The French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is best known for his cheerful paintings of life in Paris, but in 1883 he took a month-long holiday to Guernsey.
The second-largest Channel Island is 30 miles west of Normandy and the artist loved it, writing home about this ‘pretty little place’ and rejoicing in its ‘rump steak and ale at manageable prices’.
I feel a similar sense of release and happiness landing in this neat parcel of sandy beaches and narrow, granite-walled lanes where the island’s famous, honey-coloured cows munch picturesquely.
Nigel describes the island of Guernsey as a ‘neat parcel of sandy beaches’. Pictured is Petit Port Cave
HAVE A LARK IN SARK…
If you know a child who wants to learn how to ride a bicycle, head to Sark. There is surely nowhere more idyllic for such a challenge than this unpolluted, car-free isle reached on a 50-minute ferry ride from St Peter Port.
Thanks to the steep, naturally defensive coastline, the Germans didn’t feel the need to cover its wildflower-speckled flanks with absurd amounts of concrete when they occupied it.
With around 500 residents and visitors only now returning, its two square miles feel deserted. My wife and I cycled from top to toe in an afternoon, admiring the orderly grounds of St Peter’s Church and the walled La Seigneurie Gardens.
Picnicking near a 3,000 year-old dolmen on Little Sark, reached by a vertiginous causeway, we gazed down at bewitching blue waters as clear as the Mediterranean while seabirds wheeled and butterflies flitted.
The unpolluted, car-free isle of Sark is connected to Little Sark by a vertiginous causeway, pictured
Nigel admired the ‘orderly grounds of St Peter’s Church and the walled La Seigneurie Gardens’, pictured
On Sark itself, quirky entertainments include sheep-racing and scarecrow competitions. With no street lights, there is terrific star-gazing.
The four-star Stocks Hotel is spotlessly clean and includes a sun-trap lawn with a solar-heated pool.
When a waitress delivers a beer I am amused to find it is called Liberation Ale, a perfect description of our joyous escape from lockdown.
TRAVEL FACTS: Sark shipping operates ferry services from St Peters Port from £26 a day return (www.sarkshipping.gg). Double rooms at Stocks Hotel from £184 B&B (www.stockshotel.com/) More information: sark.co.uk.
The beer is still good, but it is Guernsey oysters that get me in raptures: fresh, plump and charged with the flavours of the sea thanks to fast-moving tides.
Officially a Crown Dependency, the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which includes Herm, Alderney, Sark and some smaller islands, opened its doors to UK travellers on July 1 and is blissfully lockdown-free.
No masks, please shake my hand, let’s get a pint from the bar, do help yourself to the breakfast buffet.
Island life: Guernsey’s capital, St Peter Port, has been welcoming UK tourists since July 1
Guernsey is known for its tasty seafood
As a result, ‘Guerns’, as they call themselves, seem much happier than the rest of us. The islanders only endured two short lockdowns and have a strong respect for their public health authorities.
Even without tourists, they have been busy primping this super-scenic island ready for the summer influx that will surely come.
One initiative is an engaging Renoir art trail in Moulin Huet where five ornate picture frames have been set up in the exact places where the master worked on what became 15 paintings, including one that now hangs in the National Gallery.
In the capital, St Peter Port, another Frenchman, author Victor Hugo, who lived on the island a little earlier, has been honoured twice.
A section of Candie Gardens is now stocked with plants evoking his life and work, while a new seated statue on the waterfront, which is menaced by a flailing green octopus, reminds us of Toilers Of The Sea, his action-packed novel set in Guernsey that is due to become a film.
Annoyingly, Hugo’s lavishly decorated home, Hauteville House, owned by the City of Paris, will not reopen until next spring.
All the roads in Guernsey have French names, but it feels more akin to a corner of Britain that just likes to be different.
A Renoir art trail in Moulin Huet, pictured, has been established, showing the exact places where the master worked
Candie Gardens, pictured, is now stocked with plants evoking Victor Hugo’s life and work
Lily James, star of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society
Post boxes are blue and the island has its owns stamps and currency. There is no VAT or NHS.
Financial services are the main breadwinner, but there is no shiny downtown and the most obvious manifestation of wealth is flash cars gnawing at the 35 mph speed limit.
For a panoramic view of St Peter Port and the islands beyond, book a balcony room at the very civilised La Fregate Hotel. Alternatively, go to the Guernsey Museum and borrow the six-inch key that lets you climb Victoria Tower, built in 1848 to commemorate a visit by the queen.
Another secret treasure is the nearby wood-panelled Priaulx Library, opened in 1889, which has a fascinating collection of newspapers, photographs and archive material about Guernsey’s history.
It also sells books relating to the island’s occupation by German forces from 1940 to 1945, a traumatic period reflected in a monumental legacy of bunkers, tunnels and observation towers.
THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HERM FOR SUNSHINE AND BEACHES
Before arriving in the smallest of the Channel Islands, various busy-bodies bark a warning: ‘Beware of the Herm Burn.’ So I make a mad dash for sun cream.
