JERSEY, Channel Islands --Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Herm and Alderney, these islands that bristle out of the English Channel off the coast of Normandy like epaulets on France's Atlantic shoulder, are certainly a place apart.
|Mont Orgueil, a Norman castle, guards the village of Gorey on the Island of Jersey's eastern edge. Its high ramparts offer a view of the French coastline 40 miles away. (Jersey Tourism)|
Just eight miles into the Gulf of St. Malo from France's Cherbourg peninsula, the islands are geographically and historically closer to the continent and France. But they have been economically and politically linked to England since 1066, when William the Conqueror first deeded the islands to his loyal knights.
In 1204, when King John ceded Normandy to the French, Channel Islanders remained loyal to the English crown, an exclusive arrangement that persists to this day.
In many ways, however, the Channel Islands are, well, islands to themselves. Both Jersey and Guernsey are independent bailiwicks, each with its own legislature and currency. Although English has been the official language for more than a century, a majority of place names are French, which also happens to be the language in which the islands' judicial system is conducted. Channel Islands beer may be British, but the culture and cuisine have strong French overtones.
Although the topsoil of the islands tends to be thin, a mild, Gulf Stream climate long ago made them places of agriculture and animal husbandry. Over the last century, dairy products from the purebred cattle of Jersey and Guernsey have become famous around the world. Even today, the local economy thrives on growing high-quality produce and flowers for export markets.
Incidentally, the islands' watery distance from Britain completely spared them from any incidence of foot-and-mouth disease.
Over the last two centuries, tourism has also channeled considerable currency into the islands' economies. The islands attract droves of summer visitors from Britain and across Europe, who stroll their white sand beaches, hike among their hilly hummocks and relish the laid-back Anglo-Gallic ambiance.
The Channel Islands are less well known to North Americans. One indication is that any mention of them is often omitted from guidebooks for both England and France.
Yet, while visitors are always welcome, tourism development has been carefully controlled, with strict restrictions on the building of any new hotels. There are plenty of visitor amenities, such as good restaurants, entertainment and well-marked roads, but everything tends to be on a small scale.
Also limited is permanent residency status, which is only for native islanders and their offspring, along with a select handful of foreigners who come each year seeking shelter for their finances.
Financial service is big business on the islands, accounting for nearly 60 percent of the economy, more than double the combined contributions of tourism and agriculture.
Since World War II, the islands' conscientiously benign income tax structures have made them a haven for wealthy English people, as well as a safe harbor for multinational corporations. Dozens of big-name international banks maintain branch offices in St. Helier and St. Peter Port, the neat, fashionable population centers of Jersey and Guernsey respectively. Together the Channel Islands shelter several hundred billion dollars' worth of worldly assets.
Although just 12 miles long by seven miles wide, Jersey is the largest and most developed of the islands, with a population of 85,000. Yet once away from St. Helier's relative bustle, Jersey quickly assumes a relaxed, rural air, with neat fields of lavender flowers, stonewall-lined farm lanes and panoramic coastal vistas.
Guernsey is half as large as Jersey, with life that is proportionally slower-paced. Beachy bays and coves scallop its northern shore, rising to steep, shrub-covered cliffs along its southern coast.
The islands of Alderney and Herm are even smaller and less populated, while tiny Sark is something of a Brigadoon, a tiny, feudal bastion unto itself, remote and relatively unaffected by time or reality, with no motor vehicles or significant settlements. Jethou and Lithou are two other even smaller islands, 50 and 40 acres respectively at high tide.
That distinction is important, because the oceanic ebbs and flows are enormous, with normal tides that can rise 40 feet or more. This daily flux is a fact of life that manifests itself in myriad interesting ways, one of which is that the total area of these smaller islands can literally double when the tide is out.
The Channel Islands have earned a reputation as quaint, quirky places to visit, especially in the year's balmier seasons, when migratory birds twitter and wild flowers abound. The outdoor recreational possibilities -- hiking, biking, horseback riding, sailing, golf, fishing, windsurfing and bird watching --are superlative.
Last September, in part to satisfy my long standing curiosity about these somewhat anomalous islands, my wife, Sari, and I spent five days visiting Jersey and Guernsey.
For a seemingly remote destination, the Channel Islands proved surprisingly easy to reach from Pittsburgh. After a late afternoon departure on US Airways' nonstop overnight flight to London's Gatwick Airport and a quick connection to Jersey's modern jetport, we arrived in time for breakfast the next morning.
Renting a car, we found our way to the Atlantic Hotel, a five-minute ride from the airport. Situated on a wind-raked bluff overlooking the five-mile-long, western-facing sweep of sand known as St. Ouen's Bay, the intimate, elegant hotel presents a long view over its namesake ocean, with the dark silhouettes of Guernsey and Sark hulking low on the horizon. The Atlantic proved to be a most comfortable, five-star base from which to explore Jersey's subtle charms.
A word about St. Ouen's Bay, which makes up virtually all of the island's western edge. Its broad sands are now the setting for a wide swath of recreational activities, but, like many strategic locations on these islands, they bristle with significant architectural relics from the various armies that have held sway here over the centuries.
A trio of Napoleonic stone towers guard the approaches and landings along the sands of St Ouen's Bay. Even more looming is the 20-foot-high sea wall constructed by the Germans during their five-year World War II occupation of the islands. It stretches for the entire five-mile length of the beach, studded every so often with concrete bunkers and gun emplacements.
Constructed to repel an Allied invasion that never occurred, these fortifications now serve as tourist attractions. Surfers now come to ride the bay's famously long, mid-ocean breakers, and sunset seekers stand in silent awe at evening's onset.
Our days on Jersey were occupied with a sort of treasure hunt to seek out the island's more notable attractions, interspersed by strolls down quiet, tree-lined lanes. It was a game we pursued with gusto.
Driving on the road's left side is a challenge more easily mastered than navigating the maze of narrow, rock-wall-lined country lanes that radiate across the island. Although negotiating them sometimes required using reverse gear, no place was more than a few miles away, and we were always eventually able to find our way to where we were headed.
On our first afternoon, we decided to explore Jersey's eastern end. We first drove along St. Brelade's Bay, a well-sheltered cove on Jersey's southwest corner and setting for several of the island's more resort-like hotels.
Then the coastal road skirted the long curve of St. Aubin's Bay to St. Helier, Jersey's primary city, with its Elizabeth Castle posing picturesquely in the broad mouth of the harbor. The city is named after the hermit who brought Christianity to the islands. He lived on a rock in the harbor and was martyred by pirates in 555 A.D.
Then, we headed inland to the village of Gorey on the island's eastern edge. Here, we climbed up the steep ramps of Mont Orgueil, a Norman castle, and from its high turrets we had a distant view of the French coastline 40 miles away.
Costumed tableaux set up in the castle's various rooms provided insight into its history and notable residents. Although Orgueil had become militarily obsolete by the 15th century, legend has it that Sir Walter Raleigh prevailed upon Queen Elizabeth I not to have the castle torn down, a decision which certainly benefits modern visitors.
Our next stop was only a mile inland, at La Hougue Bie, a massive Neolithic burial mound with a medieval chapel built on the summit. Local legend says that on this spot, Funk Paynel, a medieval French knight, slew a terrible dragon and was in turn dispatched by his treacherous manservant.
Even more thought-provoking was the low burial chamber itself. Ducking our heads, we were able to make our way into the vault where ancient islanders held religious rites nearly 6,000 years ago. In addition to archaeological artifacts and displays, the small museum adjacent to the site offered excellent oversights of the island's geological evolution.
Then we tootled off up a country lane to the Jersey Zoo. This unique sanctuary and breeding center was established three decades ago by author Gerald Durrell to protect and propagate many of Earth's endangered species. Accordingly, a remarkable collection of exotic creatures are accommodated in the zoo's 25 acres of parkland and watergardens.
Our final stop that afternoon was Bonne Nuit Bay, a deep-cut cove on Jersey's steep north shore, where we watched breakers bounce around a pair of fishing trawlers chained to the quay. By the time we arrived back at the Atlantic Hotel that evening, we'd circled much of Jersey, and yet had added less than 40 miles to the car's odometer.
The next day dawned with stormy winds. We had planned to walk and ride bikes along the island's "Green Lane" cycling paths, but instead we drove into St. Helier to check out its central food markets, along with the overwhelming array of continental stores and boutiques that surround them.
Before we got our shopping instincts into gear, however, the sun came out, and being more in the mood for sightseeing, we retrieved our car from the parking garage and headed north.
Our objective was the Hamptonne Country Life Museum, a refurbished farmstead with houses and outbuildings that date from the 16th and 17th centuries. Since 1993, the facility has been operated as a working farm of the period, with costumed interpreters providing insights on the life and agrarian practices of the time.
Then we stopped at the German Underground hospital, a mile-long warren of hand-hewn tunnels that the Nazis had dug into the granite bedrock as a command center during their occupation of the islands from 1940-45.
Hitler saw the islands as strategic strongholds in his Atlantic Wall of fortifications. At his direction, massive concrete embattlements, built by hundreds of slave laborers from Spain, Morocco, Poland and Russia, were constructed all around the coast. This traumatic chapter of Channel Island history comes to life in the cool underground chambers by the displayed memorabilia and rare wartime film footage.
After this dose of documentary, we decided to head back to the Atlantic Hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon on our storm-delayed walk along the magnificent length of St. Ouen's Bay, as beautiful an expanse of nearly empty sand as found anywhere. With the tide going out, the beach widened, and it seemed almost possible to walk out across the sand to the ruins of La Rocco, a French-built battlement perched on a pile of rocks a half mile into the bay. The sun setting over the open ocean behind this tower was as magnificent a closing act to any day as we could imagine.
The next morning, on our way to the airport for our noon flight to Guernsey, we couldn't resist making one final detour to Corbiere Lighthouse.
Scenically situated atop a crag at the island's southwestern corner, the lighthouse can be reached by foot at low tide via a concrete causeway laid across the rocks and sand. But twice a day, when the ocean surges in 40-foot-deep waves crashing against the rocks, the lighthouse is inaccessible even by boat. The difference makes Corbiere a dramatic destination, especially for visitors who tarry too long on the way back to their car.
An hour later, we saw Corbiere again, from the window of an airplane, a fitting way to leave after our far-too-brief Jersey stay.
The cream of Guernsey
The flight from the island of Jersey to Guernsey was an experience in itself. The needle-nosed, cigar-thin turboprop plane of Aurigny Airlines seated only 12 passengers, each with their own door. Several thousand feet in altitude, the journey over the 40 choppy miles of ocean between the two islands was riveting, providing both an amusement park thrill and a superb sense of setting. Our landing pattern, swooping in low over Guernsey's gridwork of fields, offered a quick lay of the land.
Unlike rectangularly shaped Jersey, Guernsey is triangular, a three cornered island about 10 miles on a side. Locals say it's shaped like a wedge of cheese.
On the southern coast, steep cliffs rise out of the open ocean, their brush-covered flanks serrated by dozens of narrow coves. A wonderful walking trail traverses the entire length of Guernsey's southern coast, weaving and out of the coves and roller-coastering up and down from cliff edge to rocky beach, with the ever-undulating Atlantic as a constant companion.
The trail's twists and turns turn 10 crow-flying miles into 20 miles of possible hike, although most visitors content themselves with shorter trips between half a dozen access points along the way.
From that high ridge, Guernsey slopes down to the north in a patchwork of sandy hills and dales. The landscape is latticed by narrow country lanes that define tiny fields and great estates. The island's long west side, the hypotenuse of the triangle, is characterized by sweeps of sandy beach, interspersed with low, rocky fingers grasping at the sea.
St. Peter Port, Guernsey's primary town and harbor, is situated along the island's eastern end. Its array of narrow avenues and alleys arc across the hillside that drains into the tight but tidy harbor.
Although its earliest foundations date back to Roman times, St. Peter Port's period of peak prosperity derived smuggling and privateering operations during the Napoleonic Wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. During this time, ranks of Regency and Georgian style buildings were erected. Houses and gardens were shoehorned in wherever they could be fitted into the tiered terrain, with long flights of steps connecting stretches too steep for streets.
The neat line of old three- and four-story stone buildings lining St. Peter Port's broad harbor esplanade once served as warehouses for the fishing fleets. Now they house international financial conglomerates, tiny historical museums, art galleries and fine French restaurants. Ranks of sailboats bob in the pier-side marinas, except when the low tide leaves them high and dry.
The steep stone pier and breakwater that define the inner harbor lead out a half mile to Castle Cornet, the remains of a citadel that has endured 700 years of altercation and alteration. For eight years in the mid-17th century during the English Civil War, the castle and the port were on opposite sides of the conflict, with constant cannon fire back and forth. The massive concrete gun emplacements built by the Nazis are only the most recent additions to the stronghold's architectural history.
As we strolled out along the pier to the castle late that afternoon, the sky that formed the backdrop to the broad tableau was suddenly framed by the bright arc of a rainbow that rose from and plunged back into the sea.
Everything in St. Peter Port proved to be within a 15-minute walk from our base of operation, The Old Government House, or the OGH, as locals refer to it.
If you go ...
Channel Islanders take their flowers seriously.
This week, for example, is Jersey's annual garden festival -- with celebrity gardeners imported from Britain and France. Another floral event, the so-called Battle of the Flowers, is a century-old competition of flower-carpeted floats that are paraded through the streets of St. Helier. This year's Battle of the Flowers is Aug. 9 and 10. Additional Jersey events include the Sept. 13 annual air show with lots of antique and hot aircraft swooping overhead; the Sept. 15-23 Walking Week, devoted to walking and the Sept. 27-Oct. 7 arts festival. Jersey also has a special card that provides discounted admissions to six of its best museums.
Guernsey has the July 23 Harbor Carnival, with a "Ladies Dinghy Race;" a July 27-29 folk music festival; a July 28-Aug. 4 carnival at St. Peter Port, the Aug. 27 Summer Shows and Tennerfest, where folks pay 10 pounds to sample the fare of some 50 restaurants.
Both islands also have a strong emphasis on ecology and preservation. Indeed, Jersey is the first destination in the world to achieve Green Globe status under a worldwide environmental management and awareness program.
For more information
Jersey tourism: 800-617-3333 or www.jersey.com.
Atlantic Hotel: www.theatlantichotel.com.
Old Government House Hotel: www.oghhotelguernsey.com.
Guernsey tourism: http://tourism.guernsey.net.
Residence of Guernsey's governors until 1858, when it was turned into a hotel for fashionable travelers, the OGH is a posh, rambling residence set high on a St. Peter Port hillside. Although laid out with the meandering hallways and oddly shaped rooms characteristic of structures several centuries old, recent renovations to its 69 guest rooms have renewed the OGH's five-star reputation. The commanding view of the harbor from the broad windows of its superb Regency Dining Room complement its impeccably formal service.
Although we'd made plans to bike the next day and try one of the 11 sign-posted cycling routes that loop around the countryside, the morning dawned with a steady shower that suggested renting a car might be a more prudent course.
As we discovered, driving around Guernsey is an adventure in itself. In addition to the challenges of left-hand drive and shift, many roads proved to be barely two lanes wide and they often were sandwiched tightly between high stone walls and dense hedgerows, often with another vehicle careening toward you. Quick, instinctive reactions are frequently required, which lends the experience many of the characteristics of playing a vehicular video game.
Nearing noon, the morning clouds evaporated into a bright blue sky, so we decided to sample a bit of the Coast Path along the southern cliffs. We found our way to down to La Gouffre, a trail access point tucked at the end of a narrow valley, and parked the car.
With early ecological insight, development along Guernsey's entire south coast has been tightly controlled since 1927, with virtually no construction at all along the cliff tops. The path is wide and well defined, with stout steps on all the steep stretches.
In this mid-ocean setting, the island's sands and waters remain naturally clean.
We strolled from Geoffre to Petit Bot Bay, a walk of about a mile in distance, although with the ups and downs and stops to admire the view, it took us most of an hour. Although too tight for any village to take root, Petit Bot Bay is the only real harbor on Guernsey's south coast, and like other access points around the island, it has been fortified since medieval times. A tea room now fills the bastion which straddles the stream that rattles down over the rocks into the sea.
The Coastal Path was wonderful, and we could have happily spent the entire day walking. By the time we got back to the car, however, another shower was already taking shape, so we decided to use the rest of the day checking out some of Guernsey's other "points of interest."
Our first stop was the "Little Chapel," an aptly named attraction, which is promoted as the world's smallest church. A child-sized chapel with enough room inside for a priest and a congregation of five, the handmade rendition of a cathedral is in the style of Our Lady of Lourdes, with every surface inside and out plastered with broken bits of mirrors and Royal Doulton china.
Afterward, we headed to Guernsey's western end, stopping at Fort Pezeries, the remains of a five-sided fortress and a bit later at a recently refurbished German bunker on a headland overlooking Vazon Bay, one of the many sites on Guernsey relating to their World War II occupation. Afterward, we continued our tour of the north coast, stopping at the Oatland's craft center to check out local cheeses and ice cream and -- to cut the butterfat content of both -- a glass or two of Guernsey-made wine.
Then we swung back to St. Peter Port to see two of Guernsey's primary attractions, Saumarez Park and Hauteville House. The former is the estate and gardens of one of Guernsey's great families, the latter the home of French author Victor Hugo, who lived in Guernsey for 14 years of his exile that resulted from his criticisms of Emperor Louis Napoleon.
Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, both had closed for the afternoon, so we contented ourselves with a late afternoon walk from Jerbourg Point, a highpoint on Guernsey's southeast corner, about a mile out of St. Peter Port.
|The Hamptonne Country Life Museum on the Island of Jersey is a refurbished farmstead with houses and outbuildings that date from the 16th and 17th centuries. (Jersey Tourism)|
A squat, derelict concrete bunker stood guard over a stupendous aquamarine panorama, with the other Channel Islands looming on the Earth-curve horizon, like great ghostly whales. A well-worn path dipped down to the lighthouse planted on the tip of a rocky ridge, with a concrete bridge crossing a deep, yawning cleft that fills to the brim when the tide turns.
I'm told Renoir often walked this path, setting up his easel along the way. Beauty was so abundant, I suspect he must have found it difficult to pick a particular view to single out.
Because our departure from Guernsey wasn't until noon the next morning and the airport was only a 10-minute drive, now that we knew our way around, we were able to pay a morning visit to Monsieur Hugo's home.
After Hugo bought the three-story house in 1856, he had it turned into a physical manifestation of his artistic vision. Using various artifacts he purchased around the island -- old crockery, tiles, tapestries, as well as elaborately carved panels from wooden chests -- Hugo covered literally every wall and ceiling surface with visual elements that conformed to and reaffirmed his monumental ego.
In fact, the theme "Ego Hugo" is woven into many of the tapestries and woodwork. Secret crannies and strategically placed mirrors allowed the author both to retreat from the world and keep an eye on it. A glass-lined crow's nest on the top floor even offered him distant visions of his beloved France as he worked at his desk. Turning the other way, he could look down on the house and garden of his mistress. It's clear that Guernsey also wove itself into the fabric of Hugo's vision.
During his time at Hauteville House, Hugo completed his masterwork, "Les Miserables." He also drew inspiration from its settings, and its hardworking people populated his works, in particular "Toilers of the Sea," which he dedicated to "the rock of hospitality, to this corner of old Norman land where the noble little people of the sea reside, to the Island of Guernsey, severe and yet gentle."
Hauteville House offers such personal insights into Hugo's labyrinthine mind, and his son once called it "an autograph on three floors." Now owned by the City of Paris, the house is a bastion of France, scrupulously maintained as Hugo left it. Since 2002 will be the 200th anniversary of Hugo's birth, the gardens of Hauteville House also are being restored to the way he had them