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
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
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
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
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
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
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)