✉ Peel On the western coast of the island sits Peel, a characterful town, or perhaps even city. It houses the only cathedral on the island, hub of the Diocese of Sodor and Man, which might have looked more impressive at the weekend had it not been raining and half-covered in scaffolding. The building is a Victorian replacement for the 13th century ruins on the most atmospheric spot hereabouts - St Patrick's Isle. As a proper island, just far enough offshore to be both accessible and defensible, it was the obvious spot for a Viking fort. This slowly grew into Peel Castle, essentially a whopping stone wall around the perimeter of the island with a motley collection of towers and garrisonry inside. An artificial causeway later linked the Isle to the harbour, making modern-day penetration of the fortifications considerably easier. For a fee you can walk freely within, clutching an audio guide to your ear and typing in numbers to learn more. The commentary is narrated by a fruity actor, and listening to the architectural detail for too long merely confirms that very little of historical note actually happened here. Peer over the curtain wall for a panoramic view, and be sure to seek out the steps down into the crypt beneath the ruined chancel where now only noisy seagulls congregate.
Peel's other main tourist attraction is the House of Manannan, a much more modern interpretation of the island's Celtic and maritime backstory. "We're closing in an hour and a half," said the lady at the ticket desk, "and normally we recommend at least two." She wasn't wrong. A series of multimedia and audiovisual experiences follow, winding around a large building, part of which used to be Peel station. Your guide is the mythical god Manannan, spirit of the sea, who has a tendency for excitable overacting and could easily be related to Captain Birdseye. "Follow me," he cried, popping up on animated screens in a Celtic roundhouse, a Viking longhouse and a field of stone crosses. The largest room is filled by the Odin's Raven, a recreated longship that sailed from Norway to Man in 1979, while another gallery celebrates The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, the oldest continuously operating passenger shipping company in the world. Don't wander through too fast, you'll miss the point, which is to pause and interact and learn. And OK, so I ended up giggling every time Manannan popped up, but he fell away as the history became more recent, and the overall experience was highly atmospheric*. * and free, to those of us with National Trust membership - The Manx National Heritage Trust runs a reciprocal scheme that saved me over £20 across the weekend.
Across town is a warren of back-harbour streets, boasting all the quaint shops that Castletown and Ramsey lack. One of these is the Peel Ink Tattoo Studio - surely a highly inadvisable name for a commercial enterprise (although I searched in vain for a potential counterpart, the Peel Sunbed Centre). Down by the marina is the red and white home of Moore's Manx Kippers, a Victorian smokery still going strong and offering Escorted Kipper Yard Tours a couple of days a week if you time your visit right. Instead I arrived on "Secret Gardens" weekend, which meant the alleys in the town centre were thronging with middle-aged couples clutching brochures and attempting to cross off as many horticultural hideaways as they could. There's culture here, of many a kind, in a most (and you'll have been expecting this) a-peel-ing town. [9 photos][map]
✉ St John's
Had I arrived on the island a few days earlier I could have experienced the joys of Tynwald Day. This is a Manx bank holiday held in the first week of July which celebrates the founding of the world's longest surviving parliament, and is crowned off by an open air sitting on Tynwald Hill. Don't think mountain, think artificialmound comprising four concentric discs of earth containing soil from all corners of the island. Oaths are taken, laws are proclaimed, and then a fair breaks out on the surrounding lawn. Alas, arriving at the end of Manx National Week all I saw were lots of flags by some roadworks. [map]
✉ Spooyt Vane "No really, it's up here," I told BestMate as he manoeuvred our hire car up a narrow lane off a narrow lane. I'd been expecting a sign on the main road, given that Spooyt Vane was supposedly one of the island's highest waterfalls, but there was nothing, not even a sign on the footpath after we'd successfully parked. A five minute trudge revealed little, until a slight stream trickled gently, and nigh horizontally, beneath a thin stone bridge. "Have faith," I said, "the Ordnance Survey says it's here." And so it was, through a wooded glen and down umpteen steps into a leafy hollow. A volley of white water descended through a notch in the rocks, then tumbled again down a broad tongue of sandstone into a deep pool below. It had rained a lot the day before so we were more fortunate than some, indeed sometimes the gully is so dry that bikers chance their arm riding the approach. But there are post-storm days when the entire 50m descent is gushing with spray, and we didn't get that... just an imposing feeling of naturalsolitude in a secret spot most non-locals never find. [2 photos][map]
Off the coast road to the south of Peel, amid one of the remoter stretches of coastline, is a headland called Niarbyl. Its name means 'tail' in Manx, which is a good description of the low spine of rocks stretching out into the Irish Sea. Look down from the cafe's back garden and you might spot basking sharks and dolphins lurking in the bay... I only saw seals, but that was pretty good in itself. Head down to beach level and there are two thatched cottages, picture-postcard friendly, but the finest panoramic views from Peel round to Calf of Man are to be had from higher up. [2 photos][map]
✉ Calf of Man
And finally, right down at the southernmost tip of the Isle of Man, is a sizeable islet called the Calf of Man. It doubles up as a bird sanctuary, indeed you can get across if time and tide are right, but more likely you'll have to stare across from the mainland. Some of those rocky things are actually seals, if you stare carefully, but be warned that some of the seal-like things are actually rocks. For a protracted stare step inside the squat slate-topped circular building which looks like a Bond lair but is actually the Sound Café. During the day drinks and light refreshments are in order, but on summer evenings, assuming you can drive here, an a la carte menu is served. The premier seats are in a curve along the window, from which you can watch the sun set across the Irish Sea... or at least that would be the plan. A few minutes before BestMate and I turned up a sheet of cloud crept across from Ireland and obscured the entire spectacle, bar a few tantalising streaks of pink through the relentless grey, which was most frustrating. Instead we concentrated on our steak and chips, and the birthday party erupting on the long table behind us, and on the slowly rising tide around a darkening isle. As the other diners drifted away, eventually the only obstacle to an unobstructed view of the Calf was our own hire car, a true scenic own goal if ever there was one. But we still drove away from a highly memorable meal in full daylight - the sun sets at nearly ten during a Manx summer. I suspect we'll be back. [3 photos][map]