Taking a Manx holiday from the world

Amid the British Isles but not part of Britain, this quiet territory feels like a secret hideaway.

Destination: Isle of Man

December 08, 2002|By Karin Esterhammer | Karin Esterhammer,Special to the Sun

At the airport in Birming-ham, England, the officer looked at our German and U.S. passports and asked what our destination was.

"Isle of Man," I answered.

"Oh, do you have family there?" she asked.

"No, we're just going for vacation," my husband, Rolf, said.

"That's rather odd, isn't it?"

We must have looked confused, because she added: "Well, foreigners just never go there unless they have family."

It seems she was right. Only two U.S. addresses had been entered in the guest book at our B&B since 1989--- and both belonged to Rolf.

I had never been to England, and here I was passing up London, the Lake District, Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon and Stone-henge in favor of an island few Americans are familiar with. But Rolf loves this little jewel that's just 33 miles long and 13 miles wide, and when life gets tough, he sometimes thinks about packing it all up and moving here.

It is easy to see why it would make an ideal escape.

From the window of the prop plane, I looked down on an emerald green island with mountains, wooded glens, waterfalls, dramatic sea cliffs and empty beaches. Cumulus clouds created shady splotches across a patchwork of sheep-dotted pastures neatly separated by hedgerows. Even the farm animals seemed to have sea views.

The Isle of Man is in the center of the British Isles, but is not technically part of Britain. Its 76,000 residents constitute a self-governing dependent territory of the Crown, with its own currency (though it equals British pounds), parliament and culture.

"We want nothing to do with the British," said Madeleine Heath, owner of the Ashfield Guest House, our B&B in the capital, Douglas. "That is, until the British have a bank holiday, and then it's 'All hail to the Queen!' and we take the day off."

The Manx, as residents are called, are proud of their Celtic heritage. Signs are in Gaelic and English, and the old tongue is taught as a secondary language in the schools. Nearly every house sports the Manx flag with the Three Legs of Man, first used officially in the early 14th century on the Manx Sword of State. The armor-clad legs, which were originally a symbol for the sun, run in a clockwise direction. The motto, in Latin, says, "Whichever way you throw it, it will stand."

Rolf, our son Kai, 2, and I visited the island for four days this summer to break up a two-week visit with family in Germany. Most tourists come between May and October. The island is right in the Gulf Stream and even has palm trees, so while England had showers, we had warm, albeit breezy, sunshine.

Visitors can travel the island easily by train and bus, but not with a baby and his heavy paraphernalia. So the first order of business was to rent a car, retool our brains to drive on the left side of the road and find the Ashfield Guest House, just a couple of blocks from the beach.

Mellow atmosphere

The owners remembered Rolf because he had announced one morning at breakfast that he intended someday to buy the Calf of Man, an uninhabited islet nearby. It's not for sale. The Manx National Trust keeps it as a bird sanctuary for cormorants, puffins, kittiwake gulls and the crow-like chough, among others, but people can take a half-hour boat ride to the islet and walk around.

Our innkeeper, Heath, welcomed Kai, set up a crib in a third-floor room with a bay view and directed us to the nearest grocery store for toddler provisions.

We pushed Kai in his stroller along the 1 1/2 -mile-long Douglas Promenade to breathe the sea air on the way to the market. Built in the late 1800s, the promenade's hotel facades, antique street lights and horse-pulled street trolleys make it easy to imagine people out for their daily constitutional, women holding parasols and men with their walking sticks.

Feeling safe and mellow after only one day, we started our sightseeing with Peel Castle, a must-see because of its fascinating history and beautiful location on tiny St. Patrick's Island, connected by a bridge to the Isle of Man's west coast.

With audio sets in hand and sun overhead, we climbed from ruin to ruin learning about the castle's 1,000-year history, starting with Magnus Barefoot, who probably erected a timber peel, or fortress, soon after his arrival in 1089. We climbed around the foundations of several churches, a 14th-century round tower, fortress walls built to keep out the Scottish in the 1500s and a medieval bowling alley, all overlooking the sea.

We nearly had the grounds to ourselves, except for school- children who were identifying the flora growing in cracked castle walls and wildflowers scattered over burial sites.

After lunch at the Creek Inn overlooking the boats anchored in the town of Peel, we drove to the southern part of the Isle of Man to visit Cregneash Village Folk Museum, a 19th-century village restored to show how the crofters -- farmers and fishermen -- lived. Visitors can see thatched cottages, neat gardens and weaving and blacksmithing demonstrations.

High point

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