TRAVEL: Friendly seals, dramatic coastlines and zooming zipwires on the Isle of Man
As the Ben My Chree afternoon ferry set sail from Heysham harbour we settled in for the three and a half hour journey to the Isle of Man.
It was cold, wet and a bit choppy as the boat plotted its course out of Morecambe Bay and into the Irish Sea, the Furness peninsular barely visible in the blustery conditions.
It settled down a bit as we passed the huge windfarm off Walney Island, and my son and I ventured out onto the deck, where others braved the wintry conditions for a photo, smoke, or breath of sea air.
Ferry operator Steampacket offers a restaurant/dining area, bar, shop and quiet lounges on board, and after a read, feed and rest, we could soon see the rugged coastline of the Isle of Man emerging in the distance, before Douglas harbour became visible a short time later.
It was an impressively quick disembark from the ferry and once strapped back into the car, my wife Liz, son Will, and daughter Zoe and I were soon heading north along Douglas promenade towards our accommodation at Groudle Glen Cottages in Onchan.
A couple of miles out of Douglas, the site is situated on the edge of Groudle Glen, and offers great views out to sea from many of their chalet-like holiday cottages.
Ours was a good size - three bedrooms, kitchen, living and dining space, bathroom and toilet - and fully equipped with all kitchen appliances and towels.
Surrounded by woodland it was a peaceful place with a balcony overlooking the mouth of the Glen and out to sea.
It proved to be a great base for the three days we had to explore the Isle of Man.
Later that evening and, we headed down to the secluded stone beach to cast some skimmers, before making our way up onto the headland to explore the beautiful surroundings.
Groudle Glen is one of many Manx glens to be found around the island’s coastline.
It was connected to the Manx Electric Railway in 1893, and developed as a tourist attraction.
Originally billed as The Fern Land Of Mona!, the glen was further improved in the late 19th century by the planting of many different types of tree.
A small zoo was created on the headland at Sea Lion Rocks, with sea lions and polar bears introduced, before The Groudle Glen Railway was built in 1896 to carry passengers to the zoo.
You can see remnants of the zoo today, built into the cliff face beyond a small cafe and viewing area.
The train line was celebrating its 120th anniversary during our visit, and we hopped on for a short ride, chatting to one of the volunteer conductors who spoke with pride about the steam engines and the history of the site.
As the sun set we caught our first glimpse of seals swimming close to the rocky coastline.
Our first full day on the island took us to the Ape Mann Adventure Park at South Barrule Plantation, near Foxdale, in the morning.
The midges were out in force in the forest but we were given the obligatory Avon Skin So Soft by staff which did the trick, and were strapped up and ready to take to the trees for some climbing and sliding down the zip wires.
We had a couple of hours of great fun, culminating in each of us having a go at climbing up a tall pine tree with climbing handholes fixed all the way up.
It was a dizzying but excellent experience!
Next stop was Peel for a fish and chip lunch from Peel Fisheries in Christian Street, the island’s most celebrated chippy.
We took our fishy haul to a bench on the promenade and ate the lot, including a portion of their Manx queenies to share, a kind of battered mini scallop.
This then called for ice cream from Davisons, which stocks all manner of gorgeous flavours, before we headed to the House of Manannan on the harbour, a fascinating place taking you back through the ages and history of Man.
It’s well worth a visit. You can journey through a life sized reconstruction of a Celtic roundhouse, join the crew of the Odin’s Raven Viking longship and find out what life was like in a Viking longhouse.
We all enjoyed dressing up as kings and queens and sitting around the king’s table, learning about the many eras of rule and leadership on the island over the last 1,000 years.
After picking up some Manx kippers we contemplated entering Peel Castle, but instead we stopped for a drink in the pub across the road, and then headed a few miles south to find another Manx jewel, Glen Maye.
The path led down to a beautiful secluded waterfall, which we had all to ourselves for pictures and some time to soak up the beauty of the glen.
The mile or two walk down to the sea was worth the effort as well, and we tramped back to the car exhausted but fulfilled.
The next day was all about the Manx Electric Railway.
Walking up onto the main road we managed to hail the second tram that arrived (the first was full to bursting) at the Groudle Glen stop, and squeezed on to experience an initially rickety and uncomfortable ride up to Laxey and the famous Laxey wheel.
On arrival at Laxey, the Snaefell Mountain Railway tram had pulled up and we managed to get straight onto this one, with a bit more room to stretch out and enjoy the fantastic journey to follow.
Snaefell is the highest peak on the island (2,034ft), and is crowned at its peak by a cafe, railway station and several communication masts.
As we made our way up the Laxey valley we could see the famous waterwheel in the distance, before the tram took us further around the base of the peak, affording stunning views to the north of the island and over into Scotland.
It’s a well-known saying in the Isle of Man that on a clear day six Kingdoms can be seen from the top: the Isle of Man, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and heaven. Some versions add a seventh kingdom, that of Manannán, or the sea.
It was one such clear, although cold and windy, day, and we could see for miles in all directions.
Work was being undertaken on what looked like new viewing platforms at the peak, and an old warplane has also found its way there too.
Again, well worth the trip, and after a coffee and cream scone to warm the cockles, we jumped on the tram back down, next stop The Laxey Wheel.
