The Douglas boardwalk is reminiscent of any seaside town in England, or even of a place like Block Island. Beautiful vistas of the Irish Sea, a fairly rocky beach, hotels, restaurants, and waterfront condos… it seems to be a scene out of any number of films. A cool breeze blows, and I zip my sweatshirt, even in July, content to smell the sea air and listen to the assorted birds floating overhead.
But of course this isn’t just any other town. Douglas is the capital of the Isle of Man, a small island semi-nation sitting halfway between Ireland and Britain. (In fact, on a clear day, from the top of the mountain here one can actually see all four constituent UK countries.) It is a place I’ve had a desire to see since seeing their three-legged triskelion flag. So I decided to add a couple nights here to my Ireland trip. As I walk along the sea, I am glad I made that decision.
The Isle of Man is a fascinating place. Once a Viking kingdom, then fought over by England and Scotland, ruled by a series of lords, and then a crown dependency, its history is one that is a lesson in colonization, empire building, and the strange political aspects of semi-independent quasi-states. (For more of the older history of the Isle of Man, click here.) But it is that last aspect I find most interesting.
The Isle of Man is mostly an independent country. It elects its own leaders, with a two-house legislature that is the longest continually running one in the world, claiming to date to the year 979. Originally in the old capital of Castletown, the legislature, called the Tynwald, moved to Douglas in the nineteenth century. Its lower house, the House of Keys, is made up of 24 elected representatives, while the upper house, the Legislative Council, is mainly appointed by the House of Keys.
However, the Isle of Man is also tangentially part of the UK, which oversees defense, foreign relations (hence Brexit also applied here), and the VAT taxes. The King of England is the official Lord of Mann (the title has two n’s) and appoints a governor to represent him, although powers are mainly superficial. Manx (the term for residents of the Isle of Man) citizens can move to the UK without issue. But while those in other parts of the UK can also come here, they need work visas and to apply for residency. As I said, it’s a fascinating political situation, one most people I unscientifically polled seem largely ok with.
Ok, so with all that out of the way, how does one get to the Isle of Man, and what is there to do here? The first part is easy. The island is accessible via plane or ferry from both Ireland and the UK. My flight from Dublin was only about a half hour, and between that and two nights in a lovely seaside hotel in Douglas, I spent less than $400 for the privilege of seeing a new place. As such, it is an easy add-on to an Ireland, Northern Ireland, or northwestern England trip.
The highlight of the island is the sea itself. Find a nice seafood shack (I recommend Mojo’s in Douglas) and have the official food of the island: queenies. Queenies are local scallops done either battered and fried or sautéed in garlic, butter, and bacon. Pro tip: if you get the ones with butter and bacon, pour the remainder over fries after you eat the scallops.
Exploration from Douglas is a joy in itself, as the Isle of Man is known for its railway lines. The electric railroad runs north, while the steam railway goes south. My trip to Castletown (read the link earlier in the article) was a perfect way to experience the train and some cool history with a fun castle to visit! The steam railway is 150 years old this year (2023) and is as lovingly maintained as ever.
Many visitors to the Isle of Man come for its unofficial official pastime: motor sports. The island plays home to a number of motorcycle races, most famously TT. Racers and spectators from all over Europe come here to take part in these multi-day events, although one that was supposed to take place while I was here was canceled due to a fatality shortly before. So if you miss a race, you can visit the free Manx Museum in Douglas, where – in addition to some great exhibits on the history and culture of the island – there is a collection of motorcycles throughout the years. (These races are one of the most important contributors to the Manx economy. Another is, fascinatingly, online gaming which has a number of company headquarters here for tax purposes.)
The Isle of Man is small, and easily explorable from your home base in Douglas. If you only have a single day, as I did, you can pick a direction to wander. If you give yourself another day or two, you’ll be able to pretty much circumnavigate the entire island via train or bus. Between castles, beaches, hills for hiking, cool railroads, and tasty seafood, you won’t regret adding the Isle of Man on when planning an Ireland or England trip.
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