Did you miss us? We just returned from a wonderful long weekend in Jersey and I’m beginning to get my thoughts in order! Jersey, or as it is officially known, the Bailiwick of Jersey, is the largest of the Channel Islands and a unique mix of British, French and local history and tradition. While historically linked to the United Kingdom, and still dependent on it for its defense, today’s Jersey is a vibrant self-governing parliamentary democracy. Islanders are proud both of their own unique identity and of their British and Normand French heritage. Originally part of the Duchy of Normandy, Jersey stayed loyal to William the Conqueror when he became King of England. While William’s descendents lost Normandy to the French Kings, Jersey remained loyal to its Duke and England leading to today’s unique relationship. Many roads and place names, however, are still in French and remnants of jersiais or Jersey French remain even if the language itself has been driven to an extreme minority status.
Like the other Channel Islands, Jersey is accessible via ferry or plane. We took Condor Ferries from Saint Malo to Saint Helier, Jersey’s capital and main port. It takes a little over an hour (1:20) to sail between the two cities with Condor’s high-speed ferry. We discovered Condor last November on our day trip to Guernsey and were impressed with their service. Once again, staff on-board were helpful, pleasant and the trip went by in a flash. It’s worth going out on the deck for at least a few minutes. You don’t realize just how fast you’re traveling until you’re standing outside feeling the wind whipping your face. While Laura loved it, Elise had only one desire, get back inside after the wind literally knocked her down. She spent the rest of the trip inside playing with our fellow passengers.
I didn’t have to set foot on the island to get my first impressions of Jersey, the friendly and hospital nature of Jersey’s people was already evident on the ferry. We sat across from a Jersey couple returning from their French vacation. Children being natural ice breakers, we soon were talking together. They went out of their way to give us advice on things to see, where to get groceries, and where to take the girls. We ran into this open and helpful attitude across the island–from the woman at the bus station desk to the grocery store clerk, from the elderly grandmother on the bus next to us to the café owner who helped us out after serving me the best cream tea ever, people were genuinely friendly and happy to help us. I mention this because I’ve become cynical over time and am more used to hospitality being limited to those with expense accounts and money to spare.
The ferry drops you off at Elizabeth Terminal, a short walk from downtown Saint Helier and the Tourist Information Office. We stopped there on the way to our hotel. The office is well-staffed and, as its name suggests, full of information. Most helpfully, the woman who we talked with gave us a wonderful tool–a one-page Excel spreadsheet listing all the major open attractions, their prices (adult, child, etc.), opening hours and bus lines! When I’m out and about, I like to carry the absolute minimum I need to get through the day, in this respect, the Tourist Office’s “cheat sheet” was perfect. She also talked about the Jersey Pass, a card which lets you into the majority of the island’s tourist attractions. I particularly appreciated how she talked about the Pass without being pushy. The card is available in 2, 4, or 6 consecutive day versions. The more days you buy, the better the discount. Based on our sightseeing plans, we ended up buying a 2-day card for 39£.
Jersey uses its own Pound which trades at the same rate as British Pounds. While British Pounds are accepted on the island and in the UK, Jersey pounds are limited to the island. Don’t expect to pay in Euros; while a few shops/attractions do accept the common European currency, the majority do not. It’s easy to withdraw money or exchange currencies and credit/debit cards are widely accepted. In addition to minting its own money, Jersey has its own postal system and great stamps for collectors and amateur stamp lovers alike. Most tourist attractions sell stamps for island, UK, and EU destinations. Those looking for stamps for the rest of the world will have to stop by the post office itself.
We started our sightseeing with Mont Orgueil Castle and perfect weather. Mont Orgueil sits perched above the seaside village of Gorey. Easily accessible by bus (Bus 1 from Liberation Station to Gorey Pier), the castle dominates the Channel and surrounding area. The castle is naturally protected on three sides thanks to the surrounding cliffs and the sea. We left our strollers down at the end of the pier and started the climb to the top. If you are coming with small children, you either need to carry them or convince them to climb the stairs to the top. The castle is not stroller friendly. Even if you’re tempted to carry your stroller up to the castle, don’t–there are also plenty of stairways to navigate within the castle itself. We took our time going up and both girls did fine.
Today’s castle dates from the 13th century and was built to protect the island against the French. The Channel Islands were on the frontline of the Hundred Year’s War between England and France. Jersey Heritage runs the castle and all their sites participate in the Jersey Pass scheme. We showed our cards to the woman manning the entrance booth and headed inside. Young children enjoy free admission and we didn’t pay entrance fees for either of the girls anywhere on the island. Signs in English and French explain key architectural and historical details. Laura and Elise enjoyed being able to run around the castle courtyard. The stocks caught their attention–Elise was so small her feet didn’t even reach the sitting stocks! All of the Heritage sites we visited had children’s activities. Mont Orgueil lets children dress up and pretend their princes, princesses and knights in shining armor. Never underestimate the power of dress-up! Both girls got into pretending to be medieval characters and actually enjoyed the entire visit.
The inside of the castle is filled with modern artwork that seeks to bring the castle’s history to life. Art installations cover everything from the results of medieval warfare to the tangled British and French royal family trees. The family tree definitely got people’s attention. I spent five minutes sitting in the room just watching people’s reactions as they walked in and saw it. Creepy but interesting seemed to be the consensus of the people I talked to! Each of the heads is an actual historical figure and panels near the tree allow you to put names to faces. As you work your way through the rooms, the art surrounds and surprises you. Elise and Laura’s favorite was the griffin (?) hanging half-hidden in the castle. When you finally reach the top of Mont Orgeuil, you are rewarded with one of the most beautiful panoramas possible–look out across the Channel, down at the village, across the beach and just enjoy the view. French, English, British, and Nazi German flags have all flown here. Today, Jersey’s own flag proudly flies over Mont Orgueil. A wonderful symbol of an island we were just getting to know! More soon…