Jersey: Channelling island life
Jersey is close enough, British enough and continental enough to make a unique family break, says Pól Ó Conghaile.
Think of a holiday island within easy reach of Ireland, and places like Majorca, Ibiza and Sardinia spring to mind. But there's an intriguing prospect a lot closer to home - one that seduces with quiet charm and idiosyncrasies rather than UV rays, aquaparks and apartment blocks.
That island is, of course, Jersey.
A quiet little skipping stone set between England and France, Jersey measures just nine miles from end to end. It is at once quintessentially English (red telephone boxes, 30mph speed limits) and charmingly continental (French street names).
This is a place in which you "potter" and "tootle". Undulating countryside and ravishing coastal views cast a gentle spell, lulling you into the trim and tidy atmosphere. It's Dorset via the Dordogne, and a week is just enough for our family to explore.
COAST and CASTLES
We rented a car at the airport, drove almost every inch of the island, and returned it less than a week later with barely half a tank of petrol consumed.
Jersey is that small. Stashed-away spots like St Ouen's Bay (crawling with surfers), Bouley Bay (home to the island's dive school) and Piemont Bay (where a lovely little café overlooks a cove cut into the cliffs) make it feel like a much bigger and more diverse proposition, however - and that's a large part of its charm.
Then there are the castles.
Several scenic piles cling to coastal outcrops around Jersey, harking back to the island's Anglo Norman heritage. Mount Orgeuil (www.jerseyheritage.org; £11.50/€14.60) was our favourite, spending its retirement after 600 years fending off French invasion by welcoming ooh and aahing tourists.
Views rock and staircases spiral, but our little ones were happiest dressing up in the knight and princess costumes provided for kids.
SUN, SEA & SAND
Jersey won't slap you with 30-degree sunshine. What it will do, however, is alternate cool breezes, the odd spit of rain and temperatures edging into the 20s … I'd compare it to Brittany, without the 14-hour ferry ride.
It also has several mouth-watering beaches - the best of which were, for us, the neighbouring coves of Portlet and Beauport near St Brelade's. Both are accessed via coastal paths long enough to deter the crowds, and both are stunners worthy of the Algarve.
Portlet even boasts its own Martello-style tower on an island 100 yards or so offshore. You can swim out at high tide, or walk across a sandbar when the waters are low. Sea temperatures settle around 18 to 20 degrees in summer, so we were glad to bring our shortie wetsuits - and snorkels.
Jersey wasn't always an idyll.
From 1940 to 1945, the island was occupied by the Nazis, and a visit to the Jersey War Tunnels (www. jerseywartunnels.com; £11.50/€14.60) reminds us just how squeezed and suffocating life was during the war.
There were no great traumas or battles here - instead, the exhibition unfolding in the subterranean chambers tells a story of a long, slow squeeze on hearts and minds. Rationing, uncertainty and distrust clearly took an insidious toll.
The tunnels themselves were built as a barracks and ammunition store, but the most evocative rooms take the shape of an improvised hospital.
The tour covers a kilometre and takes about 1.5 hours to complete, so remember to bring a fleece - the cool temperatures creep up on you.
EAT and DRINK
For such a small island, Jersey has certainly got its foodie act together, with a push on local produce going way further than the fudge, ice-cream and black butter (an apple, cider and spice preserve) you'd expect.
There are two Michelin Star restaurants, for example - one by celeb chef Mark Jordan at the Atlantic Hotel (www.theatlantichotel.com). Elsewhere, La Cantina in St Helier (www.lacantina.co) is a Godsend for coeliacs, with gluten-free pasta and pizza made fresh every day. They do a Nutella pizza for dessert, too.
The little gem we kept coming back to, however, was a plain café in the middle of St Helier's Victorian market. The Pure Charity Café (103-107 Central Market) does yummy baked potatoes stuffed with fillings like prawns, chives and mayo, or chilli con carne (£3.50/€4.40). But the real draw are its cupcakes - topped with what seems like a local sweet shop's entire stock.
ON A RAINY DAY
Rain is never far from the Channel Islands, so it's worth having a day trip up your sleeve. We loved Aqua Splash (www.aquasplash.je) at St Helier's Waterfront Centre.
A lazy river, wave pool, diving area and three water slides amounted to one of the best-run (and cleanest) facilities of its type that I've ever come across.
We returned three times during our week-long holiday.
Need to know
Aer Lingus Regional (www.aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Jersey.
For more ideas on what to see and do on the island, check out www.jersey.com, Discover Jersey's resource for the island. The Jersey Pass (www.jerseypass.com) is the island's discount card. It costs £42/€53 for 48 hours.
For self-catering stays, check Freedom Holidays (www.freedomholidays.com).