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.
Small cruise ships may dock along one of St. Peter Port's stone piers-cum-breakwaters, but most anchor off with a short 10- to 15-minute tendering transfer to the landing at Albert Pier, at a purpose built pontoon which can take three tenders at once new for the 2015 cruise season (tenders previously docked at St Julian's Pier).
There is a tiny staffed shelter with visitor information on Albert Pier as you disembark, where you will be handed a map of the town and the island, as well as a card enabling you to access free Wi-Fi throughout your stay (the town is full of Wi-Fi hotspots). If you are on an organised shore excursion, you'll find the buses parked just to the right of here. If you are not, it's a few seconds' walk to St. Peter Port's town center, stretching along the Esplanade. You can then turn right or left along the frontage or head inland to one of the parallel shopping streets and continue up the hill to several attractions of interest.
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.
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).
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's currency is the Guernsey pound, and its value is tied to the British pound sterling. For the current exchange rate check www.xe.com. Both currencies are readily accepted, but bear in mind that Guernsey pounds are not generally accepted in Britain. You will have to exchange the leftovers at a bank, or keep them for a souvenir. Several banks offer ATMs along the Esplanade, parallel to High Street and Le Pollet and one short block inland; these dispense Guernsey currency only. The local currency includes a paper one-pound note (unlike in Britain) and the island's own set of coins (pence). Credit cards are widely accepted, though small purchases and bus tickets will require cash.
English is the ruling language there and throughout the Channel Islands. While many local residents are originally from Britain, some island-born residents also speak Guernesiaise or Dgernesiais, a Franco-Norman language that dates back to the Middle Ages. For example, a phrase that appears on the island's bus receipts will say "Bianvnu a bord," rather than modern French "Bienvenu a bord" or its English translation "Welcome onboard." The language may also appear in some captions in local museums. Visitors are not expected to understand Guernesiaise.
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.
Good buys are Guernsey knitwear, such as jumpers (sweaters) and colorful tea towels with island scenes, which can be found at The Guernsey Shop on North Esplanade (the main harbor front road). Locally made handbags and jewelry can be found at Gwyneth and Grey, 51 Le Pollet, which is just behind the Guernsey Information Centre. Try too the Vistorian Shop, owned and run by the National Trust of Guernsey, where you'll find traditional sweets (candy), local crafts and National Trust goods.