St. Peter Port, the principal town on the island of Guernsey, charms travelers arriving by sea with its waterfront of grey and white stone buildings interrupted by colorfully painted row houses. The ridge above is fringed with trees and punctuated with church and monument spires. It's a town that beckons visitors down winding streets and leafy alleys, yet its signature landmark -- a fortified castle that sits atop a promontory jutting out into the harbor -- is notable for its more imposing mien.
Guernsey is second-largest of the several Channel Islands located 30 miles west of France's coast of Normandy and 75 miles south of Weymouth on the south coast of England. At 15 miles by six (at its widest point), it is tiny and easily circumnavigated as part of a day trip. It has a population of some 62,000, 16,000 of which live in St. Peter Port. Guernsey is the principal island of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which includes the tiny neighboring islands of Herm, Sark and Alderney.
At the beginning of steam navigation, the island developed into a hugely popular British holiday destination, due to its comparably sunnier climate than the U.K. and warmer waters, lovely beaches, rugged coastline and pastoral scenery that includes the handsome and much-prized Guernsey dairy cows. More recently, the delightful setting and the island's tax benefits have attracted large numbers of off-island Brits to settle there. While its status is of a British Crown Dependency, the islanders have a good deal of independence, and most visibly to tourists, Guernsey has its own coins, banknotes and stamps.
The Channel Islands became a part of the Duchy of Normandy (France) in 933 A.D., but after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when the Dukes of Normandy became the kings of England, the island became English property. When the English monarchy was restored, the islanders were given the choice in 1204 to revert to the French or stay with the English and remain self-governing, which they remain so to this day, with their own legal system, taxes and the aforementioned currency and stamps.
During modern times, Guernsey's most difficult period came during World War II, when the British government stated that it would not protect the Channel Islands from invasion and then gave the population a few days to decide to stay or leave. Half left, mainly women and children, and the number of Germans who came to occupy the island matched the population. They stayed almost five years; and by the occupation's end, the local population and the German soldiers were virtually starving due to a food embargo by the U.K. in an attempt to starve out the occupying force. The Channel Islands were finally liberated some 11 months after the Normandy landings, which ironically were within sight and sound along the nearby French Coast, on the 9th May 1945 -- one day after the rest of Europe as the German commander refused to surrender until the following morning. The German occupation left a large number of sites that can be visited today, including fortifications all along the coast, trenches, bunkers, disused anti-aircraft guns, an underground military hospital and an occupation museum. (And for some pre-trip reading, "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society," a delightful book, brings alive the German occupation period and its aftermath in a series of fictitious letters.)
Today, visitors come to enjoy St. Peter Port's bustling harbor scene, museums and historic attractions, as well as to head out into the countryside and along the coastline for short walks and scenic views. The island also has a number of festivals throughout the year, starting with the May 9th Liberation Day celebrations, and including literary, nautical and culinary events, as well as local shows and carnivals.
Guernsey has become increasingly popular as a cruise ship port of call in recent years, with more than 100 calls scheduled in 2015. The season starts in May and runs through until October as part of round-Britain or Atlantic Island cruises, during repositioning voyages between Northern Europe and the Mediterranean and on short-break trips that leave from Southampton.
The map you'll be handed as you arrive is handy, but if you want more detailed information about the island head to the Guernsey Information Centre, a large stand-alone sandstone building a few minutes walk from Albert Pier, along the North Esplanade. You can't miss it, it has the Guernsey flag flying outside.
