How To Spend A Weekend On The Isle Of Man

How To Spend A Weekend On The Isle Of Man
Sealwatching at the Sound. Image by Lydia Manch.

The Isle of Man often flies under the radar as a weekend getaway from London, with the only people we know who've visited as tourists being ones with a personal connection to the island or a deep passion for motorbike racing.

An oversight, because the island delivers an unbelievable ratio of escapism to kilometres travelled. An hour's flight from London drops you into a variety of beauty that's kind of surreal, with deserted coves and small sandy beaches shoulder-to-shoulder with stream-laced, verdant valleys. 15 minutes of driving can take you from rugged, rocky outcrops with seals paddling lazily at the water's edge, to glens so deep and thickly forested they could be lifted out of a Lost World moodboard.

Getting to the Isle of Man

Flights go regularly from City (BA, Loganair), Heathrow (BA), and Gatwick (easyJet). You can also go via train to Liverpool and ferry. For the intrepid, you can sail from the mainland, with docks at Peel or Douglas.

From the airport in Castletown it's a 20-40 minute drive to most parts of the island. There's a regular bus which runs from the airport to Douglas.

Isle of Man need to know  

Getting around the Isle of Man: Public transport's limited. This is one of the rare destinations we'd recommend bringing or hiring wheels of your own — a car, sure, or if you're feeling adventurous, there are plenty of rental options for motorbikes and bicycles. Whatever the wheels, brace yourself for narrow roads, hairpin turns, and a lot (a lot) of hills.

The island's also home to some interesting and niche transport services — not, actually, ones that connect many of the places we're going to recommend for you to visit, but a nice sidebar attraction for fans of electric railways, summer-only steam railways, or the oldest surviving horse tram in the world.

Accommodation: A disclaimer that the Isle of Man has always been a stay with a friend or lover place for me — my hotel knowledge is limited to hearsay. But personally I'd escape the city in favour of one of the options studding the hills, valleys and glens around the south and southeast, where most of our favourite places are clustered: you know, somewhere on the edge of a forest with a hot tub and dark skies and towering greenery all around. Good areas to target, for an improbable level of beauty on your doorstep, include Onchan and Sulby (shout-out to Tholt-y-Will B&B, or this airbnb complete with hot tub, sauna and orchard views).

If you're set on staying in the city, a suite at Sail Lofts would put you in the good hands — and direct proximity of — one of the loveliest restaurants we know of on the island: 14North, who run the four-room, marina-view property above their dining room. Penthouse from £178 a night, for a minimum of three nights' stay.

Image by Sail Lofts, Isle of Man.

What to eat and drink: Seafood, unsurprisingly, including queenies — a small species of scallop. Seek them out fried with butter, heavy garlic, and pancetta. Fynoderee gin, distilled on the IOM with a range of different seasonal expressions, all of them folding in produce foraged on the island. There are four local breweries, with Bushy's being the most established, and a nearly 200 year old kipper industry that still boasts multiple competing kipper-pushers, all selling some very... aromatic fish that're going to be love it or hate it for most people.

When to visit: We've loved the island in all seasons, but summer's a safer bet — if only because in winter, both the ferry and plane journeys are struck more often with turbulence (and delays or rerouting). Avoid the TT (the island's early summer annual motorbike tournament) at all costs, the one fortnight of the year where the island attracts mass tourism.

Weather: Controversially — judging by the amount of goodnatured flak we took when we made an IOM post captioned 'Tropical feels' — in 10+ stays there I've never experienced the weather as anything other than radiantly bright. Every resident I've talked to tells me this isn't the Isle of Man's MO, and that you need to emotionally prepare yourself, summer or winter, for dull skies, biting winds, days on end of grey, sideways rain. I can only speak whereof I know, and that is: I've never seen the island being anything other than clear-skied and crisply beautiful in winter, blazingly verdant in summer. Occasional dramatic thunderstorm at night — you know, rain pounding tropically on the skylights, leaves dripping greenly in the warmth of the next morning.

