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Turning back time in Guernsey

While Guernsey’s financiers trade on the future, Norman Wright finds that its tourism trades on the past – so don’t expect a slick, US-style visitor experience

AS THE coach threads us through the narrow streets from the ferry terminal and out into the winding coastal roads, we get an elevated view of Guernsey – an island of contrasts.

Compare the glass office buildings that house the city slickers of the multi-billion pound financial industry, which makes up nearly half the island’s economy, with the ‘hedge veg’ stalls by the rural roadsides selling produce and flowers with honesty boxes making just a few pounds.

We slow down past stunning seascapes with rocky promontories and a swirling and crashing sea of deep and iridescent blues and greens. Then we turn inland to pass vast glasshouses broken and derelict, winding weeds replacing the redundant tomato vines.

With the decline of Guernsey’s growers, tourism is more important to the island’s economy. It offers the wonderful scenery here and on the islands of Herm and Sark which are part of the Guernsey jurisdiction. It offers superb local food at a cornucopia of eateries. However, it also offers a somewhat grumpy welcome at some of its tourist attractions.

While the city boys and girls of St Peter Port trade on the future, tourism trades on the past – the slower lifestyle that reminds you of Fifties Britain, shopping without VAT, the mainly unspoiled scenery and some of Guernsey’s darkest days, the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

The roads are narrow and driving does consist of a lot of pulling over to negotiate oncoming traffic. The locals, of course, are adept at this, which is why our coach proved a great way to get around.

Our coach party travelled to the island via Condor Ferries’ high-speed Liberation out of Poole. Nosing out of the harbour, we passed the back gardens of the millionaires’ row at Sandbanks, some of the UK’s most exclusive properties. No sign of Harry Redknapp in his dressing gown, though…

It’s a three-hour crossing, with the first sign of land the sun glinting off the cliffs and beaches of Alderney, the most northerly of the Channel Islands. Disembarking at St Peter Port, Guernsey’s capital, the coach advantage was immediately obvious as it picked its way through the streets with commentary from the driver. This was a bonus as we saw and found out about much more in the limited time available.

Our driver made sure we diverted past a compound of the rare breed of Guernsey Golden Goats, as good-looking as their fellow island breed, the Guernsey Cow.

We also saw plenty of hedge veg stalls, a unique way of utilising spare produce, on the way to visit the Little Chapel, the creation of monk Brother Déodat, who started work in March 1914. His plan was to create a miniature version of the famous grotto and basilica at Lourdes in France.

The building, faced with pebbles and broken crockery, was his third; the first was demolished because it was too small and the second because the Bishop of Portsmouth did not fit through the door! The chapel is undergoing renovation at the moment, with scaffolding hiding its best features.

Guernsey’s glasshouse agriculture was hit by price competition mainly from Holland. Rising oil prices meant keeping the houses at the right temperature was too expensive. Cut flowers were also a stalwart of the island’s economy but have suffered in the same way. There are still a few producers of flowers, especially freesias.

The Guernsey Freesia Centre sells mostly direct by post and to tourist parties. Even at the end of the season the flowers were beautiful, even if the pressure of business was telling on our host. It was a bit of an off-day, too, at the German Occupation Museum with some confusion over our visit. Again, the content of the museum made up for the welcome. It really is an amazing collection and tells the occupation story powerfully. It is quite a story, a glimpse of what life might have been like on the mainland if Hitler’s invasion plans had been successful.

We received a completely different welcome at Sausmarez Manor at St Martin’s. Seigneur Peter de Sausmarez was on hand to give us a personal tour of his sculpture garden, tea room and the house. His family has been prominent in the island since at least 1115 when they are first mentioned. This is a real highlight for Guernsey visitors.

A day on the island of Sark proved very relaxed. The ferry trip over was rather choppy but tide and wind was much kinder on the evening voyage, giving a picturesque return to the St Peter Port harbour.

With no cars on the island, the choice to look around is on foot, on a bike or by horse and carriage. I took the easy option, and there is no better way of enjoying the unspoiled scenery and fresh air than the steady pace of the trusty horse, with the crunch of the wheels, the creaking of the carriage and the jingle of bridles providing the only gentle sounds to complement a running commentary from the driver.

Our transport stopped off at La Seigneurie Gardens and again at the causeway between Sark and Little Sark, a superb coastal viewpoint.

There are several cafés and bistros as well as two proper pubs. Locally caught seafood, especially lobster, is the highlight of the menus. There was more seafood on offer when we returned to our hotel on Guernsey. The Peninsula Hotel is famed for its spectacular Sunday evening seafood buffet.

The food and the slow pace with beautiful coastal scenery are the reasons to visit Guernsey.

Their tourist attractions are low-key compared with many rivals but interesting all the same. Go to relax not to expect slick visitor experiences.

Have you been Guernsey? What did you think to it? 

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