Isle of Man: a Land of Tailless Cats, Vistas, and Four-Horned Sheep

Ask almost any Briton about the Isle of Man and he'll tell you he's heard it's a nice place, one he's never visited. But it's where they race motorcycles.

Ask an American, and he'll tell you it's an island in the English Channel between France and England (wrong) where tailless Manx cats originated (right).

First, to correct the geographical error held by those on this side of the Atlantic, mentally move the island (some 10 miles wide and 30 miles long) from the English Channel to the middle of the Irish Sea.

You can get there by ferry or by Manx Air. Recommendation: Book the SeaCat, a huge catamaran ferry from Liverpool. The ride is smooth, and takes only two hours compared with four by conventional ferry.

First encounter with Manx humor

I disembarked late in the evening, just in time to catch the last bus to Peel, a small fishing town on the west side of the island. There's where I had my first encounter with Manx humor.

As I was schlepping my bulky bags onto the bus, the driver told me with a straight face that the bags would cost extra. I bit, he broke into hysterics, and the teasing didn't stop until he dropped me off in Peel, not at the bus stop, but at my address.

The Isle of Man is technically a British Crown possession with its own currency. Its permissive tax laws make it a popular place for wealthy Britons to stash currency for purposes of tax avoidance. That makes banking the main industry on the island within its capital, Douglas.

Next to banking in economic importance is tourism (mainly from Britain) and the annual Tourist Trophy Motorcycle Race. The race draws an additional 45,000 people to the island with a population of 70,000.

But what the Isle of Man offers for the Harley-Davidson deprived, is scenic beauty, a 6,000-year history, and a sense of peace not found in many more trodden, in-your-face tourist spots.

The highlights: On the eastern side of the island there's the Laxey Wheel, a huge 72-1/2 foot water wheel built in 1854, used for mining lead and zinc. The stairs to the top of the wheel offer a great view of the town of Laxey and surrounding countryside.

Just up the road at Glen Mona is Cashtal Yn Ard, megaliths from a 2,000-year-old neolithic site. It's a mini-Stonehenge, tucked away in an unmarked field. Ask locals how to find it. Further on at Maughold are ancient stone crosses from a medieval monastery.

A few miles east of Peel in St. Johns is Tynwald, where the 1,000-year-old Manx parliament meets annually. Instituted by the Norsemen, it is one of the world's oldest continuous parliaments.

Once in Peel, just walking through the town checking out the shops and restaurants can make for an interesting day. A hike up Peel Hill reveals a spectacular view of Peel Castle and the town as well as a lush green coastline.

Explore walking paths and rock formations

Ranking with the megaliths is the grand view at the tip of the island looking south to the Calf of Man, a small island and bird sanctuary.

It's the end of the road, and it's worth stopping for some sandwiches at the tiny restaurant there after exploring walking paths and rock formations.

A couple of miles back up the road is the Cregneash Folk Museum. Here you can visit a restored home and farm typical of the 19th century.

The real find at the Folk Museum is the four-horned Logthan sheep grazing about the stone-walled pastures. The sheep, like the tailless Manx cat, are indigenous to the island.

If there's time left, visit Castletown. It's a bit on the touristy side but Rushen Castle, restored to what it might have been like in medieval times, is well worth a visit.

Many rooms are complete with tapestries, furnishings, and mannequins dressed in period attire.

There's never a sense of being rushed. Whether you have a few days or a month to spend here, you'll enjoy the natural beauty of the island with its grass-covered slate peaks, heather-filled moors, closeness to the sea, and the friendly reserve of the islanders.

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