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The Isle of Man is often overlooked as an adventure destination, but as Will Renwick discovered, this tiny territory packs a lot into its shores. 

Photo: DMTwo

The Isle of Man sits almost perfectly between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It has its own government, its own culture, and its own, distinct language—one that’s formed from an amalgamation of the ancient Celtic tongues of its neighbours. Its landscape could also be described as an amalgamation, with locals often describing it as “the British Isles in miniature”.

Mountains, moorland, sweeping beaches, tucked-away coves, craggy cliffs, glens, reservoirs and more are all squeezed into an island just 53 km long and 20 km wide. With such variety packed into such a small area, the Isle of Man is the perfect playground for anyone like me who enjoys cramming in various outdoor activities over a weekend without the need for long drives to connect them.

As my plane takes off from Heathrow, bound for Ronaldsway Airport, I’m excited. The one doubt clouding the horizon is the weather. Locals often refer to a phenomenon they call “Manannan’s Cloak”—a sea mist that’s draped over the island by a sea god of the Otherworld, in order to protect his kingdom from unwanted visitors. Taxiing down the runway, I’m greeted by a thick fog. It doesn’t feel like Manannan wants me there.

Photo: DMTwo

Thankfully Dave MacFarlane, my friend and our photographer for the trip, provides a warmer welcome. He’s arrived by ferry from Heysham in Cumbria, one of four ports within the British Isles to offer regular passages to the island. I jump in his van and we make our way to meet Tori, a friend of his who lives on the island. She’s kindly volunteered to show us around.

“I couldn’t wait to escape here when I was growing up,” says Tori as we drive through the winding lanes to our first activity, “but, after a spell across the water, I quickly realised I’d left behind somewhere pretty special.” Tori has spent the last few years working in marketing but she’s now taken up health coaching, a switch that was influenced by her own wellness journey. “Living on this island, surrounded by beautiful landscapes, I know first-hand just how beneficial time being active outdoors can be,” she explains. “It’s transformative.” 

Photo: DMTwo

From the terminal to the trails

Our first port of call is Cringle Forest. Here, we find a hillside criss-crossed with mountain bike trails; mainly twisting singletrack, with some fire roads and a bridleway called the ‘Whisky Run’, a smugglers’ route that cuts through the island. Manannan’s Cloak is still covering us and the forest is filled with mist. “I can’t believe how quiet it is here – do you think it’s the weather?” asks Dave as we pull up at the end of a trail called the Otter’s Pocket. “It’s pretty much always like this,” Tori replies.

Later, we join a track which Tori tells us is part of the Isle of Man end-to-end mountain biking route. Almost entirely off-road, it’s an 80 km trail that runs from the very tip of the south coast of the island, to Point of Ayre on the far northern end. It’s a self-navigated, tough challenge that’s normally undertaken in a day, giving a proper highlights package of the island. That’s one reason to come back here, I think to myself.

Then I remember the excruciating pain. Or at least, that’s one of the things I remember from my first and only visit to the Isle of Man about seven years ago. I’d dared myself to run around the whole island within three days on the 150 km Raad ny Foillan (Way of the Gull) coastal path – this was despite having zero long-distance running experience.

Photo: DMTwo

These days, I’m slightly better prepared, and when we head out running to the bulking headland above Port Erin, the good memories from that adventure around the island come flooding back. I’d forgotten just how rugged, wild and beautiful this western coastline is. Here, the path follows along hilltops which all fall steeply on one side down to the sea, and it winds its way through a thick carpet of gorse and heather. The texture underfoot is rocky, with flashes of bright-white quartz constantly catching the eye. This is my kind of trail running.

As we circle back to Port Erin, the masochist in me wonders if I have it in me these days to run the whole coastal path again. This return to the trail had certainly made it a tempting prospect. Reason number two for me to come back to the island. 

Photo: DMTwo

From sea to summit… and back

The next morning we feel like hiking and as there are so many places we want to visit, we draw up a plan for a series of short walks that will let us visit a number of different spots throughout the island. We start with one of the glens.

