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Rebirth of the Isle of Man

Forgotten when jet travel began taking English travelers farther afield, this jewel of an island in the Irish Sea is coming of age.

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002

There is an island of fairy-tale beauty that lies off the western shores of the United Kingdom. It is not legally part of the U.K. and yet by some peculiar quirk of history, it falls within the boundaries of Great Britain.

Ellen Vanin is how the locals call the place. More popularly known abroad as the Isle of Man, the island is in the wild waters of the Irish Sea, between Ireland and England.

The English, though, tend to forget about the Isle's existence, unless they suddenly come into money. Then they are quick to remember Ellen is a tax haven, far enough away from the penny pinchers of the Inland Revenue Service and yet just a short flight or ferry journey from England. The Isle of Man is now the adoptive home of a number of rich English gentry.

A tiny fraction of the size of its two more famous neighbors, the Isle's shores are lush and green, its history rich and packed with legends of Vikings and mystics.

Most Isle of Man inhabitants speak English, but the island also has a language of its own, Manx, an ancient Gaelic form, which can seem completely foreign to tourists. I traveled there as an Englishwoman and it was like traveling to some far-flung land, though I was only a few hundred miles from the city in which I was born.

The Isle of Man was in truth the place to go for English vacationers in the 1950s and '60s. They would hop on board the ferry from Liverpool and spend parts of the summer revelling in the island's Victorian seaside promenade, its steam railway, horse-drawn trams and beaches of the island capital, Douglas. The place was a picture-postcard paradise.

Then, with jet travel, suddenly the world grew smaller. The package-tour industry turned its attentions to the continental sunspots of Europe. English vacationers started heading off on long-haul flights, and they forgot about the Isle of Man.

It was left trapped in a time warp, revelling in its romantic heydays even as the paint began to flake on its piers and seaside funhouses.

Before I arrived there, I, too, had imagined the Isle was grey and old-fashioned. I was wrong: It is green and lush. When the sun shines, so does the island. And when the rain lashes its dramatic, wind-swept coastline, it gives those jagged rocks and cliffs an aura of mystery.

There are misty glens and there are mountains. There are pretty harbors and clear waters, quiet roads and rustic villages, wildflower meadows and wooded walkways.

Yet the Isle of Man is steeped in nostalgia, queen of British Victorian seaside resorts. The horse-drawn trams are still there, along with the steam trains, now approaching their 130th anniversary.

But when the masses of people moved on, it gave the island time for a rebirth, a chance to rediscover its natural beauty. The Isle has progressed from the time when slapstick Punch and Judy puppet shows satisfied less-sophisticated tastes.

The rural backdrop is taking center stage. Indeed the Isle of Man today ironically boasts the sort of peace and quiet many Britons seek on the other side of the globe.

The island is 33 miles long and 12 miles across at its widest. The scenes are varied, with dunes and grasslands, marshes and moors, secluded coves and a spine of hills with names such as the Plains of Heaven.

It is also an island of contrasts: The venue for the TT motorcycle races -- don't go during this week if you seek seclusion -- it also boasts a bird sanctuary on the Calf of Man, a small islet off its southern tip.

Spectacular ancient monuments adorn cliff tops and mountainsides, and Celtic crosses can be seen in historic village churches. Medieval castles and coastal forts lend life to the folklore.

But amid all this history there is space for jazz clubs, wine bars, fine restaurants and cozy cafes. There is even a casino.

The island is proud of its heritage. It has its own parliament, the Tynwald, its own language, its stamps and currency. Manx pounds are equivalent in value to Britain's pounds sterling.

Visitors will find fascinating exhibits of history across the island. They are linked under the theme, the Story of Mann, which takes travelers from Nordic times to today.

The Story of Mann project has been set up by tourist officials and the Manx National Heritage Service. It includes guided tours or go-as-you-please trips that allow visitors access to all the museums.

The best place to start is the award-winning Manx Museum in Douglas, where admission is free. Other historic sites include the Laxey Wheel, originally christened Lady Isabella after the wife of the Island governor when it was opened in 1854. It is said to be the world's largest working water wheel.

The wonderfully preserved Castel Rushden, a medieval fortress, is also worth seeing, along with the ruins of Peel Castle. Cregneash Village Folk Museum is a working example of a traditional crofting community, where the residents speak Manx and the tail-less Manx cats can still be found, along with distinctive four-horned Loaghtan sheep.

The Story of Mann culminates with the $9-million House of Mannan Museum, in the town of Peel, a new museum that is devoted to the island's maritime history. It includes recreations of a wattle-walled round house and a life-size Viking ship.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Ferries to the Isle of Man operate regularly between Liverpool, England, and Douglas, with journey times about 21/2 hours.

Alternatively, Manx airlines operates flights from British airports, including Liverpool. Flights from Liverpool or Manchester, in northern England, take 30 minutes.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Isle of Man Department of Tourism, by calling 01624 686843.

-- Debra Greenhouse is a writer living in Wales.

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