St. Peter Port
The main attraction in town, Castle Cornet, is highly visible upon approaching the island, as it sits on a promontory jutting out into the harbor. It's a 15-minute walk from the tender pier along a sidewalk that skirts the harborfront. First built in the 13th century, the elaborate fortification was rebuilt and expanded by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in the years after 1600 to reflect the change in warfare from bows and arrows to gunpowder, guns and artillery. It was used as a storage depot for the aforementioned gunpowder and on December 29, 1692 a direct lightning strike blew up a large part of the inner complex -- killing several inhabitants including the mother of the then Governor of the island and his child. You can still see areas of damage today. The present breakwater and bridge connecting the castle to St. Peter Port was completed in 1860, and it was last used as a military fort during the German occupation in WWII. The Germans went about heavily fortifying the structure throughout the war (Hitler was convinced Guernsey was the perfect launching off point for an invasion into mainland Britain), with bunkers they named after different German girls. In 1947, King George VI presented the castle to the islanders who converted the complex to a series of museums and extensive grounds and ramparts, which you can clamber over for wonderful views of the town or out to sea. The Story of Castle Cornet recounts the various military purposes it served with primitive living quarters, war implements, and soldiers' uniforms to view and ramparts to climb. A 32-pound cast-iron cannon on site signals the noon hour daily. The Maritime Museum examines the development of the fishing industry on the island as well as the history of the island's sea connections to England and France using photographs, ship models and storyboards. Three additional sections are dedicated to the RAF (Royal Air Force) and the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry and Militia. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. £10 for adults; £2.50 for over fives.
Guernsey Museum & Art Gallery is located a short but steep 15-minute walk from the Esplanade's roundabout up to St. Julian's Avenue. Several bus routes stop at the intersection of St. Julian's and Candie Road, and, from there, it's a five-minute walk up a gentler slope. The museum's "Story of Guernsey" relates the history, archeology and natural history of the island in a series of rooms. If one of the older guides is on hand, you might hear the story of German occupation. A section is devoted to the Guernsey dairy cow, imported from France in the 10th century and ultimately developed into one of the world's most prized breeds with its high content of vitamin A, butterfat and protein. Surrounding the main building are the Candie Victorian pleasure gardens, displaying a profusion of flowers and featuring the oldest heated greenhouses in the British Isles. The Museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The gardens are free.
The same bus routes serve the nearby Bailiwick of Guernsey Millennium Tapestry, or it's a 10-minute walk downhill from the Guernsey Museum to College Street. The 10 colorfully stitched panels, completed in 1999 with one patch from each of the island's 10 parishes, presents detailed scenes for a specific century over the 1,000 years of Guernsey history. An audio guide helps pick out the historical markers. It's open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
French writer Victor Hugo's Hauteville House is located up the hill from the bus station along Cornet and Hauteville streets. The French writer was a resident in exile from Paris for 14 years, and the house we see today is as Hugo decorated it and then left it in 1870. It's open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for guided tours only.
La Valette Underground Military Museum. This lies in a complex of tunnels built by German forces as a fuel storage facility for their U-Boats. It is a short walk from the center along the South Esplanade. The museum covers Guernsey's military history, including the First World War and the German Occupation of the island from 1940 to 1945. The museum also sells a wide range of genuine military collectables and books. Admission: Adults £6, over 65s £4.50, and children £3.50. Open daily from March 2nd to mid-November 10am - 5pm.
Out of town
There are a couple of other Don't Misses on a visit to Guernsey, which lie a short distance out of town, but are well worth the journey (nothing takes very long to get to on the island).
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society: The bestseller (which oddly, is not very well known in the U.K.), may be fiction, but it is based on real events and real places and it is possible to do a tour of the island and visit all the places mentioned in the book on a day trip. Your best bet is to hire a knowledgeable local guide: Gill Girard took Kenneth Branagh around the island when he was scouting for spots to film the forthcoming movie. Her number is: 07781 104094.
The Little Chapel. This extraordinary creation -- a labor of love by Brother Déodat -- is apparently the smallest chapel in the world (you have to stoop to get in). He started work on it in March 1914, with the aim of creating a miniature version of the grotto and basilica at Lourdes in France, and was still adding to it at the time of his death. The Little Chapel is decorated entirely with seashells, pebbles and pieces of broken china, and relies entirely on donations for its upkeep. It lies just off the main road towards the airport is about 15 minutes drive from town.