Day One  

Beaches, glens, and forests

No other humans as far as the eye can see: Niarbyl Bay.

The island's jagged coastline delivers a lot of beach per human, to a level that means even on a lot of height-of-summer's-heat weekend days, we've spent hours with some of the island's most beautiful beaches entirely to ourselves.

If the idea of seclusion, sea quietly lapping into the bay, rocky climbs, and a flower-strewn clifftop path hits you: Niarbyl. On the western side of the island, in hours of wandering we saw maybe three other people in the far distance. Walked the cliff through towering, 10-foot fronds of wildflowers and hemp agrimony. By night, it's a dark-sky zone where you can park and stargaze. Making a strong bid for top place on our Most Romantic Beaches of the IOM leaderboard. (See also: Groudle Beach, a tiny, rockier cove reached through a glen that — stats drawn from a lot of visits — you're statistically more likely to be sharing with a huge blue heron than an unknown person, and Tholt-y-Will, in Sulby, where the wooden stilted paths lead you through a valley so overhung with greenery it feels semi-tropical.)

Port Erin. Image by Lydia Manch.

If you prefer your beach to be town-adjacent — a scattering of cafes and bars, a lot more people, and maybe some nachos perched on a seawall overlooking the beach: Port Erin. Nachos courtesy of Foraging Vintners, above the beach, and, if you hit it at a drinking-appropriate-hour in the summer, there'll be a bar and pizza tent on the beach itself.

And in different seasons the waters off the island are host to basking sharks, seals, dolphins. Most reliable place for sealwatching is The Sound Cafe, an unassuming canteen with a fearsomely beautiful, cliff-edge perch on the southern curve of the island. If you're going to the Sound, allow whatever amount of time you want to spend eating (very good) breakfast burritos in the café, and then give yourself roughly triple that to spend wandering the cliffs, climbing down to the water's edge, and basking on the rocks while you watch seals doing the same thing, about 20 metres across the water.

Isle of Man. Image by Lydia Manch.

Lunch on the Isle of Man

The real play here is lunch on the move, and somewhere beautiful. Cram your pockets or, better, car, with snacks, and strike out towards the coast for a rock-perch picnic on Niarbyl Bay, a blanket on Groudle Beach, or a bench on a quiet hilltop in Conrhenny Plantation.

But if you want a pitstop with an actual table and cutlery:

Greens Cafe, in St Johns: for big slabs of tortilla, fresh salads, a few hot dishes, and some outside picnic benches.

Victory Cafe, on one of the higher points of the island, near the Snaefell summit: a caff that's taken over a former Cold War rotor radar station, still channeling the war-era vibes with a 1950s-Britain menu of pies, mash and cake.

There's also Cycle 360, a short drive — or, okay, cycle — outside Douglas, with a small terrace, outstanding at breakfast-for-lunch: think fry-ups, shakshuka, and huevos rancheros. Or pick one of the pubs we've listed below for lunch, based on whether the day warrants armchairs and fireplaces or beer gardens and parasols.  

Pubs and bars on the Isle of Man

Wine Down, Douglas: A wine bar meets shop with a good mix of lesser-known new worlds and old world greatest hits, a not-insane mark-up on the shop price if you want to drink in, and friendly and knowledgeable staff — plus a dinner menu if you want to embed for the evening.

The Prospect, Douglas: An archetypal country pub that's somehow in the middle of town. No big surprises, a lot of good armchairs, fireplaces for the winter. You love to see it.

The Cat With No Tail, Onchan: Mostly for its big beer garden. If you're wanting to drink local, you'll find Okell's on tap and Fynoderee gin behind the bar.

The Creg-Ny-Baa, Onchan: Drop by during daylight hours, when your Bushy's ale — one of four breweries on the island — comes with casually beautiful views across the hills.

