For a different take on Europe, tune in to the Channel Islands


ST. PETER PORT, Guernsey, England -- What I didn't know about the Channel Islands would make a lengthy list.

I did know they were located in the English Channel, which put me one step ahead of several well-traveled friends.

On the other hand, I didn't realize they are closer to France than to England. Jersey, for example, lies 100 miles from mainland Britain but only 14 miles from the coast of France.

Before a recent trip, I had no idea these islands were occupied by German troops during World War II. I soon learned that occupation-related topics comprise a number of visitor attractions.

The islands of Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney, in particular, were heavily fortified by the occupiers. Castles and watchtowers from bygone eras also were used and bunkers dot the coastlines. Tiny Herm became an R&R spot for the troops.

On Jersey, clients can visit the Military Museum where World War II memorabilia are housed in a restored bunker. There's also the Island Fortress Occupation Museum with a collection of documents and equipment plus a 40-minute film.

For a look at the "human face of war," as one guide put it, visitors should check out the Occupation Tapestry in the Maritime Museum, whose 12 panels, one for each parish, depict the daily lives of civilians during the conflict.

At another occupation-related site, the German Underground Hospital, visitors pass through seemingly endless tunnels built by forced laborers who were transported primarily from eastern Europe.

Tunneled through shale, then reinforced with 6,000 tons of concrete, this underground world contains a surgery room, wards, an officers' mess and doctors' and nurses' quarters. Life-size mannequins add an eerie sense of reality.

For history of a different sort, one needs to wander about Guernsey's main town, St. Peter Port, the oldest settlement in the Channel Islands. Fishing and pleasure boats line its harbor, and cobbled streets lead past fine Regency and Victorian homes.

Built by King John in the 13th century to defend the island against rebellious Normans, Castle Cornet stands guard over the harbor and still fires a cannon at the stroke of noon.

Other attractions include the house in which Victor Hugo wrote "Les Miserables," the Market House with colorful displays of produce and flowers and the 16th century Elizabeth College.

Second-largest of the Channel Islands, Guernsey's geography is often dramatic. Along the southern coast, 20 miles of clifftop pathways offer hikers views of heaths, farmland, valleys and fields of flowers. In fact, Guernsey is the main supplier of blossoms to the U.K.

While some sophisticated travelers might have heard of the two biggest islands, Jersey and Guernsey, others, such as Sark and Herm, are hardly household names. My most memorable day on the islands, however, was spent on Sark.

From Guernsey, a 40-minute, often "white knuckle" ferry trip transports clients to a true Brigadoon. Perhaps time does not stand completely still, but consider the following: No cars are allowed, nor can even the smallest plane land. Everyone goes about in small tractors, on bikes or on foot. In summer, horse-drawn carriages tote tourists.

Sark's government is a continuation of a feudal system begun in 1563 when the seigneur (hereditary ruler) of a fief in Jersey received permission from Queen Elizabeth I to colonize the island. Thus began the Fief of Sark.

With a land mass of two square miles, the island can be covered in a day trip. But those who enjoy a leisurely pace could happily spend several days strolling its tree-lined roads past pretty houses with well-kept gardens, churches, a small school where students' bikes rest against the wall and the grounds of the seigneur's residence.

Visiting in low season, my rambles were so quiet and peaceful, I could imagine myself alone on the island. Occasionally leaves rustled, a cow mooed or one of the 550 inhabitants signaled his or her approach with a gentle jingle of a bicycle bell.

Though tourism is no small factor in summer, shopkeepers are low-keyed and far more likely to chat than push a sale. From one, I learned that April is best for primroses, May for bluebells and that by law, hedges must be trimmed twice a year but no more, lest they lose a certain wild and natural look.

I met another gentleman named Peter, who owns an intriguing shop of hand-made wooden items. He spent a good hour explaining the various native woods and the fine art of "wood turning," which I now know is distinct from wood carving.

A few hotels and guesthouses are tucked away unobtrusively, and an adequate number of restaurants, pubs and tea shops offer leisurely stops.

One aspect of Sark's way of life is under siege. Two brothers have built a castle worthy of the Windsors on neighboring Brecqhou island and have challenged Sark's age-old law dictating that the eldest son inherits all property.

Determined the estate should pass to all four of their children, the brothers took the island's government to court.

Moving on to Herm, 20 minutes by boat from Guernsey, travelers will find beauty spots such as Shell Beach and Belvoir Bay. There are also neolithic graves and 92 species of birds, all on three-quarters of a square mile.

For information, contact Jersey & Guernsey Tourism at (800) 617-3333.

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