Set in the English Channel just off the French coast of St Malo Bay, the Channel Islands are a French-flavored Little England personified, with one, car-free Sark. A feudal enclave presided over by its Lord of the Manor; their formal collective name is the ‘Bailiwicks’ of Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney, Herm, and Sark. The Channel Islands recall centuries of serfdom and ‘Big House’ traditional class divisions, while the pretty and peaceful towns belie the main islands’ reputation as offshore tax havens stuffed with bankers.
The two larger islands of Jersey and Guernsey are divided into parishes – a charming, old-fashioned world – and the smaller three have just one parish each, covering the entire island. The open countryside, beaches, rocky promontories and craggy coastlines, long history of settlement, recent WWII history, plus the individual character and atmosphere of each island, are the main attractions.
The overall culture of the Channel Islands is a fascinating mix of English and French, and the islands themselves are the last remnant of the ancient Duchy of Normandy. The most famous scion of that house was William the Conqueror who, in 1066, defeated England’s King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and became the first French King of England. Even now, the islands are constitutionally separate from the United Kingdom, but the residents happily welcome as many British holidaymakers as they do French visitors. The traditional pubs are as friendly as this genre of watering hole gets, and there’s a healthy curiosity directed at newcomers.
Even the largest island, Jersey, is small, making it easy to explore within a day, and it’s quite possible to take Guernsey, Alderney, Sark, and Herm by boat or air all in one vacation. All the islands were occupied during WWII by German forces, and interesting remnants of the occupation are scattered around the coastlines and towns. Prehistoric sites take visitors back to the first occupation of the islands, some 5,000 years ago. The combination of the relaxing, laid-back lifestyle and the Gallic flavor in food, French and English road signs, and the balmy spring and summer weather, makes for a refreshing break from the norm.
Buses, taxis, and cars are the way to get around the Channel Islands except Sark, where all motorized transportation is banned. Self-drive is slow, however, as speed limits veer around the 40 mph level, allowing drivers and their passengers to get a long look at the attractive countryside and great sea views. Bus travel is comfortable and well-organized, and the roads are all properly maintained. If cycling is a favorite activity, the coastal roads and miles of cycle paths are the best ways to get a sense of what the islands have to offer. Alderney, Sark, and Herm seem to be frozen in three individual time warps, adding another dimension to a Channel Islands vacation.
- The Jersey War Tunnels are a creepy reminder of the German WWII occupation
- Sark – a unique step back to feudal times where vehicles are banned
- Jersey’s medieval Mount Orgueil Castle
- Alderney – remote natural beauty with few tourists
- Herm – tiny, pristine, white sand beaches and glorious views
- St Helier, the charming capital of Jersey, known for its upscale seafood restaurants