Driving down the seaward side of the Ards Peninsula in Northern Ireland, I often find myself looking out at the views towards the Isle of Man.
Having last visited 10 years ago, I thought it was high time to make a return trip.
The Isle of Man is a fascinating and unique place. It is not part of the United Kingdom or the European Union but is a dependency of the British Crown, governed by one of the world’s oldest parliaments. Its population of around 80,000 people makes it the same size as the North Down Council area. Its native cat is tail-less and everyone says “hello” to the little people as they drive over the Fairy Bridge.
The only ferry company serving the Island, the Steam Packet, uses their Mannanaan catamaran on the journey from Belfast and Dublin, which is perfect for the 2 ½ hour crossing to Douglas. On board, there’s two cinemas, a restaurant area and a bar, as well as huge scenic windows to allow passengers to enjoy the views.
On arrival in Douglas it is a little like going back in time. Cars give way to horse-drawn trams along the seafront and you can hear the shrill whistle of the steam railway not too far away.
The island is proud of its trains. The steam railway serves the south of the Island and the Electric Railway serves the north, including the trip to the summit of Snaefell Mountain from where, on a good day, you can see seven kingdoms. Those are the kingdoms of the Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Heaven and the Sea. As well as the government run services, there are others, such as Groudle Glen Steam Railway, which are cared for and developed by volunteers.
Back at sea level, the island has some outstanding beaches, my favourite being Port Erin as it was about 2 minutes’ walk from our apartment at the Cherry Orchard complex. The beach is safe for kids to enjoy the wide open space and the gently shelving walk into the sea. There are ice cream shops and restaurants around the seafront too.
We enjoyed a great meal on the terrace of Titan Restaurant overlooking the beach. As the palm trees (yes, really) swayed in the breeze on the sunny evening, it felt like somewhere on the Mediterranean. I can highly recommend their signature Titan Manx steak kebabs – though I have a suspicion they are probably a meal for two!
The Cherry Orchard complex has been part of the Port Erin furniture for many years, in fact this was our fourth stay at the apartments. The staff are really friendly, there’s a popular bar/restaurant on site and there’s a great swimming pool which is free to guests. The self-catering apartments are spacious and can sleep up to 6 comfortably.
By far the best family attraction, the Curraghs Wildlife Park is a great day out. Visitors can get up close and person with Penguins, Emus, Wallabies, Lemurs and a host of other animals you wouldn’t expect to meet on the island. The park also has some great play areas, including a giant inflatable bouncy pillow, which the whole family can enjoy. Compared to larger Zoos and other animal parks you might visit, this park is chilled out, relaxed and rarely crowded.
I can also recommend Onchan Pleasure Park, which has Crazy Golf, Tennis, a boating lake and a great playpark. The more adventurous can feel the need for speed at Onchan Speedway which has an outdoor karting track when it’s not being used for stock-car racing.
Manx National Heritage are the caretakers of many of the Island’s historic sites. For such a small area, the history ranges from archaeological digs at the historic Rushen Abbey, to Castles like those in Peel and Castletown, the famous Laxey Wheel and a traditional farming village at Cregneash in the south of the Island.
Driving distances between the various points on the island are relatively short. Many of the roads might feel familiar, particularly in the centre of the island, as they are the route of the TT Races which take place annually. Unlike the UK & Ireland, outside built up areas, there is no national speed limit and it is not uncommon to come face to face with a couple of supercars as they make their way round the famous mountain course. I was afraid my 4th-hand Renault Scenic would leave them in the shade, so I didn’t attempt to chase them!
The island is remarkably self-sufficient, particularly when it comes to food. Many cafes and restaurants make the most of what is on their doorstep. One such establishment, the Patchwork Café in Port St Mary, offers to prepare picnics for people to take on hikes or car journeys. The picnic basket we were offered was filled to the brim with home-made produce like smoothies, cream scones, a Manx omelette, a seafood salad with lobster tail and crab claws as well as locally made desserts.
Whilst good weather can’t be guaranteed, the Isle of Man offers a warm welcome, activities for every age group and is well worth considering for your next short break…. And don’t forget to say hello to the Little People!