There is a running (and sometimes heated) debate among the Irish, the Scots, and the Welsh, arguing over whose heritage is more Celtic. I’m all about a passionate discourse concerning history and philosophy, especially when it’s held over a few pints in a local pub. Everyone always walks (staggers) away unconvinced, but agreeing to disagree, with nothing solved. And the world just keeps turning, oblivious.
During our whirlwind tour of the UK and our short time on the Isle of Man, we were privileged to hear more than one Manxman’s contribution to the Celtic argument. And I must say that I was swayed, not only because of the conviction displayed by those we met, but because of the uniquely un-British culture we experienced.
The Isle of Man is a small and fiercely beautiful destination. Proud, independent locals boast of their Tynwald as the world’s oldest continually-sitting parliament. They mint their own currency, the Manx pound. And they host the TT Races, the world’s premier motorcycle road race.
We drove the 37-mile TT course, albeit much slower than the 200 mph top speeds of the race participants, and also in a Ford Ka from Isle of Man Rent-a-Car for $99 per day. As with the rest of Great Britain and Ireland, you sit on the right side of the car and drive on the left side of the road. The relatively traffic-free roads on the Isle of Man provided an excellent opportunity for me to acclimate to the driving conditions. I did pay a bit more to secure an automatic transmission vehicle, not wanting to waste precious brain power on working a stick-shift with my left hand while trying to navigate clockwise roundabouts.
Angela provided invaluable navigation services throughout the trip, giving me turn-by-turn directions from her iPhone. By trial and error, we have learned that it is well worth the expense of purchasing an international phone plan for trips where we will be driving. The cost is only $10 per day through AT&T for the worldwide day pass. Much cheaper than the on-board navigation upgrade on most rental cars, and it helps with last-minute hotel reservations, walking directions back from the pub, and a ready answer to the frequent “That’s cool! What is that?!” queries that we have along the way.
The whole of the Isle of Man is only 33 miles long and 13 miles wide, but the terrain is quite varied and worth exploring in its entirety. With an extensive network of paved roads and little or no public transportation, you can either drive the island yourself or hire a taxi for the trip. We always opt for self direction when available.
From our arrival in Douglas, we immediately set out for the northern tip of the island, working our way along the coastal road until we reached the Point of Ayre, a wide pebble beach that wraps around the north horn of the island and warns off passing ships with the help of two lighthouses.
The beach is unlike any I have seen throughout the world. Like a million truckloads of river rock were dumped here, each stone turned in a tumbler and meticulously painted like an individual piece of art.
From the Point of Ayre, we turned southwest, moving through rainbow-infused fields and past 500-year-old churches with tombstones that displayed both Christian and pagan symbology, Jesus on one side and Odin on the other.
We turned inland from the west coast and began climbing Snaefell, the highest mountain on the island and the acme of difficulty for those competing in the TT Races. The turns were hairpin, and the drops were harrowing, but the views of the island, alternating from the east on this turn, and then the west on the next turn, were spectacular. Locals will tell you that you can see six kingdoms from Snaefell on a clear day: Isle of Man, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Heaven.
There are few places to stop along the route, and no places to get fuel or food, so I would recommend tackling Snaefell with a full tank, an empty bladder, and a cache of snacks.
Snaefell gives way on the southern coast of the island to rolling hills and rugged cliffs that fall into the Calf Sound, a brief stretch of angry Irish Sea that separates the main island from the small island known as the Calf of Man. The Calf of Man is home to large populations of seals and sea birds, as well as the two humans who operate the lighthouse there.
We visited the Isle of Man during early March, which meant that excursions to the Calf of Man had not yet begun for the tourist season, so we had to be content viewing the smaller island from afar in the comfort of the Sound Cafe. We happened to catch them on the day of their soft opening. The cafe had just changed ownership, and they weren’t really expecting visitors during the off season. But, like everyone we met during our time on the Isle of Man, they were gracious, generous, and quick to share a story.
After all of the driving and sight-seeing, we worked our way back to the promenade in the center of Douglas, finding the only bar on the Isle of Man with a turnstile at the front door; in fact, the only bar we’ve ever found in the world with turnstile admission. When we asked the Quid’s Inn bartender, “Why the turnstile?” she said that the £1 entrance fee was used to offset tips if a server had had a bad night.
Well done, Isle of Man. Very well done … until we tried to catch the ferry to leave the island.
Today’s expat evaluation: +1 for beautiful scenery, +1 for friendly locals, -1 for people racing around you on hairpin mountain turns