Apparently, the lack of pollution means the sun is particularly strong on this tiny isle, which measures just 1.3 miles long and less than half a mile wide.
Herm is one of the few places in the world that has remained Covid-free and now it is welcoming fully vaccinated tourists back to explore its wild, white-sand shores.
Herm, one of the few places in the world that has remained Covid-free, measures just 1.3 miles long and less than half a mile wide
What strikes me after arriving on the car-free island by ferry from Guernsey (a 20-minute ride) is that I spy two pubs, not bad going for an island population of 70. I also discover there’s a bar at the 40-room White House Hotel.
I look at the map that came with my ferry ticket and it reminds me of something from an Enid Blyton tale, with spots such as ‘Puffin Bay’, ‘Bears’ Beach’ and ‘The Manor’ creating a whimsical scene.
A new nature trail has opened on the island, so I opt to start there.
The first board I come to fills me in on some of the island’s delights, from painted lady butterflies to bottlenose dolphins. There’s also a section on Herm Oysters, one of the best specimens of the molluscs I’ve sampled.
I take a detour from the nature trail to admire the sugar-like sands of Shell Beach. This is where I’ve agreed to meet kayaking guide Ant Ford-Parker from Outdoor Guernsey.
Safe haven: Belvoir Bay, on the island of Herm, looks akin to somewhere in the Caribbean
Lathered up in sun cream (naturally) we get going, with my paddle cutting through the exceedingly clear waters, soon passing Belvoir Bay. This looks akin to somewhere in the Caribbean, with bikini-clad beachgoers strewn on the sand, feeling that burn.
‘Quick, look a puffin, no, two!’ Ant exclaims as we round the corner to Puffin Bay. Our paddles fall silent as we watch the tiny birds flapping their wings with fish dangling from their tangerine beaks.
With the tide turning — Herm has a tidal range of up to ten metres, making it among the largest in the world — we head back.
I spend the rest of the day circumnavigating the island on foot, crossing other jovial ramblers along the way and dozens of squawking oystercatchers. Luckily the wallabies introduced to the island by Prussian Prince Blucher von Wahlstatt in World War I have long since gone.
Sadie Whitelocks took ‘a detour to admire the sugar-like sands of Shell Beach’ on the island of Herm, pictured
I finally return to the White House Hotel, but unfortunately I don’t have the pleasure of pitching up at Herm for the night as I’m on a day trip from Guernsey, so I pop into the Aladdin’s Cave of a gift shop.
I apologise to the young lady for looking pink. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ she says.
‘That’s only mild Herm Burn, some people are a shade of beetroot after a day in the pub beer garden.’
With the tide up and the oyster beds covered, I hop on the last ferry and bid Herm a fond farewell. This is a place which promises to get under your skin — in more ways than one.
On L’Eree headland there is an extraordinary collision of history where the remnants of a Napoleonic Martello tower have been crowned with a four-storey German tower, while close by is a 3,000-year-old neolithic passage grave, Le Creux ès Faïes, where, legend has it, fairies would come out to dance at midnight on moonlit nights.
Fortunately, the meagre rations referenced in the title of the romantic wartime novel and film The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, starring Lily James, are long gone.
Food lovers are in for a treat, starting with ‘hedge veg’, a plethora of front garden honesty boxes selling everything from spider crabs (£3 each) to homegrown rhubarb (£1 a bunch).
Ben Tustin, founder of Guernsey Seaweed, leads trips across Port Soif Bay to learn about the many benefits of seaweed. Pictured is Port Soif beach
A map showing the Channel Islands, of which Guernsey is the second-largest
Rows of greenhouses are a reminder that tomatoes were once a mainstay product, but now small artisan producers are at the fore, from the free-range pork from Wallow Charcuterie to terrific Torteval cheeses.
Drinkers can take a merry tour and tasting of family-run Rocquette Cider, while at low tide Ben Tustin, founder of Guernsey Seaweed, leads trips across Port Soif Bay to learn about the many benefits of this gift from the sea. Originally from Kent, Ben has been here for 25 years and married a Guern.
At the start of the pandemic, he joined forces with a gin distiller to create a seaweed-based hand sanitiser.
After spending a few days here, it is the friendly, get-on-with-it spirit of the Guerns that proves the most attractive feature of this quirky isle.
As Victor Hugo said of the Channel Islands: ‘They have the singular attraction of combining a climate made for leisure with a population made for toil.’
Aurigny, Blue Islands and British Airways all operate flights to Guernsey from across the UK.
British Airways flies from London City and Edinburgh until September 27, from £90 return (ba.com).
All visitors must register for a Travel Tracker account (traveltracker.gov.gg) through which fully vaccinated travellers need to buy a pack of five lateral flow tests, before their trip, at a cost of £25 and test themselves on arrival and every other day.
More information at covid19.gov.gg.
Double rooms at La Fregate Hotel cost from £215 B&B (lafregatehotel.com).
Tours of Rocquette Cider cost £25 (rocquettecider.com).
For more information go to visitguernsey.com.