Chicken tractors, blonde hedgehogs and church bell-ringers, renovated wartime bunkers you can rent for $85 a year to use as a vacation home, the world’s first Dark Sky Island – you are about to visit the Channel Islands.
“What? Where?” you ask.
The Channel Islands, which sort of belong to Britain although they also have their own banknotes, health system and so on, are just off the Normandy coast of France. And they offer travel experiences you probably won’t find in a single place anywhere else.
I didn’t get to Jersey, but here are some highlights from the four other islands.
Guernsey. A recent movie, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, based on a fiction book with the same name, told about life during the Second World War when the Channel Islands became the only part of Britain the Germans occupied.
The German Occupation Museum has notices translated from German into English, bringing home the reality of war when you read the poster telling that Louis Berrier released a pigeon with a message for England and was shot.
The same fate befell Francois Scornet, who fled France bound for England's Isle of Wight but landed on Guernsey by mistake.
You see Red Cross food parcels sent from Canada and New Zealand, with brands that still appear familiar today.
I stayed at the ideally located Fermain Valley Hotel, about an hour’s picturesque hike along the cliffs into the main town of St. Peter Port yet only a few minutes’ drive – and the hotel offers transfers or lifts around the island.
Native gardens bracket the hotel above and below. A 10-minute walk down the valley (about 20 minutes back up) connects you with Fermain Bay – beach and coffee shop. A very large flagon of sherry awaits your return to your room, plus indoor and outdoor dining overlooking the lower gardens and valley.
Just before I left Guernsey I took the plunge (figuratively not literally considering the ocean was 12 degrees) and climbed on a jetski for the first time.
JP’s Jetski Seafaris made it clear there was quite a bit more than just jumping on and zooming off.
After training on land and then, cautiously, in the Guernsey harbour, JP and I set off. He appeared impressed when finally I dared to go faster than 10km/h.
In contrast to Guernsey, almost all of Alderney’s population was evacuated to England days before the German troops arrived.
The island has been fortified since Roman times 5,000 years ago, most recently by the Germans many of whose renovated bunkers can now be rented for about $85 a year for a seafront holiday home.
Alderney is big enough to have some excellent restaurants yet small enough to enjoy the quiet charm and slow pace of a country island.
It isn’t big enough to offer a topless bus tour. But John’s minibus tour was a great way to get a sense of the island, both present and past.
When the daylight fades, it’s time for a bat and hedgehog walk around town with Roland Gauvain, an expert from the Alderney Wildlife Trust.
First we saw the bats, then one hedgehog scuttled across the road. Ronald went into a garden (presumably of an acquaintance) where we got a closer flashlight look at a briefly stationary hedgehog.
The next day I was invited to meet the dedicated St. Anne’s Church bell-ringers. If you ask nicely at the Alderney Visitors’ Bureau I’m sure you could be given a contact which could also lead to a visit to the next bell-ringing session.
I climbed up into the church loft where 12 ropes hung down attached to the bells in the appropriately named church belfry.
How fascinating to watch the bell-ringers – sometimes six, sometimes all 12 – pulling on the ropes at just the right time to create the melody.
The next day it was time to meet Molly, Molly 2, J.T. Daly, Elizabeth, the Yankees, 1044 and 1045 – major train engine and carriage players in the story of the Alderney Railway, the only operating railway on the Channel Islands.
The first official passengers, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, were carried on Aug. 8, 1854.
After a train ran off the end of the breakwater into the sea, all locomotives - Molly, Molly 2, J.T. Daly and Elizabeth - had to carry life jackets. The Yankees were side-tipping wagons.
The train started to carry passengers in 1980, using retired London Underground carriages. The first two died of salt air corrosion, but their 1959 replacements, 1044 and 1045, are still going strong almost 60 years later – wooden floors, aluminum bodies and all.
The train runs from Braye Beach to near the Alderney Lighthouse, where the Alderney Wildlife Trust offers guided tours up the spiral staircase. The large foghorn is now silent, and the original light has been replaced by modern lighting.
Although smaller than Guernsey’s, Alderney’s Museum is also worth seeing – as are the three videos made of life before, during and after the German occupation. Ask at the Visitors Centre or Wildlife Trust Office about viewing possibilities.
A perfect spot to catch all the downtown action along the main street in Alderney’s only town of St. Anne is the Victoria Hotel, located at the bottom of Victoria Street.
(I use the term “action” rather loosely: the single lane Victoria Street runs for almost three blocks up a gentle hill, and is often blocked when a vehicle stops to make a delivery or to enable a driver-pedestrian chat. Yet during my stay I didn’t hear a single car horn.)
Guests at the Victoria Hotel get five per cent off their bill at sister Georgian House Restaurant, across the road and up a bit.
As well as the varied and included breakfast at the Victoria Hotel, other restaurants I enjoyed included the Georgian House (meal-sized appetizers, garden view from upstairs), Le Pesked (best French onion soup ever), Cantina6 (thin crust pizza with just the right amount of topping, book early for small outside deck), Bumps (perfectly cooked scallops), St. Anne’s Guest House (afternoon tea, home-baked sweet treats), Braye Beach Hotel (bar scene, quiet dining room, outside deck), Jack’s (sit on the deck for main street action) – see my TripAdvisor reviews for more details.
When traffic congestion is defined as "horse-drawn carriage meets two tractors" on this car-free island you know you've come to a peaceful place.
And when chickens take over the job of tractors (although naturally on a smaller scale), you can expect permaculture to set the scene for healthy eating.
Chicken tractors (for those who have never heard of them, and that included me until my visit to Stocks Hotel’s permaculture garden) are like portable chicken coops which you move from one part of the garden to the next, allowing the chickens to scratch in the dirt, eat the insects and fertilize the ground with their manure...the perfect organic cycle.
Dine at Stocks indoors or outdoors from morning to night on the results of the chickens' efforts - whether their eggs or the fruit and vegetables their tractoring helps to produce. And if you like a drop of something, check out the hotel's Smugglers' Bar with one of the larger selection of drops to choose from.
To explore the island you can walk, ride a rental bike or let Charlie ("leave the driving to me!") take you in Stocks' own horse and carriage for a personally guided tour to historic buildings and monuments, and to secluded beaches
Once it gets dark and, if the skies are clear, discover the reason why Sark was named the world's first Dark Sky Island by the International Dark-Sky Association, as you see the Milky Way and sky full of other stars vividly.
This tiny island has only 60 permanent residents, also no cars but some cows.
Nature provides the main reason most people visit Herm – hiking around and across the island to visit the beaches and bays, to appreciate the wild beauty of the cliffs, to spot wildlife from colourful insects to a pheasant in a field, to appreciate the wildflowers and grasses – and also to stay in a cottage or camp in a tent, to dine at one of the three restaurants, to shop in the very large souvenir store.
Several daily 20-minute ferry crossings connect Herm with Guernsey.
Weather willing, all the Channel Islands are accessible from England (and France) by air and sea.
Mike Grenby is a travel writer who teaches journalism at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast – firstname.lastname@example.org