Day Two

Groudle Glen. Image by Lydia Manch.

Boards, clubs, bikes

If you're in the market for something heart-rate-raising, there're a number of ways to hit the IOM's water, roads and hills.

The idea of cycling on the IOM will either horrify or enchant you when you see the amount of insane hills and dense woodlands packed into one small island. There's a lot of ground for both mountain bikers and tarmac-fans to cover, and plenty of cycle hire options.

I'm assured by people more emotionally invested in it than I am that the island has some great golf to offer. Some... nice holes? Good... terroir? Basically what I know about golf is limited to the fact that you sometimes get to hang out in a very beautiful place while you do it, and I can confirm one such beautiful place is Castletown Golf Links. Sea views edging the entire course. Huge skies. Nice, lowkey clubhouse (daytime only) at the start-end of the course that's a good pitstop for a seaview pint in its own right. Close enough to the airport that in the summer you could leave London after work and be smashing those balls into the flag-holes (golf industry terminology) by sunset.

And there're a lot of water sports happening around the coastline. Personally, paddleboarding hire's The One for immediate joy vs low experience level needed, or diving if you're happy to invest more advance planning and cash. But there's also kayaking if you're looking for something more sedate, plus a few lesser-spotted options like aquabikes. Most of the hire centres also offer wetsuits to rent.

Dinner on the Isle of Man

Thai Thai, Douglas: Looks like your average high street Thai spot, but nothing average about the food: spanning regional classics from the north to south, and fiercely punchy, delicate and rich by turns. Ideal for a group, because: 1/ big, round tables lending themselves to a loud, excessive night, and 2/ greater chance of being able to order everything on the long but, based on my sample size, kind of immaculate menu. Relatively large, so your chance of getting a table short-notice is far higher than at our other two small-but-perfectly-formed dinner favourites.

Kizuna, Castletown: Small Japanese restaurant that, local lore says, was born of a wealthy IOM resident falling in love with a London restaurant, and promptly hiring Chef Lin and all his staff to leave the city and set up a new place in Castletown. Haven't bothered factchecking this because Kizuna so patently feels like a place that you'd become obsessed with, and summon all the wealth at your disposal to recreate on your doorstep, that I just believe it. Best seats are up at the front, at the chef's counter. Open Tuesday to Sunday, only in the evenings. Seats about 14 people, almost zero chance of coaxing your way in without a reservation.

Kizuna, Isle of Man. Image by Lydia Manch.

14North, Douglas: Just a straight-up lovely restaurant on the waterfront — a small, regularly-changing bistro-esque menu that bounces around Europe, Asia and the Middle East, but with a reverence towards IOM produce. Would be a beauty based on menu and vibe alone, so it's just a bonus that it's also, actually, A Beauty: marina views, mood-lighting, the smell of bisque and steak and miso and tahini lacing through the tiny dining room. Equally great for an evening sharing a romantic steak-for-two, or for a long, medium-rowdy group dinner.

Isle of Man nightlife

The Isle of Man's late-night nightlife — and I say this with love, and the weight of a few good, messy nights out behind it —  is quite specialist. The Courthouse, 1886, and The Outback (Barrack Street), are all in Douglas, open till 3am or later at the weekend, and all have a strong stag-and-hen do vibe.

The pro move is, imo, to frontload your night with early evening pub pitstops and a lingering, decadent dinner out — and then, post-midnight, when the only venue options still open come with a high probability of 2-for-1 schnapps shots playing a leading role, to take yourself to one of the dark sky sites scattered across the island with a hipflask/thermos/some great wine, and finish the evening looking up at the stars.

On the list for next time...

If you're making a longer trip of it, the island has enough glens, beaches, pubs and stargazing to easily justify turning this into a week or more. And if you're taking the ferry, you could combine it with our 48 hours in Liverpool guide.

Last Updated 10 October 2022

Continued below.