St. Peter Port, the principal town on the island of Guernsey, charms travelers arriving by sea with its waterfront of grey and white stone buildings interrupted by colorfully painted row houses. The ridge above is fringed with trees and punctuated with church and monument spires. It's a town that beckons visitors down winding streets and leafy alleys, yet its signature landmark -- a fortified castle that sits atop a promontory jutting out into the harbor -- is notable for its more imposing mien.
Guernsey is second-largest of the several Channel Islands located 30 miles west of France's coast of Normandy and 75 miles south of Weymouth on the south coast of England. At 15 miles by six (at its widest point), it is tiny and easily circumnavigated as part of a day trip. It has a population of some 62,000, 16,000 of which live in St. Peter Port. