Channel islands: idyllic for exploration

The Channel Islands – of which Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney are the largest – lie in the English Channel about 130 kilometres off the southern coast of England and just 50 kilometres off the coast of France. Its Gulf Stream-warmed climate ensures a long growing and flowering season (picture headlands swathed in gorse, broom, wild orchids, bluebells and heather) and the option for year-round outdoor activities.

Edward VII’s mistress, Lillie Langtree, was born and buried here. Victor Hugo spent 18 years in exile from France here, and a French monk invested 30 years building the smallest chapel in the world – complete with delicate medieval frescoes. Doe-eyed Jersey cows, cream teas, old-world charm, chimney witch’s seats on charming cottages, languid stretches of sandy beaches, clifftop paths, intimate coves and peaceful lanes are an unexpected bonus.

Channel Islanders kiss only when the gorse is in bloom (which is most of the year), pay little or no income tax and although they raise a loyal toast to “our Queen, the Royal Duke,” they are self-governing members of the British Isles but not the United Kingdom. The islands are a mecca for birders, walker photographers, amateur botanists, golfers and cyclists – in other words, anyone looking for an off-the-beaten-path holiday all packaged up in the delightfully blended charm of English and French culture.

The islands are divided into two groups (called bailiwicks) with a combined population of approximately 140,000 scattered over 194 square kilometres. The Bailiwick of Jersey consists of Jersey and the rocky islets of Ecréhous, while the Bailiwick of Guernsey includes Guernsey, Alderney, Sark, Herm, Jethou, Burhou and Ortac.

With miles of scenic lanes, coastal paths, green lanes and ruettes tranquilles (quiet lanes), walkers and cyclists are kings of the road in the Channel Islands, and island hopping affords a delectably different experience on each one. Visitors can rent bicycles, hire guides, join walking tours or strike out on their own in these idyllic and safe islands where crime rates are extremely low. Finding a spot to stop for cover from an unexpected rain shower or to grab a pub lunch is easy. Covering a little more than 259 square kilometres, the islands are packed with 314 restaurants and cafés, 60 inns and 498 hotels and guesthouses.

The cow paths and pastures of Sark
Because there are no cars, Sark is one of the safest islands for walking and cycling, so we decide to make that our first stop. It’s one of the smallest and most charming of the islands. With a permanent population of 600, the numbers swell from spring to fall as packed ferries disgorge the daily load of tourists at Maseline Harbour.

On the September afternoon that we approach the island via ferry from Guernsey (a 45-minute ride), the wind is high and so are the seas. I am thankful our ship is small as we squeeze and weave our way through narrow channels of jagged rocks, big waves and impressive swirling currents. From the water, the island appears austere and bleak with sheer cliffs rising 110 metres above the sea. Formidable rock formations abut the shore, and gaping caves speak of the days when 17th- and 18th-century pirates and smugglers hid booty in their depths.

We arrive in the little Maseline Harbour where we can take a tractor-drawn trailer (the “toast rack”) up the half-mile Harbour Hill to the little village of La Collinette, but we choose to walk along the path that wends its way through a lovely green copse of trees instead. Happily, our bags are transported by tractor (the only motorized vehicles allowed on the Island) to our hotel as the trail proves to be a long and steep climb. At the the top of the hill not only do we discover that the island is far from bleak and dreary, we also find that distance on Sark is not measured in miles but in minutes.

The white road sign points us to a 20-minute walk southeast of the village to our hotel. The pleasant and unhurried stroll takes us along sycamore- and oak-lined lanes, past the post office and general store, pretty granite houses and gardens, the island school and St. Peter’s Church. There is a palpable stillness in the air broken only by the sound of a cyclist pedalling by or the gentle clip-clop of a Welsh cob horse’s feathered hooves as it passes, pulling a carriage full of visitors. We arrive just in time to indulge in an island tradition – cream tea: strong English orange pekoe, currant scones, thick strawberry jam and the oh-so-delicious yellow Sark cream that threatens to clog our arteries upon sight.

With only two days in our pockets, we cannot linger long on clifftop paths or rocky promontories. We rent bicycles, cross the not-for-the-faint-hearted La Coupée (a one-horse-and-cart wide ridge that connects to Little Sark, the southernmost tip of the island) and pass the pretty whitewashed 400-year-old Sablonnerie farmhouse-turned-hotel. We clamber down the stairs on the north end of La Coupée that leads to a beautiful sandy beach called Grand Grève. On foot the next morning, we follow cow paths through pastures to headlands and clifftops with magnificent views out to sea where clouds of gannets fly up from rugged rocks below.