The glens of the Isle of Man, of which there are 18, are true gems of the island. Essentially narrow valleys with streams running through them, each one is a tucked-away idyll and is carefully preserved by the Isle of Man Government. One of the finest is Glen Maye. Here, we find a steep ravine filled with moss and ferns and a spectacular waterfall as the centrepiece.

“We see faces with wide eyes rising from the water. Seals, and lots of them.” 

Hiking through, we hear the sea before we see it, then arrive at a rocky cove to find the place all to ourselves. A short drive later and we’re as far north as we can go, standing on the beach at Point of Ayre. As we gaze off-shore at the Scottish coast, all of a sudden we see faces with wide eyes and big nostrils all rising from the water. Seals, and lots of them. They swim alongside us as we make our way along the beach, while oystercatchers peep overhead, and ringed plovers skit away from us across the shingle.

On the way back down to the south of the island, we drive up and up to the Isle of Man’s high country. At 2,037 feet, Snaefell is actually the only summit on the island that’s high enough to be officially classed as a mountain. The other peaks that are clustered here are officially only hills – but they have the look and feel of something bigger. Standing on Clagh Ouyr, with the cloud enveloping us and the wind battering our faces, I could easily be on a 3000-foot Lake District fell, or high up in the Brecon Beacons. “It’s just a shame you can’t see the view you usually get from here, says Tori. “It’s incredible.”

Photo: DMTwo

For small moments, gaps appear in the clouds, revealing a shimmering sea below us that feels like it’s just a stone’s throw away. All of the mini mountains around us are gradually revealed too, then we can see all four sides of the island. Beyond, I can just about make out Scotland and, even more faintly, the Mountains of Mourne in Ireland. It is a well-known saying on the Isle of Man that on a clear day, seven kingdoms can be seen from the tops here: the Isle of Man, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Heaven and the Sea. Manannan’s Cloak hadn’t quite lifted enough for that view today—I’ll have to come back again to try to catch it.

From the top of the mountain and down to the coast. Our day ends with a swim as the sun sets behind the arm of the harbour wall at Port Erin. It’s cold, but we don’t mind that too much, because at the far corner of the promenade, illuminated by the warm glow of festoon lights, there’s the Kishtey Çheh hot tub and sauna—all fired up and waiting for us. There’s nothing quite like peeling off a cold wetsuit to jump in a sauna, and then following it up with a cozy, well-earned pub dinner.

Photo: DMTwo

“There is cove after stunning cove to explore here, many of them entirely empty”

By lunch time the next day, I’m walking along Guildford high street on my way to meet old friends. Water from my wetsuit is dripping from a corner of my duffel bag to leave a trail on the pavement behind me. It’s hard to comprehend that as little as three hours ago, I was exploring the clear waters of Port Soderick by paddleboard. Unfortunately the flight cut the fun short, but there was cove after cove still to explore—just another one of the many reasons for me to come back.

Mountain biking, trail running, paddleboarding, wild swimming, hiking: all in varied landscapes, and all in the space of a long weekend. It’s hard to imagine anywhere else within the British Isles where you could pack in so much, in such a short space of time. The UK in miniature it might be, but the Isle of Man punches well above its weight when it comes to adventure.

Photo: DMTwo

Know How

Our trip

This trip was supported by Visit Isle of Man who provide adventure inspiration, information and booking links on their website.

Getting there

The island can be reached via quick flights from airports throughout the UK and Ireland. Ferries link Douglas, the island’s capital, with Heysham, Liverpool, Birkenhead, Belfast and Dublin.

Photo: DMTwo

Where to stay

Will stayed at Comis Hotel & Golf Resort, a four-star spa hotel just outside of Douglas.

What to pack

Prepare for all kinds of weather! Will hired his mountain bike from Erin Bikes. Ebb & Flo Water Sports have all you need for your water-based adventures, including SUPs, wetsuits, surfboards etc.

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