German Occupation Museum. Just a bit further along the road from the Little Chapel, this is a comprehensive look at what life was like for the islanders during the years of occupation, and includes a comprehensive archive of letters, photographs, books and memorabilia including knives and guns, all lovingly presented. There is also a recreated typical street from those years, with military hardware, shop fronts and models of people, which can be slightly eerie. Outside you'll find various bits of weaponry including the propellor from a shot down American B29 bomber. While you are there you may pick up a flyer advertising two astonishingly well preserved fortifications along the west coast -- Pleinmont Tower and Fort Hommet -- both of which can be visited. Adults £4, children £2. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For those who may have been to Guernsey before, the attractive nearby island of Herm, a 20-minute boat ride from St. Peter Port, is a fine alternative. The boat's departure point is on the St Julian's Pier, the next pier along from Albert Pier and tickets are available from Travel Trident at a kiosk on the pier. There are eight departures and returns throughout the day, and it's quite possible to visit just for the morning and be back onboard your ship for lunch. Just 1.5 miles long by 0.5 miles wide and with no cars, the island is a hiker's delight with many coastal and inland pastoral paths. The beaches and kayaking are also first-rate, though the water may be too cold for swimming. On a sunny day on Shell Beach (so named for the shells that are apparently swept up by the Gulf Stream all the way from Florida), you could be forgiven for thinking you were on a beach in the Caribbean. Visit an 11th-century chapel with lovely stained-glass windows, Neolithic tombs and one of the world's smallest prisons. Food is available at Shell Beach and Belvoir Bay, or take a picnic.
During the circular Guernsey island drive by local bus, a number of beach stops are attractive options for coastal walks and local sightseeing. Stop at Vazon Bay to see the Fort Hommet Gun Casement, built by the Nazis during the WWII occupation, or L'Eree to view Fort Grey, a round Martello Tower (1894) located on a rocky islet as part of the island's coastal defense and now a shipwreck museum. Food kiosks and cafes are available at both stops.
Lihou Island: This tiny island, just off Guernsey's west coast, is only accessible at certain times due to tidal flow. Once a monk's retreat (you can visit the ruined priory), it is now owned and operated by a charitable trust. It's a short walk at low tide across a stone pathway and you can take a picnic and wander around the tiny coastline. It's a birders paradise and ideal for rockpooling. Note: Tide times are posted at the start of the causeway and in the local paper -- take note of the times and leave at least 20 minutes for your journey back as people have been known to get stranded.
By foot: The best way to see St. Peter Port is by foot, but be warned, the hills behind the main harbor front road are steep.
By bicycle: Cycling is a great way to see the island and there are plenty of cycle hire shops in the town. You can book directly with the Guernsey Information Centre.
By taxi: Taxis are available on the pier and at stands along the Esplanade.
By bus: The island's excellent bus network takes you directly to all the important attractions and provides a scenic circular drive on the 91 route, operating both clockwise and counterclockwise every half hour. The 90-minute island overview follows narrow lanes through small settlements, passes farms raising the prized Guernsey cows and, in places, skirts the rugged coastline. The flat one-pound fare for any distance is payable to the driver as you board. From the pier, the main bus terminal is located just to your left, short walk along the South Esplanade. Northbound or clockwise bus routes are located outside the Tourist Information Centre and at the roundabout (traffic circle) as you leave the port access road. A Bus Timetable booklet is handy to have and easily obtained at tourist information outlets and at the main bus terminal.
By car: Major car rental firms including Hertz and Avis are all located at the airport, but if you prebook you can have the car delivered to you. Note that there are no parking charges on the island -- there is an honor system in place whereby you mark the time you parked on a calendar (supplied with the car) and make sure you return before the time indicated on signs is up.
Guernsey is blessed with beautiful beaches all along its coastline, from tiny almost inaccessible rocky inlets, to vast expanses of Caribbean-color sand beaches. You'll find the hard-to-get to coves along the south and east coast, just a couple of minutes out of town. The large sandy beaches -- including Britain's cleanest, Vazon Bay -- are on the west coast and you'll find tiny inlets and fishing villages along the north coast.
St. Peter Port
La Vallette Bathing Pools, lie just a few minutes walk from the town center, and while not a beach, these bathing pools, which date from Victorian times, are a great spot to relax and paddle about. They are tidal, and fill or empty depending on the sea levels. They are also a great deal warmer than the sea. There are facilities here, including kiosks for snacks and drinks.
Fermain Bay, lies just a short walk out of town but is only accessible by foot along a clifftop route. It's stunningly beautiful, nestled into high cliff walls, and as a reward you'll find the Fermain Beach Cafe, which is a great spot for lunch. You can make your own way there, or head there as part of an organised excursion.
