Island beauty just an hour away from London

Rent a bike and explore the often-overlooked Channel Islands

The ladies in the bakery shop were smirking again. Though I'd already visited several times, they couldn't seem to get used to the way I talked.

Lots of people from England, France, and the rest of Europe visit the Channel Islands. But not many Americans do. And that's too bad.

For an American on, say, a London theater visit, the islands are just an hour away by plane. They are also a short ferry trip from St. Malo in Normandy, or a much longer one from Poole in England.

The Channel Islands are technically not part of Britain, but you'll find Queen Elizabeth's face on the currency, people driving on the left, and the accent - both linguistically and culturally -very English. The islands are self-governing and owe their loyalty directly to the queen, not to the British Parliament.

Still, there's considerable French flavor here - more than just in place names. Much of the population is of French heritage, for example. And Victor Hugo, the French author, spent many years on the islands.

Summer is the time when most people visit, ignoring the lovely spring and autumn months. Of course, summer is the best time to swim at the scores of beautiful beaches. It's also when Jersey's Battle of Flowers parade happens (Aug. 12 this year) - a bit like the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

At 45 square miles in area and shaped vaguely like a really shaggy version of one of its own cows, Jersey is the largest of the islands. The triangular-shaped Guernsey, the No. 2 island, is about an hour north by ferry and 70 miles from England.

The two islands have their own independent jurisdictions, called Bailiwicks. Within the Guernsey Bailiwick are the islands of Sark, Herm, and Alderney.

Each island is distinctive, and it's worth it to visit them individually using the convenient ferry service.

Exploring Jersey's shores

This is Jersey -the original Jersey after which America's Garden State is named. From the looks of the crowded streets of St. Helier, a lot of visitors spend time shopping in Jersey's answer to the big city. But don't be deceived: There is much more to do than shop.

Apart from St. Helier, Jersey is largely an island of country roads and hamlets, of rocky coves and beaches. It also has the internationally recognized Jersey Zoo, home to endangered species from throughout the world.

One of my favorite spots is the tiny village of Rozel on Rozel Bay, with its snug little harbor. After you've wandered on the rocks, you can walk to the coastal footpath that takes you along much of the north coast of Jersey. I've done parts of this walk and found it enchanting. Along the east coast is the ancient and sizable Mont Orgueil Castle, with its commanding harbor view. After a visit one clear summer day, I walked south along the beach - an area of sand and rocks that at low tide can stretch practically as far as the eye can see.

People have been on the Channel Islands since long before recorded history, and visitors who like ancient ruins can check out La Hougue Bie, a burial mound dating from 3,500 BC, and two accompanying medieval chapels.

St. Helier, despite its overdeveloped waterfront, does have some nice museums. The Maritime Museum skillfully blends history with science in its hands-on exhibits. Adjoining it is the Occupation Tapestry, produced on the 50th anniversary of the freeing of the island from German control (1940-1945).

You can get practically everywhere using the frustrating bus service. If you're on a short visit, you might want to rent a car.

Find history in Guernsey

St. Peter Port - Guernsey's big town - is a striking contrast to Jersey's St. Helier. It's a darling place, with modern development much more cleverly hidden away than in St. Helier.

After hopping off the ferry from Jersey, I quickly signed up for a walking tour that took me up quaint old streets leading from the harbor and around the shopping district. From down town, Castle Cornet is a short walk, but a long, interesting trip through history.

Another must see is Victor Hugo's home. Dark and richly ornate, with four floors of tapestries and quirky wooden furniture, Hauteville House is a vivid expression of the former occupant's tastes and ideas.

The best cliff walk on Guernsey is along the island's southern and southwestern coast. One evening I took a long walk on trails that led me along dramatic cliffs, rocks, and ocean views. Keeping a wary eye on a dive-bombing sea gull, I hiked down a cliff path and out to a lighthouse that provided a spectacular view of the coast.

The northern and western coasts are flatter and more prosaic, despite their lovely beaches and a wealth of fortresses and towers -a reminder that the once takeover-minded France is much closer than England.

Guernsey also has plenty of reminders that for five years the Nazis were in charge (the only time since 1066 that a part of the British Isles has been held by the enemy). Castle Cornet, the last Royalist stronghold during the English Civil War, for example, was updated by the Germans with concrete gun emplacements. A visit to the privately owned German Occupation Museum is also well worthwhile.

Like Jersey, Guernsey has buses, but once again renting a car will save heaps of time.

Feudal Sark; busier Alderney

A gem of an island, Sark is known as Europe's last feudal stronghold. The man in charge is the Seigneur (or Lord) of Sark - a position he inherited. And his domain is a tiny island of quaintness and natural beauty.

The only motor vehicles on the island are farm machinery, including tractors that for a tiny price will haul visitors up the hill from La Maseline Harbor. Tourists can do a horse & buggy tour, but the best way to see the island is by bicycle.

A friend and I explored Sark entirely on foot - including the rugged and remote Little Sark, which is attached to the rest of the island by a narrow road along a high cliff. Among Sark's greatest treasures is its small village, and, a little distance away, the Seigneurie Gardens located at the seigneur's home, which can be visited for a small fee.

Despite its size, Sark has plenty of places to stay. A helpful tourist office up the hill from the ferry can often help with last-minute accommodations.

The isle of Alderney has the Channel Islands' only train - a diesel engine pulling old London Underground carriages. Somewhat bigger than tiny Sark, and lovely in its own way, it has several times as many residents and more the trappings of civilization.

Herm: the mile-and-a-half isle

Herm is the most undeveloped of the major islands. Only a mile-and-a-half long, Herm has a few houses, one hotel, and lots of beaches, trails, and rugged landscape. The weather was cloudy and cool when a friend and I visited for a day - not the best conditions for enjoying the landmark Shell Beach. Even so, a two-hour amble entirely around Herm was a delight.

*For more information on the Channel Islands, call 800-617-3333. Or visit www.jtourism.com or tourism.guernsey.net

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