Maybe it’s because of their location, snuggling up to Normandy, but the Channel Islands have always existed in the periphery of my vision when it comes to travel. Thanks to TV series like Bergerac and An Enemy at the Door, I’ve been aware of their existence, but then keep forgetting about them, especially as they don’t turn up in travel articles that much. So, when friends planned to get married on Jersey, it provided the perfect opportunity to find out what the Channel Islands were like. Their wedding, combined with a week’s walking on Jersey, was an enticing prospect, and then Covid came along. I’m pleased to say the wedding took place but, being confined to barracks due to Covid restrictions in Portugal, we weren’t at it.
Nearly two years later, and with British Airways vouchers from the original planned trip about to expire, we finally made it to a British island that wasn’t part of Britain.
The base – St Aubin
St Aubin curves around the protective bay of the same name. A former fishing village, it instantly charmed, helped by the fact that within half an hour or so of landing, we were parked up and in our hotel room at the Somerville Hotel, an imposing and grand building on the hill overlooking the small town and St Aubin Bay. An easy transfer is always a good mood enhancer.
Although refurbished in 2022, the Somerville retains an elegant old school ambience about it, many of its guests falling into what could be described as the genteel category. I’ve never been in a hotel where 8am was such a popular time for breakfast, early-rising guests motivated by the desire to grab one of the front-line tables with views across the bay. It’s comfy and attractive with friendly staff, mostly (I did get a bit of a slap down one morning after asking where our toast was), and a very good restaurant. But at times it took itself a wee bit too seriously and could be on the quiet side … library quiet … care home quiet. One night, in the hotel’s bar, I found myself fantasising that a Randle P. McMurphy type character would appear to spice things up. To be fair, it did liven up when non-guest diners turned up to eat in the hotel’s excellent restaurant.
Overall, I did really like the hotel; it was an amenable and comfortable base, and our room had a hypnotic view over the bay.
St Aubin itself was perfect for us. Although small, it punches above its weight when it comes to its choice of restaurants. And it has a couple of nice bars (the Old Courthouse and the Boat House) which are convivial venues for chilling out at the end of a day’s exploration
It’s also in a great position for discovering Jersey on foot. We completed three walking routes just from the door of the hotel.
Highlights of Walking on Jersey
The Lothringen Battery
What a cracker of an intro to walking on Jersey – coastal paths, huge views, green lanes (roads where walkers, cyclists, and horse riders take precedence over cars), sweeping bays with golden sand beaches, potato fields, seafood shacks on the beach, unexpected bugloss spires (a plant I associate with Tenerife), Martello towers (reminiscent of ones we saw on Corsica) and the Noirmont headland with its well-preserved Coastal Artillery Battery from WWII. Where there are big guns, there are panoramic views. It’s a beautiful and fascinating spot.
The Devil’s Hole and La Mare
Walking from Grève de Lecq to the Devil’s Hole reminded us just how small Jersey is; we passed the Somerville’s receptionist on a country lane. Jersey is smaller than my home island of Bute, which blew my mind as Bute has 6,000 inhabitants whereas Jersey has 103,000 (but doesn’t feel in the slightest bit crowded). The undulating path across the clifftops was exhilarating, revealing a wilder northern coast. The Devil’s Hole itself was underwhelming, but that was probably because our journey to it was so scenic. Marking the halfway point of our route was a visit to La Mare Wine Estate where Canadian guide Caroline did a hilarious stand-up routine as she showed us around the estate (£14.95) and plied us with cider, cream liqueur, red wine, white wine, rosé, and a gin & tonic.
St Helier and Elizabeth Castle
I wouldn’t say St Helier is a pretty town, but Jersey’s capital does exude charm. It’s the place which felt most French to me, thanks to its pavement café society vibe and names like Le Petit Baguette. Highlights were Liberty Wharf with its restaurants, the colourful Central Market and its decorative fountain, and elegant department store de Gruchy. At the quay, the Steam Clock which looks like a ship’s funnels is an interesting curio, but these days there’s no steam action.
Our plan was to spend the morning in St Helier and the afternoon at nearby Samarés Botanic Gardens but, as we munched on pastries outside the upside-down-boat shaped La Frégate café, we spotted the ferry to Elizabeth Castle (£16.25) was an amphibian bus and changed plans immediately. What a blast. Even the ‘bus’s’ safety video is a hoot. The 16th century castle occupies 24 acres so exploring it constitutes a walking route in itself. A climb to the highest point rewards with views across the bay. Coincide a visit with the firing of the cannon as we did (unplanned) for an ear-ringing experience.
Inland to the Jersey War Tunnels
An inland route through Waterworks Valley revealed a different face to Jersey – serene bluebell woods with ponds, streams, and an enchanting chorus of birdsong. The biggest disappointment of our week was Hamptonne Country Life Museum (£10.30), allegedly a living museum. Apart from a wandering storyteller, there was no ‘living’ element to the place. Even the hens were hidden away because of bird flu. It’s an attractive farm, but the entrance fee is way overpriced.
The Jersey War Tunnels (£16) more than compensated. Exploring over 1,000m of tunnels 50m below ground was a poignant and extremely moving experience; tears were shed. It’s an informative and personal insight into life on Jersey during the Nazi occupation, and a must for anyone who wants to understand the island.
Railway line to La Corbiére Lighthouse
The old St Helier railway line makes for a pleasant path that connects St Aubin with La Corbiére, another Jersey landmark set out to sea and reached by a causeway. It’s a dramatic sight, even on the one dreary day we experienced during our trip. Maybe it was dramatic because it was moody weather, the sort of conditions that might have lured ships onto the treacherous rocks in the past. The return route followed the more challenging undulations of the coast. With the greater effort came bigger rewards, views over lovely Beauport Beach with its turquoise waters before the path descended into St Brelade’s Bay. St Brelade’s may be one of the most popular beaches on Jersey, but the resort itself felt quite soulless and left me cold.
Samarés Botanic Gardens & Mont Orgueil Castle
Initially Andy was underwhelmed by the gardens, but by the time we’d crossed the herb garden and the walled garden to enter the water gardens, she was a convert. Samarés (£9.75) is like a Russian doll version of gardens, peel away one layer and there’s another to find. Floral treasures and exquisitely landscaped gardens revealed themselves the more we explored. Even what we thought was a rather creatively titled ‘jungle path’ did turn out to be an overgrown jungle to negotiate. The Samarés Gardens are a delightful place to lose half a day or more.
Whereas a coastal route north from Gorey involved more of the same scenery we’d come to expect from walking on Jersey, entering Mont Orgueil Castle (£13.95) was an unexpected trip down the rabbit hole. On the face of it, the 13th century castle towering above the picturesque fishing village looks like a sombre fortress. But inside is a surreal and confusing maze of rooms and spiral stairways leading to dark corners and dungeons where you have no idea what awaits – sometimes its whimsical, at others positively disturbing. It is unlike any castle we’ve ever visited before, apart from maybe in Tarascon where Andy was chased by a giant silver squid.
Jersey in summary
As we breezed through Jersey Airport security to catch our fight home, a sight in the departure lounge summed up perfectly what Jersey is like. It was a stall selling bags of Jersey potatoes. There was nobody tending the stall, instead there was an honesty box.
An honesty box in an airport. It says it all.