A little bit further along, you'll find Petit Port and Moulin Huet, which sit side by side at the bottom of some vertiginous cliffs. Petit Port is only accessible by foot, down some 270 steep steps. It's secluded and stunning, and perfect for paddling, but be mindful of the walk back up. Moulin Huet is again only accessible by foot, though it's less challenging than Petit Port along a winding path. To give you some idea of its beauty, this is where French Impressionist painter Renoir drew inspiration.
In the far south west of the island you'll find Portelet a safe, sheltered little beach which is also a working harbor. It's idea for rockpooling or crabbing, when the tide recedes and a jetty becomes visible. There is a small kiosk selling beach gear and snacks and drinks. Fort Grey is at the top of the beach, built in 1804 and restored in 1976.
Vazon Bay is probably the island's most famous beach, stretching out in a mile long sandy arc. Vazon is Guernsey's sports beach, and where windsurfers, kite surfers and surfers come to when the conditions are right. You're never far from a military installation on Guernsey, and just at the northern edge of the beach you'll find Fort Hommet, a Victorian fortification built to defend against the French and fortified by the Germans during occupation.
Cobo Bay, is a lovely family beach with fine sand and shallow waters; Carbby Jack's restaurant, serving fish 'n' chips is just opposite.
Pembroke Bay, in the far north of the island, is another stunning white sand beach with clear waters. You'll also find a couple of kiosks and an excellent cafe here.
Fresh local fish and shellfish are featured on nearly all menus. Try the Dover sole or fillet of plaice and king prawns, lobsters, crayfish, crabs and mussels. About a dozen restaurants with widely varying menus and prices line the Esplanade, which runs at right angles to St. Julian's Pier.
Christie's on Le Pollet (No. 43), one street in from the Esplanade, is a stylish bistro, bar and restaurant with mosaic tile tabletops and blond wooden chairs. Menu items include smoked seafood chowder, deep-fried almond brie, oriental duck spring rolls, bean and vegetable chili with wild rice, and beer-battered cod and chips with mushy peas. It's open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. with the bar open until 12:30 a.m. Telephone: +(0)1481 726624.
The Guernsey Museum & Art Gallery's Cafe Victoria, on Candie Road, has indoor, terrace and lawn seating with lovely views over Candie Gardens, St. Peter Port and the harbor. The menu includes prawn Caesar salad, Cajun chicken, crab sandwiches, quiche of the day and, for an afternoon tea stop, homemade cakes and scones with rich butter and cream from Guernsey cows. Telephone: +(0)1481 724432. It's open Monday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Pier 17. You're unlikely to miss this restaurant, as it's right beside where you'll alight on Albert Pier, and you'll get a lovely view of the adjoining marina and harbour -- and probably your ship moored just outside. As with the majority of restaurants in town, fresh seafood is the order of the day -- specials include scallops in bacon and a ceviche-style chilli calamari in lime. 01481 720823. Open: Mon-Sat, 11am-3pm, 6pm-11pm.
For a tasty take-out snack to enjoy sitting on a bench facing the harbor, Marks & Spencer's food hall is noted for its freshly packaged salads and sandwiches. Located facing the Esplanade, to the left of the Visitor Centre, the food section is on the right when facing the large store.
Keep your wits about you when crossing the streets, as the traffic drives on the left as in the British Isles. Many St. Peter Port streets are narrow, they tend to be one way, and it is always advisable to use the zebra-striped pedestrian crossing points on the busier thoroughfares. Once you step off the curb onto one, you have the right-of-way over vehicular traffic.
Also, be advised that the English Channel sea temperature hovers in the mid-50's, so beaches provide quiet places to relax, enjoy picnics or take short walks, as opposed to places for swimming (although that doesn't stop the locals who will swim in any weather).
VisitGuernsey: www.visitguernsey.com, Telephone: + (0)1481 723552, firstname.lastname@example.org
Guernsey Information Centre, North Plantation, St. Peter PortCruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles/Western Europe Independent Traveler Forums: England --by Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Adam Coulter, U.K. Editor