Channel Islands: Delightful Jersey

By Kate Simon

Jersey is dotted with impressive coastal defences such as 13th-century Mont Orgueil Castle (pictured). Photo / Thinkstock
Jersey is dotted with impressive coastal defences such as 13th-century Mont Orgueil Castle (pictured). Photo / Thinkstock

For most visitors, a trip to Jersey, the most southerly of the British Isles, is all about the landscape. In summer, looking out from the cliff path above the blue waters and golden sands of St Brelade's Bay on the south-west coast, you could imagine yourself to be in the Mediterranean. Jersey may be tiny, at just 14.5 kilometres by eight, but it's the largest of the Channel Islands and has a satisfyingly diverse terrain.

Take a walk through the flower-filled meadows and shady woods of the Fern Valley just north of the capital, St Helier; scale the cliffs at La Grève de Lecq on the rugged north coast; romp across the dunes on the western windswept sands of St Ouen's Bay. Along the way, you can expect to see puffins and petrels, sea campion and sand crocus, swallows and spotted flycatchers, foxgloves and primroses.

The National Trust for Jersey is just one of a number of organisations that have pledged to protect the island's natural environment which has, in places, been blighted by over-development and some quite unremarkable structures.

Yet, Jersey's architectural heritage also offers much to admire.

The island's position between France and England has attracted invaders and settlers since prehistoric times. Each wave has added to Jersey's collection of structures, from the dolmen at La Hougue Bie (entrance £7.40), which also houses a museum about the Neolithic era, and impressive coastal defences such as 13th-century Mont Orgueil Castle (entrance £10.90), above the eastern harbour of Gorey, and the simple yet evocative 19th-century communal washing areas, such as the Lavoir de la Rue des Prés near Five Oaks junction.

Historic buildings are favoured for illustrating on the local currency, the Jersey pound, just one of the small differences that makes this place feel a little distant from the British mainland. Travelling around the island, with its predilection for civic floral displays, you could be forgiven for thinking that you're somewhere in stockbroker-belt Surrey. But then your eye will alight on a road sign written in French and you'll be reminded that, while geographically part of the British Isles, Jersey is not a part of the United Kingdom but rather a dependency of the British Crown - ruled by its own assembly, with its own, if dying, language, Jèrriais - which bears the influence of its Norman neighbours, too.

The island also has its own distinct gourmet scene that makes use of its enviable wealth of local produce. Go about the island's lanes in May and June and you'll see the pickers bent-backed on the cotils - steep south- and west-facing terraced slopes - plucking Jersey Royal potatoes from soil that is fertilised using seaweed gathered from the shoreline.

Thousands of tonnes of potatoes are exported each year, but you'll still find plenty on offer in the island's restaurants, alongside the seafood for which Jersey is also famed - sweet scallops from Bouley Bay, oysters from Grouville, lobster, chancre crab, ormers and mussels. And the creamy milk of Jersey cows creates sublime ice cream. Buy yourself a cone, roll up your trousers and weave your way through the bucket-and-spade-wielding throng for a paddle in the ocean.

This island has plenty of experiences to offer the traveller, but a good old-fashioned trip to the beach is surely one of the best.

BREATH OF FRESH AIR

The locals are so keen on stepping out they hold walking festivals in spring and autumn. The next, Autumn Walking Week (15-22 September), features self-led and guided walks aimed at all ages and abilities, during the day and night. Highlights include a five-day Around Island Walk and Food Trails.

From April to October, there's a guided walking programme with themed town and country walks daily. One follows in the footsteps of Jersey's famous daughter Lillie Langtry, including the Old Rectory, where she was born. There is a similarly full calendar of events for cyclists.

On the coast, surfing, kayaking and wakeboarding are all offered. Check out activities run by Absolute Adventures, such as blokarting (£30 an hour) and coasteering (£35 for two hours).

ON THE HISTORY TRAIL

Jersey documents its past well, not least through a fine collection of forts maintained by Jersey Heritage. Among the most imposing is the 16th-century Elizabeth Castle (entrance £12), set on its own islet in St Aubin's Bay, which can be reached on foot at low tide. (Also site of the hermitage said to be the home of St Helier in the 6th century.) Like many Jersey Heritage properties, the castle has holiday rentals - an apartment sleeping six in the old barracks costs from £594 for a minimum three-night stay.

The story of the German occupation in the Second World War is told at the Jersey War Tunnels (entrance £11.20), in the eerie setting of a hospital bunker built by PoWs at Les Charrières Malorey. One of the island's top attractions, the Glass Church, aka St Matthew's, at Millbrook, has fully reopened after restoration. The glass font is among the creations of designer René Lalique, who was commissioned in 1932 by Florence Boot, wife of the founder of Boot's the Chemist.

A TASTE OF THE ISLAND

The recent award of a Michelin star to Tassili, the restaurant led by Richard Allen at the Grand Jersey Hotel & Spa in St Helier, brings the island's quota to an impressive three. His adventurous dishes include parfait and yuzu marinated salmon, octopus and avocado salad, quail egg, wasabi and squid ink, and kombu foam.

The other two stars are held by Shaun Rankin's Bohemia Bar & Restaurant at The Club Hotel & Spa, also in St Helier, and the Ocean Restaurant at The Atlantic Hotel, at St Ouen's Bay, headed by Mark Jordan. He's also just launched a more relaxed dining space at St Aubin's Bay, titled simply Mark Jordan at the Beach.

There's a taste of Portugal on offer in St Helier, at Restaurant Barqueiro in Beresford Street. One in twelve of Jersey's 100,000 residents originate from Portugal and Madeira, a link dating back to the 1930s.

Self-caterers can opt for the daily catch at Captain Lobster on Victoria Pier, St Helier, open most afternoons.

PARTY ON

Jersey may have a reputation as a sleepy backwater, but barely a month goes by without a special event taking place.

On July 15, the Olympic torch makes its most southerly stop in the British Isles along the south coast of Jersey, from Bel Royal to Weighbridge Place. On August 9, the island gets into the carnival spirit for its annual Battle of Flowers, an event with appropriately royal beginnings for this jubilee year - it was first held in 1902 to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII. Floats decked with blooms will process through the streets for the Grand Day Parade, accompanied by musicians, dancers and entertainers. On August 10, the whole spectacle will be illuminated by thousands of lights for the traditional Moonlight Parade.

Jersey Live Music Festival (from £58) will take place at the Royal Jersey Showground on September 1 and 2. Headline acts include Professor Green and The Stranglers.

STAYING POWER

This island has plenty of hotels and self-catering options, all listed on the tourist board's website. But Jersey also has a good deal of unusual accommodation. Heritage Holiday Lets is a portfolio of quirky historic properties, including the Barge Aground, a 1930s house designed in the shape of a boat which sits on the dunes at St Ouen's Bay. Sleeping six, it's available from £396 for a minimum two-night break.

Luxury camping now features in the island's accommodation mix with the opening this year of Durrell Wildlife Camp in the grounds of the wildlife park established here in 1959 by the author and conservationist Gerald Durrell. From July 30 to September 3, 12 geodesic domes will be ready for hire, sleeping two adults and two children, with bathrooms and kitchenettes. Prices start at £495 for four nights, including park entry.

Other accommodation news for this year includes the reopening of the Marina Metro Hotel, at Havre des Pas in St Helier, after a major refurbishment. Its 34 bedrooms cost from £68 per night, including breakfast.

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