A 10 minute walk from Laxey tram stop takes you to what is the oldest functioning waterwheel in the world.
Also know as Lady Isabella, it is 72 feet in diameter, six feet wide, and painted in striking red and white, with the three legs of Man proudly displayed at the front.
It was built in 1854 and used to pump water from the Glen Mooar part of the Great Laxey Mines industrial complex.
You can climb via narrow winding steps right to the top and the views down the valley are stunning if you have a head for heights.
It’s certainly one of the more unusual visitor attractions I’ve taken the time to visit, and I’m glad we did it, especially given the fine weather.
After booking a table in a restaurant in Douglas, we headed into the island’s capital, parked up on the Promenade and had a game of frisbee on the beach.
The sea was calm and the sun was shining and you can see why the town is so popular with tourists.
Parking on the Isle of Man is fascinating.
Everything is so easy, and cheap. We were given a cardboard timer which allows you to park pretty much anywhere that doesn’t have a barrier for two hours.
We dined at the Spanish Tapas Bar and Restaurante in the Port Jack area.
We were the first people to arrive but were made to feel welcome by the owner, and were directed to a table by the window as lively Spanish music sprang into life.
We chose a number of Tapas dishes from the menu and were cajoled into buying a bottle of homemade Sangria.
The food was good, although not the best tapas I’ve ever tasted, and we weren’t sure whether there was actually any alcohol in the Sangria, but the environment was relaxed and friendly, the sun bounced off the colourful interior of the restaurant, and the kids took to the floor for a dance between tapas, so we had a lot of fun.
There are lots of different restaurants to try in Douglas, and if we had been staying another night we would have given one of the fish places down on the harbour a go.
Our final day on Man turned out to be wet and overcast, so we packed up our gear, dropped off our key at the accommodation site office, and parked up in Douglas town centre, heading for the Manx Museum.
It’s free to get in, and provides an interesting, and educational couple of hours browse through the ancient and modern history of the island.
The kids enjoyed the natural history section, and we learnt that the island was cut off sometime around 8,000BC, and then colonised via the sea by hunter gatherers and fishermen before 6,500BC.
Examples of their tools can be found in the museum, and we learnt that the island has no foxes, badgers or squirrels on it at all.
It does however have a healthy colony of around 120 wallabies in the north of the island, after a pair escaped from a zoo in the 1970s.
Next we headed down to the south of the island, and soon found ourselves in Castletown, Man’s ancient capital.
The Tynwald, which claims to be the oldest continuous parliamentary body in the world, used to sit in the House of Keys, opposite Castle Rushen.
We took the tour of Castle Rushen and it was easily one of the highlights of the trip.
An amazingly preserved fortified medieval castle developed between the 13th and 16th century giving a real insight into what life was like there when it was ruled by the kings of Mann.
The kids enjoyed seeing the furniture and weaponry set up as it would have been, and the dark dungeons complete with resident dragon was also popular.
We refreshed at a cafe bar called the Tap Room owned by Skipton based Copper Dragon Brewery nearby, and then headed down the coast road via Port St Mary and the ancient village of Cregneash (which has preserved the traditional Manx farming and crofting way of life).
Our destination was The Sound and the Calf of Man, a small mound seperated from the island by a sliver of sea.
There’s a car park and visitor centre and the area is perfect for seal spotting, we saw lots of them swimming and bobbing around, or basking on the rocks across the water.
Speaking of basking, we were continually on the look out for the double fin of the basking shark (or the basket shark as my daughter called it, ‘because of its mouth’), known to frequent the waters around the island, but sadly nothing to report on this occasion.
At the Sound, A plaque commemorates the tragic death of local men who went to the aid of a French crew whose ship had smashed on to the rocks.
They managed to rescue them, only for them to go on a salvage mission the next day and perish after the gunpowder on board exploded.
We had a sombre few moments as we imagined how the scene must have unfolded for onlookers hundreds of years ago.
We spent some time here taking in our surroundings, relaxing, and appreciating the natural beauty and quiet tranquillity of this perfect beauty spot.
After a quick bite to eat back in Douglas, it was time to leave the island and we re-boarded the slightly delayed 7.45pm Ben My Chree back to Heysham, and watched as The Isle of Man receded into the distance.
The crossing was calm, breezy and warm as the sun set, a contrast to our passage out.
Our experience on the Isle of Man was a real treat.
We sampled cheese from the Isle of Man Creamery, traditional lemonade and ginger beer, and some lovely ales from Okells and Bushys breweries, and of course the beautifully tender and smoky Manx kippers.
Any future visit would definitely involve more food and drink sampling.
Whilst the crossing with a car is not cheap, it can easily be done as a foot passenger, and public transport on the island is very good.
It’s an easy place to get to from the Lancaster and Morecambe area, you’re at the ferry terminal within minutes, and with the new link road due to open soon the gateway to Mann is now even more appealing.
There is much more of the island that we didn’t explore, especially in the north, and we also missed the steam railway between Douglas and the southern end of the island, Port Erin, and coastal walks.
The Isle of Man has a charm all of its own, the people are lovely, the coastline is stunning, and the pace of life makes you feel instantly at ease as a visitor.
For more information on travel visit www.steam-packet.com, www.manxelectricrailway.co.uk, and for accommodation and things to do www.visitisleofman.com.