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St. Peter Port, Guernsey
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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 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., 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 islands did not revert to the French, though there were bellicose attempts to make that so.
During modem 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. The Germans who came to occupy the islands stayed almost five years; by the occupation's end, the local population and the German soldiers were virtually starving. 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. The German occupation left many sites that can be visited today, including fortifications, 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 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. For a perfect ending to a day ashore, have a glass of wine or English afternoon tea while gazing out to sea.
Most cruise ships call there in the warmer months between May and 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.
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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. Locally made handbags and jewelry can be found at Gwyneth and Grey, 51 Le Pollet.
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.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Guernsey's currency is the Guernsey pound, and its value is tied to the British pound sterling. For the current exchange rate, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Both currencies are readily accepted, but keep in mind that Guernsey pounds are not generally accepted in Britain. You will have to exchange the leftovers at a bank. Several banks offer ATM's 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.
Where You're Docked
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 St. Julian's Pier. The cruise ship landing shares the port with berths for ferries to the island of Jersey, the South of England and France; local boats to the nearby islands of Herm and Sark; and visiting and homeported yachts.
A staffed shelter with visitor information is likely to be open on the pier as you disembark. A small cafe to the left serves hot and cold drinks, food and snacks and is used primarily by the local boat crews and fishermen. While there is little else to do near the immediate landing, other than watch the ferries and excursion boats come and go, St. Peter Port's town center, stretching along the Esplanade, is a short five-minute walk along safe sidewalks. 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.
While nearly everything of interest in St. Peter Port is walkable, some may wish to take taxis (available on the pier and at stands along the Esplanade) or local bus up the steep hill to several of the principal sites. The island's excellent bus network takes you directly to all the important attractions and provides a scenic circular drive via Routes 7 and 7A, operating both clockwise and counterclockwise every half hour. The 80-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 left, a 15-minute walk along the South Esplanade. Closer boarding locations along the Esplanade for 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.
Watch Out For
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.
The main attraction, Castle Cornet, is highly visible upon approaching the island, as it sits on a promontory jutting out into the harbor. It's a 25-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. 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. In 1947, King George VI presented the castle to the islanders who converted the complex to a series of museums. 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. It's open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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.
Been There, Done That
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 same pier as the cruise tender landing. Just 1.5 miles long by .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. 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.
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.
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.
For a bit of a splurge, the Absolute End, an Italian seafood restaurant located in a two-story house with bay windows, offers some of the best food on the island. It's a 15-minute walk to the right along St. George's Esplanade. The menu includes pastas, risottos and vegetarian dishes. Recommended items include local oysters on the half-shell, crab cakes and sweet chili sauce, fritto misto (white bait, prawns and calamari), and fresh asparagus with a poached egg and shredded parmesan cheese. Telephone: +(0)1481 723822. It's open for lunch Monday through Saturday, noon to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner from 6:30 to 10 p.m.
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.
Staying in Touch
Finding an Internet Cafe is becoming increasingly difficult, so the best bet is to take a laptop to one of the cafes offering Wi-Fi along the Esplanade or at the Visitor Information Centre. Internet access with 12 terminals is available at the Guille-Alles Library on Market Street, just behind the town church that's located on the Quay (between N. & S. Esplanades).
For History Buffs: The German occupation of the Channel Islands lasted five long years, and the story comes alive when you visit the German Occupation Museum on "The German Occupation of Guernsey" tour. The various rooms illustrate different themes, such as the occupiers' accommodations, kitchen, equipment rooms and fully equipped hospital in a maze of underground tunnels. Along the coast, you will see the impressive gun emplacements constructed to ward off an invasion. The half-day tour includes a short scenic drive to and from the destinations.
For Walkers: The half-day "Guernsey's Heritage Trail" tour leaves the landing on foot to visit the nearby town center, and then it ascends the sloping lanes to the walled Candie Gardens, the impressive Victoria Tower that in 1848 commemorated the first visit by a reigning English monarch to the island (climb up for a spectacular view of the surrounding islands) and the Guernsey Tapestry whose ten panels each trace a century of island life.
For Repeat Visitors: Feel like you're traveling to the past when you visit the Island of Sark on the seven-hour "Step Back in Time: Isle of Sark" tour. The tiny, rugged island, located just 45 minutes from St. Peter Port, is run by a local parliament -- independent from the United Kingdom -- which makes its own laws and levies its own taxes. When you step ashore, there are no cars or even paved roads. A tractor-drawn cart will pull a "toast rack-style wagon" up to the village center. There you can tour by horse and carriage or head off along one of the many footpaths (nothing is more than an hour on foot) that fan out to the island's sights, coastal cliff walks, the La Coupee (a narrow ridge that links the main island to Little Sark) or the Seigneurie (where the island's titular ruler lives) and its lovely gardens. Lunch may be taken in any of several village restaurants.
For More Information
VisitGuernsey: www.visitguernsey.com, Telephone: + (0)1481 723552, firstname.lastname@example.org
Guernsey Information Centre, North Plantation, St. Peter Port
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--by Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic contributor