ISLE OF MAN — At the airport in Birmingham, England, the officer looked at our German and U.S. passports and asked what our destination was.
"Isle of Man," I answered.
"Oh, do you have family there?" she asked.
"No, we're just going for vacation," my husband, Rolf, said.
"That's rather odd, isn't it?"
We must have looked confused, because she added: "Well, foreigners just never go there unless they have family."
It seems she was right. Only two U.S. addresses had been entered in the guest book at our B&B since 1989--and both belonged to Rolf.
I had never been to England, and here I was passing up London, the Lake District, Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon and Stonehenge in favor of an island few Americans are familiar with. But Rolf loves this little jewel that's just 33 miles long and 13 miles wide, and when life gets tough, he sometimes thinks about packing it all up and moving here.
It is easy to see why it would make an ideal escape from the real world. From the window of the prop plane, I looked down on an emerald green island with mountains, wooded glens, waterfalls, dramatic sea cliffs and empty beaches. Cumulus clouds created shady splotches across a patchwork of sheep-dotted pastures neatly separated by hedgerows. Even the farm animals seemed to have sea views.
The Isle of Man is in the center of the British Isles but is not technically part of Britain. Its 76,000 residents constitute a self-governing dependent territory of the Crown, with its own currency (though it equals British pounds), parliament and culture.
"We want nothing to do with the British," said Madeleine Heath, owner of the Ashfield Guest House, our B&B in the capital of Douglas. "That is, until the British have a bank holiday, and then it's 'All hail to the Queen!' and we take the day off."
The Manx, as residents are called, are proud of their Celtic heritage. Signs are in Gaelic and English, and the old tongue is taught as a secondary language in the schools. Nearly every house sports the Manx flag with the Three Legs of Man, first used officially in the early 14th century on the Manx Sword of State. The armor-clad legs, which were originally a symbol for the sun, run in a clockwise direction. The motto, in Latin, says, "Whichever way you throw it, it will stand."
Rolf, our son Kai, 2, and I visited the island for four days in July to break up a two-week visit with family in Germany. Most tourists come between May and October. The island is right in the Gulf Stream and even has palm trees, so while England had showers, we had warm, albeit breezy, sunshine.
The island is easily traveled by train and bus, but not with a baby and his heavy paraphernalia. So the first order of business was to rent a car, retool our brains to drive on the left side of the road and find the Ashfield Guest House, just a couple of blocks from the beach. The owners remembered Rolf because he had announced one morning at breakfast that he intended someday to buy the Calf of Man, an uninhabited islet nearby. It's not for sale. The Manx National Trust keeps it as a bird sanctuary for cormorants, puffins, kittiwake gulls and the crow-like chough, among others, but people can take a half-hour boat ride to the islet and walk around.
Our innkeeper, Heath, welcomed Kai, set up a crib in a third-floor room with a bay view and directed us to the nearest grocery store for toddler provisions.
We pushed Kai in his stroller along the 1 1/2-mile-long Douglas Promenade to breathe the sea air on the way to the market. Built in the late 1800s, the promenade's hotel facades, antique street lights and horse-pulled street trolleys make it easy to imagine people out for their daily constitutional, women holding parasols and men with their walking sticks.
We made it into the store just before closing and asked where the nappies (diapers) were. The cashier pointed and then said: "Oh, your American accents! If I weren't already sitting down, I'd be weak in the knees from laughter."
We were an anomaly, I suppose, but I wondered why. Granted, the air fare from London can be expensive, especially for a family, and there is no Big Ben or Buckingham Palace. But we found the Isle of Man to be a miniature of England, except more manageable for visitors trying to see everything in a single trip. It has medieval castles and ruins, ancient Celtic stones, Viking gravesites, Victorian steam trains still in operation, scenic paths, friendly people and--sorry to have to add this--bland English cuisine.
Our first taste of the food was at a highly recommended restaurant on the promenade called Min y Don. We wanted traditional English cooking, so we ordered roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. The meal came with boiled potatoes, mashed peas, boiled cabbage and carrots. No matter how much salt and pepper we added, we could not elicit flavor from the food.