‘The Channel Islands are fragments of France which fell into the sea and were gathered up by England,’ Victor Hugo famously said.
Of course we will never know what the French poet and novelist would think of Jersey 140 years after he was exiled from Napoleon’s France, and landed there before going to live on neighbouring Guernsey.
But it is certainly still an island of contradictions, a curious network of rustic lanes, cliff paths and an upmarket high street, an appealing blend of Norman and Saxon influences – where at once you feel like you are in rural England and then a glance at a French street name reminds you of the country’s fraught history.
Both rich and provincial, a blend of history and glamour – and tiny, just nine miles by five – the island is closer to France than Britain.
A new direct easyJet flight from Edinburgh made it easy for my friend and me to enjoy a short getaway to the largest of the Channel Islands and Jersey’s seaside capital, St Helier, offered us the perfect base to explore during our three nights away.
We stayed at The Club Hotel and Spa, a smart boutique hotel with adjoining Michelin-star restaurant. The central location of the hotel was convenient, just a five-minute stroll to the main shopping streets, bars and restaurants.
Our room had an understated and elegant style, with all the amenities you would expect from a five-star offering and the bed was the softest I have slept on in a hotel. The turndown service with freshly baked shortbread and a cosy honesty bar with books and games was also a nice touch.
After checking in, we decided to head out for the evening to sample one of the things Jersey is most famous for – its food.
The island has its own distinct gourmet scene and makes use of its wealth of local produce. As Jersey is known for its seafood we took a local recommendation to dine at the Quayside Grill and Bistro.
I opted for calamari and a seafood pasta, both of which were delicious. The service was also impeccable, with friendly staff. An impressive wine list and views over the harbour were also plus points.
The weather was not on our side during our trip, so on our first full day we avoided the pastime most holidaymakers head to Jersey for – sunbathing on the beaches – instead taking the chance to explore some of the island’s history and heritage.
The story of the German occupation in the Second World War is told at the Jersey Museum and Art Gallery and we spent an hour learning about the island’s experience through poems, sculpture, paintings and installations. Jersey was ruled by the Germans for five years between June 1940 and May 1945 and only liberated after the Nazi surrender.
There are ghosts wherever you turn – war tunnels where slave workers dug deep into the hillside, remains of bunkers, anti-tank walls and commemorative plaques from when Hitler’s troops moved in – reminders that the Channel Islands were more heavily fortified than the Normandy coast during the war.
At the museum, and throughout town, the island’s loyalty to the British Crown is also apparent. Streets names and statues of royalty, the Queen’s face on the Jersey pound notes, all celebrate the country’s links with the mainland.
While history is particularly resonant on this small island, our next visit took us on a lighter journey as we enjoyed a guided tour of La Mare Wine Estate, a 20-acre vineyard famous for its wines and popular Jersey Apple Brandy Cream – made with apples from La Mare’s own orchards.
Wine-making in Jersey only started in 1972 when the first vines were planted, and in the beautiful country parish of St Mary, our passionate and knowledgeable guide Bob led us around the scenic vineyards and distillery, before we were treated to a tasting of the home-grown wines and brandy. For the sweet-toothed, the estate also has an on-site chocolatier – delicious.
We headed to the vineyard’s café next to try another local product – scones with Jersey black butter. Black butter is a preserve made by boiling cider apples before adding sugar, lemon, spices and liquorice. It has a distinctive dark colour and tastes a bit like cold mince pie filling.
After a busy day we journeyed back to our hotel, where we had booked in for a massage at the low-key spa, which has a salt-water pool, is softly lit and the treatment list long and detailed. I opted for the Aromatic Fusion Massage, which combines techniques from Asia and Europe and left me feeling perfectly pampered and blissed-out.
Unfortunately it was too chilly for a dip in the outdoor pool but I enjoyed the thermal suite, which included a salt cabin, herbal steam room and experience shower.
On our last night, we were lucky enough to dine at the hotel’s eatery, Bohemia – a smart, modern, one Michelin starred restaurant managed by head chef, Steve Smith – who earned his first star at age of only 24.
Before our lavish seven-course tasting menu, we enjoyed a cocktail from the sleek adjoining bar. I was really impressed by my champagne mojito with Havana Club Rum. The cocktail and wine list were both extensive and the staff, friendly and knowledgeable, were able to recommend wines to match our food.
I couldn’t fault the delicate menu at Bohemia, which was enjoyable down to the fluffy bread with seaweed butter. The sirloin steak with wasabi was particularly good.
On our last morning the sun came out and we had time to sneak in a final walk down to the harbour at St Helier. Perhaps the bad weather had been a blessing in disguise as it prompted us to learn a little more about the history of this fascinating island.