife spotting
The island’s wildlife includes an abundance of guillemots, kittiwakes and puffins, which can be viewed nesting on the cliffs around Castletown and Langness. The most remarkable sight is an unlikely one: wild wallabies roam the Curraghs wetlands, descendants of a captive pair which escaped in the 1970s.

4. Kayaking
Riddled with coves, caves and bays, the island’s craggy coastline is best explored up close on a kayaking adventure. Sea Kayaking Isle of Man offer a range of tours for people of all abilities.

5. Port St Mary to Port Erin Hike
Beginning in the fishing village of Port St Mary, this trail follows a coastal path up to a stunning feature known as The Chasms, where great fissures seem to split the cliff in two. It also takes in the open-air folk museum at Cregneash

Sunset over the harbour in Douglas, the island’s capital.

Sunset over the harbour in Douglas, the island’s capital.

Photograph by Alamy

Four ways to explore manx mythology

1. Calf Sound
The Manx equivalent of mermaids is Ben Varrey, a half-fish, half-woman creature said to lounge on rocks, casting flirtatious glances at passing fishermen. Like the mermaid myth (which has often been attributed to sightings of mammals such as manatees and dugongs), the Ben Varrey may have its origins in the island’s seal population. You can spot the seals sunbathing on the islet of Kitterland, or take a boat trip into the Calf Sound with Manx Sea Life Safari.

2. The Fairy Bridges
Tales of fairies on the Isle of Man — known locally as ‘Little People’ or ‘Themselves’ — go back centuries. They have much in common with the fairies of other Celtic mythologies, being small, clad in green jackets and red caps, and alternately benevolent and mischievous. In addition to the famous Fairy Bridge on the main road from Douglas to Port Erin, there’s another bridge, on a footpath between Oakhill and Kewaigue. You’ll often find trinkets left for the fairies by local children. 

3. St Trinian’s Church
The local variation on the boggart — a malevolent, shapeshifting spirit who likes to wreak havoc — is known as the Buggane, said to have lived on Greeba Mountain in the centre of the island. A distinctly unholy creature, it objected fiercely to the construction of nearby St Trinian’s Church, and repeatedly tore off the roof. You can visit the church, still roofless, just off the road between Douglas and Peel. 

4. Peel Castle
Tales of vast, ghostly black dogs with eyes that glow like hot coals are a common fixture in British folklore, and the Manx incarnation, the Moddey Dhoo, is said to stalk the grounds of Peel Castle, an atmospheric fortification built by the Vikings in the 11th century. The ruins are worth a visit, with an informative audio guide recounting the castle’s story, from the Moddey Dhoo to archaeological finds such as the Pagan Lady, buried here with ornate jewellery. 

The ruins of Peel Castle, said to be haunted by the Moddey Dhoo.

The ruins of Peel Castle, said to be haunted by the Moddey Dhoo.

Photograph by Shutterstock

Where to stay

Calf of Man Bird Observatory
The Calf of Man is a tiny island off the south coast and a protected reserve for seabirds including kittiwakes, razorbills and the unique Manx shearwater. Overnight visitors can stay at the on-site Bird Observatory, a comfortable cottage perfect for exploring the island’s wilderness. From £25, room only.

Knockaloe Beg Farm
Cosy wooden shepherd’s huts, set in an orchard behind a peaceful farm in the countryside near Peel, are perfect for stargazing. Sit back in your wood-fired cedar hot tub and watch the constellations take shape in the inky-black night sky — among the darkest in the British Isles. From £69, room only.

Halvard Hotel
Built in 2018, the Halvard is perhaps the island’s most elegant hotel, and has a classic look, from its neoclassical facade and art deco signage to its dimly lit, luxurious suites. The location’s hard to beat, too, on the waterfront in Douglas and a short walk from the Manx Museum. From £120, B&B.

How to do it

Steam Packet operates ferry sailings to Douglas from Liverpool and Heysham, as well as from Dublin and Belfast. Isle of Man Airport, in the south of the island, is served by flights from airports including Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Gatwick and Manchester.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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