At the airport in Birming-ham, 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 Stone-henge 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 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, 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 this summer 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.
Visitors can travel the island easily 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.
Feeling safe and mellow after only one day, we started our sightseeing with Peel Castle, a must-see because of its fascinating history and beautiful location on tiny St. Patrick's Island, connected by a bridge to the Isle of Man's west coast.
With audio sets in hand and sun overhead, we climbed from ruin to ruin learning about the castle's 1,000-year history, starting with Magnus Barefoot, who probably erected a timber peel, or fortress, soon after his arrival in 1089. We climbed around the foundations of several churches, a 14th-century round tower, fortress walls built to keep out the Scottish in the 1500s and a medieval bowling alley, all overlooking the sea.
We nearly had the grounds to ourselves, except for school- children who were identifying the flora growing in cracked castle walls and wildflowers scattered over burial sites.
After lunch at the Creek Inn overlooking the boats anchored in the town of Peel, we drove to the southern part of the Isle of Man to visit Cregneash Village Folk Museum, a 19th-century village restored to show how the crofters -- farmers and fishermen -- lived. Visitors can see thatched cottages, neat gardens and weaving and blacksmithing demonstrations.
The next day we climbed aboard the Snaefell Mountain Railway. This travels to the summit of Snaefell (Norse for "snow mountain"), the island's highest peak at 2,036 feet. On a clear day, you can see Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, but how often do the British Isles get clear days?
At the top, clouds shrouded the view, and icy gusts had us running from the train to the depot gift shop and cafe, where a children's play area kept Kai happy and all of us warm and fed with more local fare: sandwiches made of a thin layer of pressed turkey on thin-sliced white bread with mayonnaise.
We had fun riding the narrow-gauge electric train, which has been running up and down these hills since 1895. It passes Laxey Wheel, billed as the world's largest water wheel, built in 1854 for mining lead and zinc.
Our next driving stop was Castletown, the capital of the island until 1869. Its main attraction is Castle Rushen, built at the end of the 12th century and home to lords and monarchs of England until around 1800, when it became a prison.
The castle satisfies those who want to see an authentic storybook-style castle with turrets, a drawbridge, a dank dungeon, candle-lighted banquet halls and wax statues of the historical figures who lived there.
In the castle's museum, we read the original lists of 19th-century prisoners. Crimes included thievery, drunkenness and failure to pay taxes. On the prisoners' menu: 8 ounces of bread daily except on Sunday, when they got 8 ounces of gruel. Women got 6 ounces.
On the way home from the castle, we stopped to feed and pet some of the 50 horses at the Home of Rest for Old Horses, a 92-acre farm a few miles south of Douglas. I've never seen such healthy-looking horses, senior citizens or not.
The Isle of Man is also home of the tailless Manx cat; down the road in Santon is the Manx Cat Sanctuary. Like the horse home, this haven for homeless felines and a few other farm animals is open daily for free.
On our last day, we headed for the beach at Port Erin to play in the powder-soft sand and eat homemade ice cream, the tastiest treat on the island. Popular water sports here include sailing, windsurfing and scuba.
Before reaching the airport in the late afternoon, we drove over some hills to see the roads used for two weeks in May for the annual TT (Tourist Trophy) Races. More than 12,000 motorcycle riders from across the world and thousands more fans descend on a 38-mile course racing through quiet villages and over mountain roads. At times, a motorcycle rider would overtake our car at such lightning speed that he and his bike were a blur. It was hard to imagine thousands of them screaming through the pastoral setting.
We left the island already planning a return trip. We hadn't gotten to shop for sweaters made from the wool of the four-horned, indigenous Loghtan sheep. We stopped only briefly to see the 5th-century Celtic crosses excavated from a farm in Andreas. And we missed the Cashtal Yn Ard, Stonehenge-like megaliths from a 2,000-year-old Neolithic site in Glen Mona.
Next time, Kai might be old enough to walk the footpaths throughout the island, each beckoning with a new view to admire or a historic tale to tell.
Karin Esterhammer is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
When you go
Getting there: From London, British European and British Airways make the 70-minute flight to the Isle of Man's Ronaldsway airport in Ballasalla several times daily. Round-trip fares begin at $83.
Isle of Man Steam Packet Co. (011-44-1624-661-661) operates ferries from the English cities of Liverpool and Heysham to the isle's capital of Douglas for about $35, round trip, without a car; no charge for children younger than 4.
* Telephones: To call the numbers below from the United States, dial 011 (international dialing code), 44 (country code for England) and 1624 (island code).
Ashfield Guest House, 19 Hutchinson Square, Douglas, Isle of Man
* An older building with no elevator. Rates of about $30 per person, per night, include full English breakfast and dinner.
Sefton Hotel, Harris Prome-nade, Douglas, Isle of Man
* Deluxe hotel on promenade near shops and transportation. Rooms start at $113 per night for two people, including breakfast. Dining room is elegant, with a continental menu. Dinner entrees from $10.
Dining: We found few places with food we liked. One exception: the Bridge Inn, North Quay, Douglas; 675-268. It's a cozy, friendly pub that serves dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. I had fabulous fish and chips with salad and mashed peas. My husband had a delicious meat sampler. Menu also includes curried chicken and hearty soups. Entrees $5 to $7.
For more information:
* Manx Tourist Information Centre, P.O. Box 292, Douglas, Isle of Man, British Isles IM99 2PT; 686-766, www.isle-of-
* British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, N.Y. 10176; 800-462-2748, www.visitbritain.com.