A pair of gliding kestrels hunt for rabbits in the windswept hills near Robert’s Cross on the tiny island of Herm.
Most people think this part of the island is named after a large, important family that once lived here,” says Gil Girard. “But it’s not. Robert was a horse and he’s buried around here somewhere, near these rocks I think. Anyway, let’s keep going or we’ll miss the ferry back.”
The people of the Channel Islands have charm and eccentricity, like Gill, an experienced tour guide (gillgirardtourguide.com) with a soft Guernsey accent that has a story to go with every boulder, salt-encrusted sign and enthusiastic islander we encounter during my three-day visit.
Hopefully we have the pandemic in our rearview mirror by now, but there are some elements of it that I want to hold on to. Travel restrictions have forced us all to reconsider the local area and now, thanks to the easing of restrictions and the introduction of direct flights to and from Dublin by Guernsey’s airline Aurigny, the Channel Islands feels like a natural extension of that.
Guernsey and neighboring Herm are a true mix of cultures. With French spoken in English and a healthy bit of German, the locals have a personality that doesn’t change or change for visitors. Instead, slip into their way of island living and plan your mornings by tides, afternoons by the ferry schedule, and evenings by the day’s catch.
On Guernsey, which is just a touch larger than the city of Limerick, sandy paths lead from exposed, rocky beaches along wooded lanes and to cliff-top lookouts on walks measured in minutes rather than miles. After days of secluded beach combing, I return to towns and villages knowing plates of fresh, local food await.
Guernsey residents have fishing in their blood and teams of talented chefs to do the same. Think of plates of sea bream in Copenhagen restaurant (restaurantcopenhagen.com), fish tacos in Búho (buho.gg) and the local favorite, crab sandwiches, at one of the kitschy beach kiosks. This feels like honest island living, where people make the most of their environment and master it in many ways.
The landscapes surprise me. Flat to the east at St. Peter Port, the island rises like a piece of cheese to the west. There the land ends abruptly, crumbling into wild cliffs that stand above a sea of millions of shimmering shades of blue.
Cycling around the coast with Ru from Outdoor Guernsey (outdoorguernsey.gg), we make our way down country lanes, stopping to duck into fairy caves and WWII bunkers. Ru points to a slab of rock sticking out of a farmhouse chimney and tells me about a local tradition where people built “witches’ stairs” so any passing witches would rest outside instead of coming inside.
During the war, Guernsey was occupied by Germany for five years. Children were shipped to Britain with their teachers, effectively killing off the 1,000-year-old native language Guernésiais, while making the island one of the most heavily fortified in the world. Huge amounts of concrete were poured in Guernsey during the war and the vast majority of the bunkers still stand today. One is a museum, many can be climbed and one is even part of a house that’s on the market for over a million pounds (1.17 million euros).
Looking out at the islands scattered off the coast from one of these bunkers, I hear more stories about Guernsey’s eccentric past and present. Stories of the slaying of Benedictine monks who made their fortune selling iodine and the site of the world’s first underwater arrest – originated when a poacher illegally harvested ormers, a local shellfish and a prized delicacy.
After a few days on the islands, these stories don’t seem strange anymore; that’s how people are.
The weather dictates so much when you live on an island, but in Guernsey it changes plans rather than canceling them. When a west wind blows there is a sheltered cove on the east coast where you can swim. When rain hits land, there are underground tapestries to see and guided tours of the homes of Hugo Victor and Renoir. High tide means a swim at one beach while low tide means swimming at another, or if you’ve done it right you can walk the causeway across to Lihou Island (get it wrong though and you might have a wet walk back) .
I feel at the mercy of the tides and the weather, but in a liberating way where nature rules the day – a connection that is so often lost in my daily city life.
In fact, the first thing on the news each morning is the time the papers and mail arrived from the UK, so people can gauge how bad the fog was.
Sitting on my hotel balcony, salt-scoured cheeks and sun-kissed nose, I recall the tales of recent days’ colorful characters and traditions and try to figure out where Guernsey falls. It’s such a clash of cultures but in a harmonious way – English given names and French surnames; stereotypical British post boxes painted blue instead of red; 1 pound Guernsey notes with the bailiff on them instead of pounds sterling and signs in Guernsey French, not ‘good French’.
But that is what is special about this island; it doesn’t try to be anything else. It’s an eccentric rock where 60,000 people live scattered in the middle of the English Channel. It has changed hands and rulers more times than most, and as the prominent raising of the flag shows, people are incredibly proud of who they are. And rightly so.
Do not miss
Pubs and restaurants serve a variety of Guernsey made beers and gins. Ask for something local and enjoy. Liberation’s Wave Rider was my go-to. Download the Visit Guernsey App and discover self-guided walks across the islands.
Aurigny now operates direct flights from Dublin to Guernsey three days a week. Flight time is 1 hour 35 minutes (aurigny.com). The islands are at the mercy of the sea and the weather. It is best to pack sunscreen and a rain jacket – just in case.
Cian stayed at the Fermain Valley Hotel, a short walk from Fermain Bay and the Fermain Tower, where rooms start from £120 (€140) per night (fermainvalley.com). He was a guest of the Hotel and Visit Guernsey. For more information, see visitguernsey.com.
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe/get-ready-to-explore-guernsey-now-linked-with-direct-flights-from-dublin-41638722.html Get ready to explore Guernsey – now connected with direct flights from Dublin