Three nights on… The Isle of Man

The destination

This weekend’s original plan was for a 48 hour tier point run in Sofia… but with Bulgarian COVID regulations still excluding visitors from the UK, I found myself in search of a short notice replacement. Wanting to see somewhere new, but not to deal with testing, I spent a while considering Irish options, before spotting that Bristol has direct flights to a more obscure choice: the Isle of Man.

Less than a thousand of the well-travelled folks over at NomadMania have found their way to this geopolitical oddity: a British crown dependency, and within the common travel area; but neither part of the UK nor far enough away to count as a British overseas territory. Located in the Irish Sea, from its highest point one can supposedly see seven kingdoms: Mann, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, and – rather more tenuously – the Sea and Heaven.

The transport

There is little to remark upon 200 mile, sub-hour Easyjet flights on an A320… these were my 36th and 37th flights with the orange team, and I’ve probably travelled on this aircraft type at least as many times. IOM was at least a new airport for me: a tiny four gate arrangement in a pleasingly Art Deco terminal that was a breeze to travel through even with mild COVID rules in effect.

Once on the island, however, there was plenty of novelty to be found. A rail line links the capital, Douglas, to Port Erin in the south west, running via Castletown. However, the only rolling stock is an assortment of wooden carriages, which for most journeys (including all of mine) are hauled by steam locomotives. Service north, meanwhile, is by electric tram… but don’t expect anything more modern than the Edwardian era here, either. The coastal line runs as far as Ramsey; at Laxey you can change onto the Snaefell Mountain Railway, for transport to the aforementioned high point.

Snaefell Mountain Tramway and Manx Electric Railway services meet at Laxey.

Although both systems serve Douglas, their respective termini are quite far apart. Ordinarily (but not during my visit), some of the distance can be covered via a third option – more trams, but horse-drawn! There’s also an assortment of modern / boring buses: their only feature of note being an automated greeting to fairies whenever they pass over the Santon Burn (in accordance with local tradition / tourist wind-up). All of these options can be used as much as you like if you pick up a “go Explore” card; a three day pass cost me £34, which isn’t bad for 6 tram rides, 4 steam train trips and several bus journeys.

The accommodation

The trains and trams aren’t the only traditional aspect of an Isle of Man holiday – you should definitely be thinking old-school British seaside when it comes to lodgings. Reviews suggested that hotels were often dated, so I figured a B&B would be better value. I opted for Cubbon House, and thanks to its location right on the Promenade the sea view offered did not disappoint. The hosts could not have been friendlier, which proved infectious – I think I spoke to more of my fellow guests here than at any hotel I’ve used. Breakfast was cooked to order and proved so copious I had to request smaller servings after my first morning; free wifi was much appreciated given extortionate data roaming fees; and it was no trouble to leave my luggage and collect it later. Obviously there are a few disadvantages compared to a modern hotel – no air conditioning, smaller rooms and a narrow window for getting breakfast – but given those are nowhere to be found, I’d still happily recommend a stay here.

The tourist attraction

With a decidedly mixed weather forecast, I lined up a variety of museum visits around the island. At the airport, the Manx Military and Aviation Museum covers much more of the former than the latter, but its Tardis-like interior contains plenty of interesting stories even if (like me) you’ve no interest in guns or battles (and entry is free). At the end of the line in Port Erin you’ll find the Steam Railway Museum; a mere two pounds will grant you access to a small selection of exhibits but a wealth of information on the island’s trains past and present. If you’ve only time for one, however, it has to be the Manx Museum in Douglas; I allowed nearly three hours, and still didn’t see everything such is the extent of its collections and the accompanying information.

In good conditions, though, the island itself is the main attraction. After a torrential first morning, I lucked out – sunshine breaking through just as my train arrived at the coastal town of Port Erin. After a picnic lunch on the beach, I asked a local about the tower I could see on a distant headland – they reckoned it would be only a half hour walk, and suggested a route through Bradda Glen. That proved to be a demandingly uphill trek, but well worth the effort, the scenery a mix of Devon coast and Scottish hillsides. The next day I took two trips up Snaefell, Man’s only mountain. On the first it was too foggy to see anything (never mind all seven kingdoms), and almost too windy to move. But a repeat visit later in the day offered fantastic views both on the journey itself – the tram ride takes about half an hour, and the sights are narrated – and from the summit.

The Great Laxey Wheel

Combining both themes of history and scenery, and throwing in a dash of engineering too, is the Great Laxey Wheel. This was by far the most expensive attraction I visited, but there’s a lot more to it than the wheel, with an extensive walking trail heading up into the ruins of the mine works. For the brave, it’s possible to scale a spiral staircase to a dive board-like platform atop ‘Lady Isabella’ – the largest water wheel in the world. I should have thought about the high winds before doing so – I have no good photos, as I was too busy clinging on in fear!

The meal

I’m not the fine dining sort at the best of times, and the COVID era has certainly not been those. So I was impressed to find a pizza vending machine outside Just Pizza & Pasta, which dispensed a freshly cooked and genuinely tasty pizza from an enormous slot a short while after selecting it from the touch screen – no human interaction, or indeed entering a building, required!

But October or not, if I’m having a sea-side holiday, I’m having fish and chips, and the Tuck Inn is my highlight not just for this trip but pretty much for 2021 thus far – fried whilst you wait to perfection rather than past the point of oily regret. It’s a bit of a trek, but from the shop it’s an easy chip-fuelled downhill stroll all the way to the Prom, where I sat and enjoyed a sunset and the crash of waves against the shore as well as my supper. After a difficult year, all this was a very welcome change of scenery, and despite some travel within the UK it felt like my first real holiday since the pandemic began.