The idyllic Channel Island of Guernsey is an ideal add-on to a trip to England – one of the easiest flights is FlyBe’s 40-minute regular hop from London City airport. Guernsey, which is part of UK, is as you imagine an English island would be, a mere 65,000 hectares total, with a population of under 88,000. It has history, nature and culture.
It is especially in the news right now because of David Bellos’ best-selling ‘The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables’, a fascinating book that describes the turbulent life and times of the 19th century in France, and on Guernsey. Victor Hugo, the French author of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, ‘Les Misérables’ and other classics, lived on the island between 1856 and 1870. Honestly, anyone with even the slightest interest in literature or history should take the hour-long tour of his home, Hauteville House at 38 Hauteville, in the island’s capital Saint Peter Port. After his death his family gave it to the City of Paris which, interestingly, still owns it, and they will close it for the 2018 season to put in new windows and carpets.
Hurry, therefore, before it finishes its season end of September 2017. Thursday through Tuesday, it is open from 10am, with tours in English or French. The house is extraordinary. Victor Hugo personally designed all the rooms, which start in near darkness at ground level and rise to the airiness of the fourth-floor eyrie. On all floors below there are thick carpets on floors and walls and sometimes ceilings (which might alternatively be lined in china plates). Heavy wood wall panels are fashioned from parts of medieval churches, with allegorical writings, and Victor Hugo’s initials tantalisingly semi-hidden among flowers or on Delft tiles that form a three-dimensional wall in the dining room.
It is unique, and everyone should see it at least once. Another must-do is to simply walk around the inner town of Saint Peter Port. Walk rather than drive: most roads in the capital are one-way and some are forbidden to cars and even bicycles. I heard a lovely story from someone who lives along Les Canichers street. She had friend coming for dinner who started driving along the street’s pedestrian-only narrow end. She reversed but had to hope for the best, which fortunately worked out. What else to do? Take buses. The island’s system is incredibly efficient and such good value. Every ride, regardless of length, is £1, yes one UK pound – Guernsey has its own £1 notes, no use when you get back to the mainland.
So I planned a peripheral island bus tour. Service 91 goes clockwise and service 92 goes anti-clockwise, making lots of stops en route. Unfortunately I got on a 93 by mistake and did a delightfully peripatetic inland tour. “No problem,” said the driver. “Get out here, by the Imperial Hotel.” A lonely structure in the windswept southwest of the island, and 91 will be coming in 16 minutes. Exactly on time the 91 did arrive and my original £1 ticket sufficed. After spending a total of one pound for nearly 2.5 hours’ sightseeing, passing amazing old forts and surfing schools, I was back at the marina, looking at real money. This is a high-income island, as evidenced by houses that look as if they are painted every month, and by immaculate gardens – real estate is comparable to London prices, I was told. Fortunately Guernsey’s premier luxury hotel, Old Government House, has three houses for its staff, which might be one of many reasons why they appear so happy, as I was to find out.
Guernsey’s Old Government House, universally known as the OGH, is worthy of top ranking worldwide, thanks to its history, the love and devotion given to it by its owners, the Tollman family, and its really passionate team. Some of the views are spectacular. From balcony room 109, for instance, you look down over other buildings to the English Channel and across to other Channel Islands: from left to right, you see Herm, then Jethou, Sark and Brecqhou (the extremely-private island owned by the Barclay family, of London’s Ritz fame).
OGH, which is now a Red Carnation hotel, started life in 1858 as just that, the home for all government affairs, and after the Tollmans bought it in 2008 they elevated the entire product into a stunning 63-room hotel. The pool comes into its own in summer, as does the adjacent terrace, especially for afternoon tea and cocktails. Ahh, drinks. What used to be the Crown office processing Guernsey’s passports is now the Crown Club Bar, which has 37 different gins. Clever assistant GM Gareth Byrne had a sudden creative moment, and now you can get a Crown Club passport. Collect stamps showing you have tried all of those gin labels, at 10% discount a time, and you get a free bottle of one of Guernsey’s two local gins, Blue Gin by Three Fingers or hotelier Luc Wheadon’s Gin with rock samphire and pink grapefruit.
They know how to sell their drinks here, and not only to tourists – Guernsey is a major centre for offshore banking and finance and the legal world. At weekends Crown Club suggests a lunchtime main course dish with unlimited Bellinis, Bloody Marys or Prosecco, maximum drinking time 90 minutes. At breakfast, in-room service or in the charming pine-and-white striped Brasserie conservatory, they suggest a Moo-dy Mary, a Bloody Mary using Black Cow Vodka, apparently a milk vodka from Beaminster, on the mainland, not too far from another of the Tollmans’ Red Carnation properties, Summer Lodge. And I must not forget afternoon tea, outside on that terrace or inside, cleverly promoted by a set up in the lobby, near to a bowl of rosy apples and a glass urn of fruit-flavoured water, and a carafe of sherry.
What else does OGH have? Well, there is a gym with good equipment and lots of outside members – but be warned, at weekends it does not open until 9am and, as I found, closes at 6pm. I did take a bike for a spin (both push bikes and electric bikes, helpful on these hills, are free). I also loved my really aerobic walks. In the centre of town, up from the harbour, the terrain does not know the word ‘flat’ – this is a leave-the-heels behind place. Heels did come out, by the way, for a high-society wedding the hotel was hosting during my stay. It had to be a local bride as only registered Guernsey people can legally marry here.
Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com