ISLE OF MAN — I hadn’t reckoned on the wallabies. After all, this is an island in the Irish Sea, not Australia. In fact, I didn’t believe the guide at first when he said there are around 120 wallabies living here. Then suddenly, I saw a couple for myself bouncing around in the shrubbery.
We came upon the kangaroo’s cousin while on a guided wildlife walk in the Ballaugh Curragh — the latter is a Gaelic word meaning marshland or wetland. The reason the wallabies are here is because 30 odd years ago, two escaped from a wildlife park in the island’s north.
These herbivores now thrive here because there are no predators on the Isle of Man.
Wallabies aside, this is an island of surprises. For instance, it has 26 officially recognized dark sky discovery sites.
Then there’s the fact the island was awarded UNESCO status as a world biosphere region — the first entire island nation to gain this accolade, a recognition that this lovely island is a world-class environment. It’s a combination of heritage, culture, nature and wildlife, as well as boasting a robust, diverse economy.
Above: Wallabies and odd-shaped cars are some of the unusual things you'll see on the Isle of Man.
The Isle of Man is home to the world’s most dangerous motocycle race, too, the Tourist Trophy (TT) Races. Thrill seekers flock to the island every year at the end of May to take in the thrills and spills of the high-speed race.
On a slower note, part of this island’s charm is its varied and unique forms of public transport. Hugging the coast from the island’s small capital Douglas to the town of Ramsey in the north, is the 125-year-old electric railway. I found it a novel way to see parts of the island not accessible by road. The route goes via Laxey, home to one of the world’s largest water wheels, and from there the railway ascends to the summit of the island’s only mountain, Snaefell.
There is a steam railway, too, dating back to 1874. It’s still using its original engines and rolling stock.
Then there’s the trammers, the strong Shires and Clydesdale horses who keep trams on the move in Douglas during summer. Horse lovers like me needn’t be too concerned about their welfare as I was told they work a maximum of three days a week, doing two daily return trips along the prom. Then they have the rest of the year off.
On retirement, the equines go to live with other elderly horses, ponies and donkeys at the Home of Rest for Old Horses on the outskirts of Douglas. Of course, I had to visit the facility to meet its residents, all of whom I discovered have a sweet temperament. If visitors want, they can buy bags of horse treats from the gift shop to feed them. Also on site is a café and museum.
Above: The idyllic harbour at Douglas, the Isle of Man's capital, welcomes boats from around the world.
Then I was off to Castletown, the island’s ancient capital, a town with many heritage attractions, including the Old House of Keys, former home of the Manx parliament, which moved to Douglas in 1874. Incidentally, this was the first national parliament to give women the vote in a general election in 1881.
They like the quirky here and an annual fun event, which has taken place in the harbour since 1971, is the World Tin Bath Racing Championship. It attracts around 100 entrants from all over the world. As the name suggests, competitors paddle in a tin bath which is allowed to have one wooden outrigger and two buoyancy aids attached. Money raised from entry fees goes to local charities.
Besides tin baths, the town is dominated by Castle Rushen, an excellently preserved Medieval castle, once home to the kings and lords of Mann and now a museum and educational centre.
Above: A vintage locomotive still operates.
Also on my agenda was Peel, a small cathedral city on the west coast of the island. While there, I visited the Manx Transport Museum, smallest of the island’s museums and brimming with unusual exhibits such as the P50 car from 1962. It is the world’s smallest road-legal car ever made.
While in Peel I also visited the House of Manannan, named in honour of an ancient sea god. Inside I wandered through reconstructions of sailmaker and cooper shops and even a kipper yard, complete with authentic smells.
For those who prefer the outdoors, Peel also offers pristine sands, an 18-hole golf course, scintillating sunsets and fabulous ice cream. It has a castle, now in ruins, which has housed some celebrated prisoners, including Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, who was accused of treason and sorcery against English King Henry V1. Now they say her ghost haunts the cathedral crypt. Legend maybe, but not too hard to believe when dusk falls and the cathedral and castle ruins are outlined eerily against the sky.