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A scatter of clean, green islands

Costa Rica

Proudly British, and yet only nine miles from France at their closest point, the Channel Islands are one of the most distinctive destinations you can visit without going abroad. I check out some insular singularity, including car-free roads, some of the cleanest beaches in Britain, a world-class zoo and the house where Les Miserables was written.

Wild haven

Jersey, the biggest of the Channel Islands, boasts an outstanding example of nature conservation. The Durrell Conservation Centre (set up in 1959 by naturalist Gerald Durrell, and formerly Jersey Zoo) breeds rare and endangered creatures to a point where they safely return them to the wild. Two of their glittering success stories are the Mauritius falcon and the pygmy hog, now back in their native habitat. New this year (2009 at the centre is the Meerkat enclosure, with more room for the animals. [Op cut : As part of their training for the wild, tamarins and marmosets have an outdoor area to practice climbing. The gorilla family, at Durrell since it opened, is one of the symbols of the park.] Jersey’s other main draw this year is a clutch of nine impeccably clean beaches, given the top award in the latest Good Beach Guide (2009.)

Home for Hugo

Victor Hugo lived in exile in Hauteville House on Guernsey between 1856 and 1870. I climbed to his glass lookout, high above St Peter Port, where the greatest French 19th Century author scaled the summits of romantic writing and brought us back Les Miserables.
If the sun was shining, he peeled everything off, poured a jug of water over his head and sat down to compose the adventures of Valjean and Gavroche au naturel. Hugo’s old home, now owned by the City of Paris, contains a wealth of chests, sideboards, carpets, mirrors, crockery and figurines he found on his trips around the island. Guernsey cornered the best of the Hugo story – an imposing statue in Candie Gardens shows him head on to the wind, coat billowing, fedora in hand.

Rare wreck

Alderney, third largest of the Channel Islands, has a growing claim to historical fame. In 1977 a fisherman discovered
an Elizabethan Wreck (they’re still uncertain about its name) believed to have foundered on a reef off the northeast coast around 1592. It was carrying military supplies, for Elizabeth I''s war with Spain. This is the only ship from those crucial years of England’s burgeoning maritime might to be found and excavated in British waters. Only the Mary Rose (on display in Portsmouth) is more important. As divers bring up yet more pieces from the ship – including the rudder, a cannon, muskets ,breast-plates and helmets - they are conserved and displayed at Alderney Museum. Other attractions on the island include the lighthouse, open to the public, and the Channel Islands’ only railway. It gives scenic trips in two old London Underground carriages.

High thrills

Sark, smallest of the four main islands, holds one of their most exciting features. La Coupée is a natural causeway (safely fenced in), 240 feet above the sea and only 9 feet wide, linking Great Sark and Little Sark. Walk it on a misty day, and you could imagine yourself on the Great Wall of China. Much of this famously car-free island, ringed with caves and huge, stern rocks massed off-shore, is a few hundred feet above sea level. There are fine views from cliff tops, where the air is sweet with coconut-scented gorse flowers, down over quiet bays, full of birdlife. There are several good places to stay and eat, well provisioned from the local sea. This was the last place in Europe to abolish feudalism, in 2008. See the old order at La Seigneurie, official home of the Seigneurs of Sark. It has one of finest gardens in the Islands, open to the public.

Sea stroll

Herm, the smallest of the Islands open to the public, featured recently in ITV’s series Islands of Britain, when Martin Clunes called in on his search for insular paradise. 15 minute from Guernsey by catamaran, and it outdoes its pedestrian-friendly neighbour Sark by banning bicycles as well as cars. It’s only 1½ miles long and less than half a mile wide, so everywhere is an easy walk. The coastal path connects the many splendid beaches. Shell Beach and Belvoir Bay, the main two, are never really crowded. Herm is awash with wild flowers - it won the 2008 Britain in Bloom competition in the Small Coastal Resort category. Look out for royal fern (peculiar to Herm), horned poppies, wild iris, and white campion, which grows between the boulders marking field boundaries. Don’t miss St Tugual''s Chapel, with its restored stained glass window.

Fine art

The great French artist Renoir painted 15 canvasses in 1883 around Guernsey’s Moulin Huet Bay. He loved this coast, for its bold shapes and bright colours. His Guernsey oil paintings are in the world’s best galleries. (There’s one in our National Gallery.) Little has changed since then on this exquisite coast, where quiet bays and exhilarating clifftop walks are linked by many miles of ancient high-sided, flower-filled country lanes. I took the round island bus (service 7, all tickets 60p), then headed back to St Peter Port for tea and cake - Guernsey Gâche - naughtily smothered in rich Guernsey butter. There are many good restaurants featuring the catch from the rich local waters. One washing-it-down option is local Rocquette cider.

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