MICHELLE TOMPKINS finds Guernsey is sure to put a smile on your face

IT is said the French poet and author Victor Hugo was inspired to write his masterpiece Les Misérables while in exile on Guernsey, but quite how he got in the mood for the dark and desperate tale is beyond me.

Without exception, the people we met on the island were the sunniest, most courteous and obliging folk we’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter. To describe them as ‘nice’ smacks of damning with faint praise, but that’s the word which sprang to mind time and time again during our stay.

All credit to Hugo’s exceptional imagination for conjuring up the bleak life of French peasantry told so vividly in Les Mis, all the while mingling among this cheerful bunch.

We were lucky enough to have brilliant blue skies for our weekend on this second largest of the Channel Islands, and admittedly a few rays of sunshine can tinge anything with a golden glow.

Our decision to take our bikes across on Condor’s Poole to St Peter Port ferry proved a wise one, and as we pedalled around the coastline with the sun on our backs and the wind in our faces, it seemed we were discovering an idyll where stress simply doesn’t exist.

Road rage? No such thing here, where motorists observe (not exploit) a take-it-in-turns filter system at road junctions, waving one another on cheerily. Speeding? We saw none of it; drivers seemed happy to crawl patiently behind us slower cyclists until it was safe to overtake. Feeling peckish? Just stop off at one of the roadside ‘hedge veg’ honesty stalls for some home grown produce. Just don’t forget to leave your money in the slot.

I don’t know whether it’s the relative wealth of its 62,000 citizens (the Channel Islands have lower Income Tax and no Capital Gains, Inheritance Tax or VAT) or the comparatively mild climate (a couple of degrees warmer than the rest of the UK thanks to the Gulf Stream), but everyone seems to have a smile on their face and a good word to say. And luckily for holidaymakers, all that happiness can be pretty infectious.

Even cycling the circumference of the island didn’t dampen our spirits, as it’s not as gruelling as it might sound. At 12 miles by nine, Guernsey has around 30 miles of coastline, most of it fairly flat, which meant we managed to complete the whole circuit in a day, albeit a slightly sore but satisfying one.

From our hotel in the capital of St Peter Port we chose a clockwise route, thankfully getting the longest and steepest hill behind us early as we set off on a mission to see as many of the island’s 27 beaches and bays as possible.

First on the agenda, though, was a visit to the German Occupation Museum, a fascinating if sobering look at what life was like for islanders during World War II.

The Channel Islands were the only part of British territory to be occupied by the Germans during the war and, consequently, life was very harsh for those who decided not to evacuate.

This recently-extended museum doesn’t so much tell the story of the occupation – a job done so admirably by the War Tunnels museum on Jersey – but instead bombards visitors with display upon display of artefacts donated by the people who lived through it, from orders, permits and censored newspapers to diaries telling of subterfuge and whistle-blowing among neighbours. It serves to build up a very human picture of the war, and a moving one for that.

We could easily have spent hours examining every piece of ephemera, but the bikes beckoned and we pressed on towards Rocquaine Bay and the L’Eree headland, a stunning stretch of beach on the west side of the island. The plan was to cycle across the cobbled causeway to Lihou Island but we hit the tide at the wrong time and all we could do was look across to the tiny dot of land from the coastline... or swim, of course, although that’s not to be recommended.

Another few miles on and it was time for lunch and a spot of sunbathing at Cobo Bay, a popular family beach thanks to the fine sand and shallow water. Apparently, it’s the done thing to settle yourself on the Cobo wall at sunset, with a bag of fish and chips in hand, and watch as the scarlet sun sizzles into the horizon. With half of our journey still to complete before nightfall, we had to be satisfied with a ham sandwich and a cuppa and get on our way, but I’d love to go back some time to see the show.

The north-east of the island seems more industrial than the rest and, as if in keeping with the surrounds, the clouds drew in and the skies darkened for the first time all day as we completed the final leg of our journey back to St Peter Port. Five minutes before hitting our hotel, the heavens opened and our leisurely ride became a race to see who could make it to the bath first.

Our base for the weekend was the very comfortable Les Rocquettes Hotel, built in 1765 as a country mansion. In 1946 the house was transformed into an hotel by the Johnson family, who continued to own and run the hotel until 1996, until the building was acquired by the Sarnia Hotels – a family-owned hotel group which has three hotels in the Guernsey capital.

In recent years, Les Rocquettes has been substantially enlarged to include more bedrooms, a function room and a health suite with an indoor pool and gym.

But the very best thing about the hotel is its proximity to the town centre – about a five-minute walk to every bar, restaurant and shop you could ever want, including several selling the island’s seafood delicacy, the ormer. Ormers are only available to collect on a specified number of low tides each year when hardy islanders spend hours wading through rock pools and over-turning seaweed in secret spots along Guernsey’s coastline.

There are strict rules on collecting them, though, in order to protect future supplies – they are only collected on a handful of dates between January and April, so we missed out.

Instead, determined to have a lazy day after our exertions, we opted for fish and chips sat on a bench overlooking the pretty harbour in St Peter Port, before wandering (very slowly) up the road to Victor Hugo’s former residence, Hauteville House, which has been kept exactly as he lived in it in the mid-1800s while in exile for opposing the coup d’état of Napoléon III.

The writer decorated the property himself and almost all of the furniture and works of art remain in place as a testament to his flair for interior design. He also wrote some of his most important works while looking out at the sparkling waters of Havelet Bay, including La Légende des Siecles, Les Chansons des rues et des bois and, of course, Les Misérables.

As a fan of the stage adaptation, I couldn’t wait to see the place where the masterpiece was penned, to get a feel for this extraordinary man and how he lived his life, but sadly it was not to be. It turned out that, such is the interest in Hauteville House, tours need to be booked during the summer months... and the next one was an hour after our ferry was leaving.

Which made me tres Misérables indeed.

Travel facts

A classic double room at Les Rocquettes starts from £90.00 – £144.00 per night for two people including breakfast and use of the Health Suite www.lesrocquettesguernsey.com/ 01481 722146 Condor Ferries operates a year-round fast ferry service to Guernsey from Weymouth, Poole and Portsmouth. Prices start from £50pp for a car and two passengers each way. For reservations visit Condorferries.com or call 0845 609 1024 For further information on Guernsey: www.visitguernsey.com