Enchanting Isle of Man

by Dennis Cavagnaro, Oakland, CA

Where can one travel in the English-speaking world and expect unfailing courtesy and respect? New Zealand and much of Canada come to mind, but, for me, the tiny Isle of Man could be tops.

Lay of the land

The Isle of Man is small — 33 miles long and 13 miles wide — and just 76,000 “Manx” call it home. Located in the Irish Sea, it’s about halfway between Liverpool and Belfast.

From Snaefell, its highest peak, you can see much of the island on a clear day, continuing across the Irish Sea to England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Those who know nothing else of the Isle of Man have heard of the tailless Manx cat. Normal cats on Man greatly outnumber the unfortunate Manx cats, who suffer genetic mutations. Meet the cats and learn about them at the Mann Cat Sanctuary.

There is a good chance that filmgoers have already seen the Isle of Man and its Victorian architecture, railroads, fields and pastures. Though the storyline is Irish, the film “Waking Ned Devine” was shot on Man. In fact, Ned’s rustic seaside cottage is a photographer’s delight and well worth a short auto detour off the A-27 at Dalby. Just head east, downhill, on the lonely road to the coast and you’ll see it at the water’s edge.


Though Man is, on the whole, pleasingly rural, its main city is Douglas, the capital and primary port. Castletown, Port St. Mary, Port Erin, Peel and Ramsey are among its other important towns.

Douglas, on the east coast, is named for the two rivers which join there — the Dhoo and the Glass — forming the Douglas. Here, along the 2-mile promenade facing the sea, is the greatest concentration of accommodations, nearly all Victorian. A few are hotels, but most are mom-and-pop bed-and-breakfasts. During the summer, reservations are a must.

Surprisingly, the promenade is ringed by tall Manx palm trees, thanks to the warm Gulf Stream which surrounds Man.

By tram and train

The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company (www.steam-packet.com) operates ships between Douglas and Heysham Port, in England, year-round. The ships land at the sea terminal at the southern end of the promenade. Today — in the 21st century — the 19th-century Douglas Corporation horse trams meet the ships, in season. (The working horses you see will enjoy a comfortable retirement at the Isle of Man Home of Rest for Old Horses, where visitors can meet and feed them.)

The Victorian horse trams — known locally as toast racks because of their cross benches — are a unique statement attesting to Man’s relaxed, unhurried pace of life. The horse trams trundle along on 3-foot-gauge rails and come within a few blocks of connecting the colorful and historic (and still-operating) Isle of Man Steam Railway with the Manx Electric Railway, also running on 3-foot gauge.

The Manx Electric Railway trains (an electric car pulling a trailer) limb north out of Douglas from Derby Castle to a plateau 400 to 600 feet above, continuing along the spectacular east coast for 17½ miles. The double-track, 550-volt D.C. trolley line passes Groudle Glen, where on weekends volunteers operate a short, 2-foot-gauge steam railway to Laxey and on to Ramsey.

Laxey and Ramsey

Laxey is in a glen over which the vintage trams pass on a curved, crenellated stone viaduct, making a stop for visitors to climb aboard yet another electric tram, the Snaefell Mountain Railway, which in 4½ miles climbs to the top of a very bald Snaefell.

Another area attraction is the Isle of Man’s icon, Laxey’s Lady Isabella, one of the world’s biggest waterwheels. A triumph of the Industrial Age, the wheel began operation in 1854 to pump water from the lead mines. Today the wheel still operates — but for the amazement of visitors.

En route to Ramsey, the tracks pass through rich farmlands with multicolored fields separated by stone fences. Here are the shaggy, long-horned Angus cattle, black-faced sheep and the occasional pheasant. The many glens look like rainforests with huge ferns. A fertile imagination would expect them to be hiding dinosaurs.

The trolley stops at most of the glens, where hikers alight for walks in verdant surroundings. At Ramsey, the unpowered tram trailer is reversed manually for the return trip.

Heading south

In Douglas, the Isle of Man Steam Railway departs to the southwest from an ornate 19th-century red-brick station. Since there is neither food service nor toilets on the 15-mile, 65-minute journey, you should provision at the station’s funky, Californiaesque café.

A 1905-built steam locomotive pulls a train of flat-roofed coaches with individual compartments — think Hogwarts Express. The route briefly skirts the sea but mostly crosses fields and the A-25 Castletown Road. Those in the know will ask the conductor to make a flag stop at Ronaldsway Airport. It’s a short walk to the air terminal.

Castletown is the most important station stop. This city, the former Manx capital, boasts a medieval limestone castle in remarkably good condition.

The locals believe Castle Rushen to be one of the most complete castles in the British Isles. Its self-guided tour leads through most rooms and levels, and 3-dimensional models represent its inhabitants and its functions. The castle is currently “ruled” by a sociable and fearless Manx cat named Gorrym (the name is Manx Gaelic for the color blue).

The Viking, one of two pubs by the railway station, serves a nice lobster for lunch — a whole fresh lobster salad for £17.95.

The steam train passes the station for Port St. Mary, a small, charming seaside town with a curved seafront road, the Promenade. Reg and Kath Berrie welcome guests at their well-appointed, 19th-century bed-and-breakfast, Aaron House (phone 01624 835702). It is utterly charming and a nice choice for couples who seek comfortable privacy.

The train terminates at a nearby but slightly larger seaside resort town, Port Erin. Like the other towns, Port Erin is walkable, and many of its restaurants serve seafood. There’s even a Chinese take-away.

Part of the station has been converted into a Manx railway museum and gift shop. Here the locomotive runs around the train so it will be on the head end for the return trip to Douglas. The summer railway schedules allow for stopovers at the line’s stations.

The west coast

Visitors should also go to Peel, the major west coast town and the only one on Man with a cathedral — in fact, two. One is the medieval ruin of St. German, located within the walls of Peel Castle.

If for no other reason, visit Peel for its great museum, the House of Manannan, which is an interactive heritage center which interprets the Isle of Man’s history. Since the area was once a Viking settlement, it holds much of their archaeology, including the remains of The Pagan Lady.

Peel is also home to the oak-smoked Manx kippers. Neville and Paul Desmond give entertaining and comprehensive tours of Moores (5-6 Mill Road), where the herring are slowly cured to turn them into kippers.

Man cannot be experienced in one or two days. Give yourself five, and you will depart feeling like a Manx.


The Island of Man is served from the sea by ferry, SeaCat and Super SeaCat and by air from England, Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Consider an auto rental. Most rentals are stick shift, and, as cars are driven on the left, the shift is on the left. Half a dozen cars waiting in line for a traffic light is the closest thing to a traffic jam to be found on Man. There are no freeways or 4-lane highways. The roads are well marked, and no place is more than a one-hour drive from any other. Watch out for narrow lanes.

For more information on the Isle of Man, contact the Isle of Man Department of Tourism & Leisure (Sea Terminal Buildings, Douglas, IM1 2RG, Isle of Man, U.K.; phone 01624 686801 or visit www.visitisleofman.com).