We have just come back from an 8 day visit to the island. We are not typical tourists as my wife was born on the island and we regularly visit, staying with the in-laws. However, these are my observations:
Ferry: One car with 2 adults, one child, one dog and dog friendly cabin: £375.50 return for a 2.15pm sailing on the Ben my Chree from Heysham, and an 8.45am return departure. Wi-fi throughout the ferry (free if you had a cabin or £3 otherwise), although signal when in the cabin was weaker than in the open areas. Flat screen TV in cabin with good reception. Cabin clean. Complimentary toiletries (soap, shower gel, shampoo) and refreshments: tea, coffee, hot chocolate, cakes.
Staff, overwhelmingly friendly, chatty, courteous. Excellent cooked breakfast – one of the best I have had - £7.99 including hot / cold drink.
Public areas of ferry: Clean but tired. I was a bit annoyed that there was no table free in the café area for me to eat as they were mostly occupied by people using the café for seating only.
One thing for which I am grateful to Steam Packet: We and several other passengers were held up on the way to Heysham by a major accident on the M6 which closed it for 90 minutes. We called Steam Packet and they kept the check-in open for us even though we missed the check-in deadline, even though this delayed departure. Now that is what I call customer service!
Isle of Man: the first sight of the island was lovely, it was a beautiful sunny afternoon and the sea was like a mill-pond. The natural aspects of the island are as good as ever – the beaches, the countryside, the hills etc, and Douglas Bay does look spectacular from the water.
Douglas itself is still such a let down though. Aspects of the promenade are very attractive, especially where apartments have been developed to replace the creaky old hotels, and the Villa Marina/Gaiety complex. Victoria Street is colourful and smart. The North Quay is much better now. However, Strand Street is simply awful. It is like walking through a run down town centre in one of the more depressed parts of Britain. The shopping experience in Britain has been transformed in many British towns and cities in the last few years through a mix of preservation and new, modern bright and airy shops and malls. Given the economic performance of the island in the last 20 years (and unlike the UK, it is still a growing economy) Douglas should offer a far better shopping experience. Once in the shops they are fine in terms of content and service. I shopped in M&S, Esquire, Lexicon, Waterstones and the toy shop (can’t remember the name!). However, the street as a whole is dreary and downbeat. It really needs a radical solution, not just prettifying and tweaking.
Cinema: the Palace. Oh dear. I have not been here for 11 years and my abiding memory was the floors covered in popcorn. We went last week and what was the first thing I saw, the floor of the lobby littered with popcorn, while the ticket office and refreshment counter staff were just standing there chatting – I was soooooo tempted to run out and get them a flippin Ewbank!! The auditorium was comfortable though but the whole building is so dated.
Eating out: we only ate out once. A good experience but not cheap. I still hope that the quality and variety of places to eat continues to grow, but this growth needs to accelerate.
Overall verdict: there is nothing wrong with the Isle of Man that a bit of imagination and guts by businesses, consumers and government could not solve. We always enjoy our visits and this time was no exception. However, I was trying to think how we might have felt had there been no family connection with the island to bring us back on a regular basis. I think that the island misses out on so many opportunities at the moment. It could be a great place for independent outward bound travellers who want to hike, explore the natural attractions and heritage, and sample a unique culture. However, there seems to be little if any quality budget accommodation (eg along the likes of the Premier Inn or quality graded backpackers accommodation), and the cost of travelling to and from the island is high, possibly too high for such a group, even as foot passengers. The island could also be a year-round niche destination because of its landscape and unique character and heritage, and the romantic appeal of an island escape. There are definitely good quality hotels to cater for this, and some interesting natural and historic attractions on the island, but not enough of the associated activities eg good quality high end shopping, dining and even casino experiences.
Let's hope the coin drops some time!