The Channel Islands
Just off the coast of France, Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Herm and Alderney beckon with exquisite coastlines, shaded lanes and old-world charm. Not quite Britain and not quite France, the islands are proudly independent, self-governing British Crown dependencies that straddle the gap between the two. Their citizens owe their allegiance to Her Majesty, but some still speak local dialects that stem from medieval Norman French.
The warm Gulf of St Malo ensures subtropical plants and an incredible array of birdlife. The Channel Islands enjoy sunnier days and milder winters than the UK, attracting walkers and outdoorsy types for surfing, kayaking, coasteering and diving. Superb local seafood graces the tables of local restaurants in the culture hubs of St Helier (Guernsey) and St Peter Port (Jersey).
Numerous forts and castles dot the coastlines, while poignant museums – some housed in old war tunnels and bunkers – provide an insight into the islanders' fortitude during WWII.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The Channel Islands.
The eerie tunnels of a German underground military hospital have been converted into Jersey's best and most poignant museum, dedicated to the island's experience under Nazi occupation between 1940 and 1945. Interactive exhibits, interspersed with wartime footage, sound effects and displays of household objects, walk you through the British government's decision not to defend the Channel Islands, privations suffered by locals, the slave labour used to build these tunnels, the deportations of British-born families to Germany, and Jersey's subsequent liberation.
On two interconnected islets in St Aubin's Bay, this imposing fortress guards the entrance to the harbour. Originally a 6th-century hermitage, then an abbey, then a 16th-century castle built on the orders of Elizabeth I, the fortress played a key role both during the Civil War and WWII. Visitors can explore the battlements, bunkers, two museums, Upper Ward and Hermitage Rock. At low tide you can walk here along the causeway; otherwise take the amphibious vehicle (£2).
Victor Hugo was exiled from France in 1851 after Napoleon III's coup, living on Guernsey from 1856-70. His exuberant home Hauteville House, where he wrote Les Misérables, has been preserved as it was. It's all DIY opulence, with Hugo's larger-than-life personality imprinted all over the furnishings – many pieces he fashioned himself from bric-a-brac finds.
This museum is an enjoyable stampede through the millennia-old history of Guernsey: home to Neolithic farmers, strategic Roman port, Norman stronghold, refuge of privateers, and, finally a sun-drenched tax haven. Delve into the Guernsey witch trials, learn about the nightmarish creatures from the island's mythology, peek at a 15th-century grimoire, and find out why a mummified cat was found beneath one of the local hotels. In the art gallery, the nautical landscapes are particularly engaging.
Founded by a local who experienced Nazi occupation as a child, this fascinating museum walks you through Guernsey's wartime experience. Among ample weaponry, uniforms and communications equipment, there's a recreated wartime kitchen, with the father listening to an illegal radio while the mother anxiously watches out for the Germans. The islanders' experiences in Nazi concentration camps, informers' letters and the sad fate of three of Guernsey's handful of Jews are on display. Behind the cafe is a recreated wartime street.
This inspirational zoo was founded by writer and naturalist Gerald Durrell, who dreamed of creating a safe place for his animals since he was 6 years old. The emphasis is on the conservation and breeding of endangered species, and their reintroduction into the wild, as well as the training of conservationists. Inhabitants have a remarkable amount of freedom, with primates, bears and lemurs roaming around natural wooded environments.
Standing sentinel over Saint Peter Port for over 800 years, this wonderfully intact castle has been a major player in every historical event to affect the island, from the French sieges and the Napoleonic wars to the Civil War and WWII. The maze of courtyards, towers, passageways and keeps is a joy to explore and there are five museums on-site, the best being the Maritime Museum and the Story of Castle Cornet.
You have to stoop to enter the dark, dripping tunnel beneath this Neolithic burial mound that leads to the funerary chamber. The dolmen is over 6000 year old, topped with the 12th-century Chapel of Notre Dame de la Clarté, restructured and renamed the Jerusalem Chapel in the 16th century. Watch the introduction film at the visitor centre and visit the excellent on-site museum that displays treasures from the world's biggest coin hoard, found in 2012 in a Jersey field.
This picture-perfect medieval castle has loomed over Gorey Harbour for over 800 years. It has worn many hats over the years: a formidable defence against the French, a prison, a refuge for 18th-century French aristocrats, a Nazi observation post. Climb to the top of Somerset Tower for 360-degree views and explore the network of steep staircases and dark towers to discover the castle's many secrets.