Squelching round the grounds of Castle Rushen on a dark, grey, drizzly morning, I’m interrupted by a sprightly old lady with twinkling green eyes who taps me gently on the arm, correctly identifies me as a tourist and promises earnestly (and I quote verbatim), “I’ll wish good weather for you before lunch”.
Within minutes — literally minutes — the dark clouds had rolled away and the Manx sun was beating down us, and our many layers of clothing. Coincidence?
I think not.
The Isle of Man is a seemingly enchanted place, swirling with superstitions, legends and myths. Everyone seems to have a story and although a lot of them are told for the benefit of visitors, you’re never quite sure how seriously people take them.
Apparently, it’s terribly bad luck to mention rats on the island and if by accident you do so, you are advised to touch some wood, whistle for a dog and grab a stick.
If you are exploring the area around Ballalonna Glen and wish to cross the fairy bridge at Castleton you are instructed to bid the fairies or little people ‘Good Morning’ and people doall the time.
The Peel Castle ghost tours are an experience not to be missed and attract a wide range of people from serious ghost hunters, to groups of guffawing students and wide-eyed ten year olds.
Alan, our teacher and chief Ghostbuster, (a melodramatic combination of Peter Cushing and Brian Blessed) booms out tales of Moddey Dhoo — the red-eyed black dog that haunts the Battlements.
High up on the cliffs as night falls, with both the wind (and Alan) howling, it’s a spine-chilling way to spend an evening.
Just at the foot of the castle, is the old Moore’s Smoke-house, where you can pick up your morning kippers — delicious served with slices of hot-buttered brown toast and mugs of strong tea. The company does mail-order and will even gift-wrap your purchase.
Why send flowers when you can send the finest smoked fish?
Kippers aside, cuisine is an increasingly important part of the island’s tourism industry. The harbour is home to a selection of smart seafood restaurants. MacFarlanes offers traditional fine dining or for a younger crowd, try The Courthouse, a glamorous
bar/restaurant catering more for the island’s jet-setting financial workers.
The Isle of Man tax laws were passed in the early 1960s in direct response to a crumbling economy and dwindling population. It was a brave and decisive move, and the island is now a successful international tax haven with billions of pounds held in it’s banks.
Many financial workers commute weekly from the mainland and it’s a common if incongruous sight to see rows of Maseratis, Ferraris and other high-performance cars parked along the seafront among the souvenir shops and post-card stands.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Isle of Man has a proven record for being a forward thinking, liberal and progressive democracy. In 1881, it became one of the first authorities in the world to award women equal votes, (almost 50 years before Emmeline Pankhurst achieved the same on the mainland) and in the same year, James Brown (the black son of a freed slave) became the Founder and Editor of the Isle of Man Times.
Locals are very proud of their political history and a worthwhile trip is the House of Keys interactive experience. Take your seat alongside other tourists in the hallowed Speaker’s Chamber and engage in a surreal debate with a unnervingly life-like hologram of the Speaker of the House.
Tourist accommodation in the centre of Douglas mainly consists of grand old seaside hotels and they’re often full. Better to stay a little out of town and see more of the island. We stayed at The Crofts guesthouse, run by the warm and welcoming Ingrid. Rooms are large and extremely comfortable and Ingrid’s mouth-watering breakfasts are enough to make you want to start the day all over again.
One of the best ways to get round the island is by car. The roads on the Isle of Man are picturesque, winding and a pleasure to drive on. Rentals can be expensive so a good option is to do things the old-fashioned way and take a ‘drive-on’ ferry from Belfast.
On the day we visited The Crofts, I accidentally left my car window open. In a final twist to our magical stay, we discovered upon our return, a pair of mischievous stray Manx kittens, making my new coat their adventure playground — and I’m sure one of them winked!