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Weekender: Guernsey

From standout seafood to beautifully dramatic coasts, Guernsey is the perfect mix of the faraway and the familiar

Weekender: Guernsey
Guernsey cattle and farmer. Image: Getty

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Winding, hedge-fringed lanes, sunny streets festooned with bunting, bowls of mussels served on tables al fresco: there’s something about the everyday in Guernsey that evokes the cheerful, carefree memories of childhood holidays. It owes this appeal, no doubt, to its charmingly French feel, from its laissez-faire attitude through to its street names — after all, this is where the novelist Victor Hugo happily settled for 15 years during his exile from France.

Visitors today, however, are more likely to find surfers and sunbathers enjoying the beautiful, rugged coastline with its bays and beaches, or walkers taking in the island breeze with coastal walks that snake around the island. And the French still come here — exiled or otherwise — now tempted by the booming foodie scene that’s giving Guernsey its edge: gourmet restaurants sit with vibrant pubs and Parisian-style bistros, while buzzing food festivals brighten up the calendar year after year. And, with a larder heaving with everything from orchard fruits to locally grown oysters, Guernsey is whetting appetites on both sides of the Channel.

A step back in time

Delve into the island’s history with a visit to Castle Cornet and its museums; its history stretches from its origins under King John, through the English Civil War to its use as a military storehouse during Nazi occupation. Don’t miss Hauteville House, the former home of French novelist Victor Hugo, banished from his homeland in the 19th century for anti-Napoleonic views.

Bon appetit

Guernsey is best-known for its creamy milk, but attention is turning to the rest of its larder. The island has a flourishing food scene with some 200 restaurants. Hunt down a slice of Guernsey gâche (a light, panettone-like bread) at breakfast before tucking into fresh bream or sole for dinner, served with zesty greens picked from the coast. tasteguernsey.gg

Three to try: A glass of Guernsey

Beer
As Guernsey’s only craft beer brewery, White Rock offers a handful of quality beers served in pubs around the island. Try Wonky Donkey, a light, well-balanced bitter whose name is a nod to the islanders’ nickname (donkeys).

Gin
The Wheadon family offer a range of handcrafted, small batch gins, infused with the likes of pink grapefruit, mandarin limes grown on one of the island’s vineries and local rock samphire.

Cider
At its beautifully bucolic farm in the Fauxquets Valley, the family-made Rocquette cider is a real taste of Guernsey — the art of cider-making on the island dates back to the 1500s.

Small talk

Bian v’nue! Although English is spoken all over, the local tongue of Guernsey French — Dgèrnésiais — is a close cousin of Norman French, though nowadays only spoken by around 2-3% of islanders.

Locally caught bream. Image: Getty

Locally caught bream. Image: Getty

Eyewitness: Gourmet Guernsey

“Pull a little harder,” says Mandy. “Don’t be shy, she doesn’t mind!”

I hadn’t expected to be milking a goat when I first arrived at Mandy and Peter Girard’s farm. “Friendly, isn’t she?” she laughs. I can hardly disagree; even with my poor efforts, the nanny hasn’t scarpered yet.

What started out as an attempt to keep the golden Guernsey goats’ dwindling population stable has turned into a rather delicious venture for the Girards. “For people who live on the island who can’t consume cow’s milk, there isn’t much choice,” says Mandy. “So, we decided to start making our own goat’s cheese from the milk.” After cooing at the frolicking kid goats, we head inside where she treats me to a wedge of cheese. It’s creamy, mild and smooth; far less astringent than most varieties. “The boys give off pheromones that can affect the nannies’ milk if they’re in the same pen. So we keep the billies and nannies separate.”

But the golden Guernseys — a breed unique to this little island — are just the starters in Guernsey’s flourishing foodie scene. I head down to Guernsey Oysters, jutting out into the harbour of St Peter Port, where I’m offered a glimpse into the intricate practice of oyster growing. It’s a far cry from the white marble caviar bars and beds of crushed ice I’ve come to associate these little bivalves with; I’m standing with the company’s Justin De Carteret and Charlotte Dickson in their overalls and wellies, hands deep in a tank of cold seawater. Charlotte talks me through the long and careful process of farming oysters, which can take up to 18 months, from the tiny specks of shell known as ‘seedlings’, through to purification and exportation. Even though the oysters are sold as far away as Canada and Japan, the farmers take immense pride in their local product. “Not many places can say they have a completely local product, either,” says Justin with a smile. “These beauties have their beginning, middle and end here. All of the oysters we eat on Guernsey are grown, harvested and sold within 10 miles.”

As we pull up a chair at Octopus, a chic seafront restaurant just across the harbour, Justin’s oysters are rolled out before us, nestled upon a tangle of fresh seaweed. They look almost beautiful in their silvery, moon-like shells, but I’m no expert and have little idea how to tackle the king of shellfish; there’s Tabasco, shallot vinegar, sea salt and lemon laid out on the table. I’m encouraged to chug it fresh first, as I prise the meat away from the shell. Obediently, I do, left with a gentle breath of the sea lingering on my palate. Gazing out across the bright blue Channel, I’m sure they taste even better when served with views like these. Food certainly doesn’t get fresher than this.

How to do it

Aurigny flies to Guernsey from various UK airports including Manchester, Southampton and Gatwick from £139. Standard doubles at the Ziggurat Hotel in St Peter Port start from £110, B&B. visitguernsey.com

Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)