Dining on Sark is an unexpected treat after walking and biking off many calories all day long. From the small Squires Restaurant on the Avenue, where we stop for delicious local chancre crab sandwiches and cold glasses of Breda Royal, to gourmet dining at La Moinerie, we are treated to wonderful meals. We had been told that we’d be bored spending two days on Sark; on the contrary, our only regret is that we don’t have more time to explore more paths, more beaches and just enjoy the island’s mesmerizing tranquility.

Next page: Victor Hugo’s retreat

Victor Hugo’s Guernsey
From the window of our Aurigny Trilander twin prop plane, Guernsey, the second largest of the islands, is a green patchwork quilt of farms, small parish villages and vividly etched walking paths that gird the island from all points. In the distance is the coast of France and Little Sark. It is this view that Victor Hugo looked out on from the small upper balcony of Hauteville, his eccentrically decorated Victorian home in St. Peter Port. Exiled from France, Hugo spent 15 years in the Channel Islands, and it was here that he completed Les Miserables. We walk in his footsteps along the coastal footpath from Fermain Bay back to St. Peter Port beside the ocean. This pretty old Norman harbour town is built on a series of terraces, which tumble down the steep hillside in a warren of narrow cobbled lanes, stepped streets and alleyways where multi-coloured flags and bunting flutter overhead.

Hugo wasn’t alone in his love for the island’s charms. Renoir also frequented the island, and we visit the Bon Port Hotel high up on a headland where stunning views face south and a goat’s trail leads down to Moulin Huet Bay where he painted his “Mist on Guernsey” in 1883. In September, the headlands are green with a thick covering of gorse, bracken, heather and broom. In the spring, they are ablaze with wildflowers – agapanthas, bluebells, daffodils and wild garlic.

On a cycling excursion on the ruettes tranquilles, we pass tiny roadside stalls where we’re tempted to pick up some “hedge veg” – anything from fresh farm butter, eggs and goat’s milk to pickles and tomatoes – and leave some coins in the honour box. But we resist and continue cycling into the countryside and along coastal paths where Guernsey’s beaches beckon with soft pink sand that swirls around wind-sculpted granite outcrops. We pass charming 16th-century farmhouses where old cottage chimneys often sport a slim ledge (a witch’s seat), a reminder of the island belief in witchcraft and fairies.

There are enough clifftop paths in Guernsey to keep even the hardiest hiker happy. Our walks skirt dilapidated German bunkers along soft sand paths and run uphill and down dale around rocky outcroppings, finally spilling onto one of the island’s exquisite beaches.

Jersey is a painters paradise
Jersey, the most southerly of the Channel Islands, is one of the world’s most popular tax havens, housing a well-heeled permanent population of 85,000. The island can be 163 square kilometres at low tide, diminishing to 116 at high tide. Jersey has 73 kilometres of green lanes, 153 kilometres of sign-posted cycle routes, six golf courses, 100 species of crabs, 300 births daily at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and 300 free guided walks every year.

Our hotel, the Pomme d’Or, sits opposite Liberation Square in the not-so-pretty port of St. Helier, Jersey’s capital. But don’t be put off. Walk back a narrow street or two, and discover St. Helier’s hidden heritage where lovely old stone houses, cafés and shops sit cheek to jowl. We join in an Open Spaces, Public Places walking tour with Blue Badge Guide Sue Hardy and walk down to the pretty historical Royal Square, once a medieval marketplace and site where George II was declared King of England. Catch the smells and sights in both the Central and Beresford Markets, where stalls are piled high with fruits, vegetables, cheeses, French-style gateaux, crabs, lobsters and conger eel.

We are so impressed with Sue’s island history and botanical knowledge that we sign up for a walk that takes us along clifftop paths lined with gorse, heather, bracken and pink granite rock hidden behind a tangle of willow, hawthorne, honeysuckle, blackberries and wild thyme. As we clamber over rocky paths and saunter along sandy coves, we see mergansers and grebes, egrets and waders. The following day, we pick up rental bikes at Zebra Cycle and meet up with our affable guide, Hugh Gill, for a tour along the harbour and then on to gorgeous leafy green lanes that take us past farmers’ fields and tiny granite cottages nestled into the countryside.

We manage to sweep by the beautiful St. Ouen’s Bay and the wind-sculpted sand dunes. The area is as pretty as a postcard, complete with old manor houses and farms just begging to be part of a painter’s landscape. There are so many walks and lanes, beaches and coves, dunes and estuaries packed on this one little island that we cannot do them justice in one visit. Curiously, this makes us perversely happy; we know we will return.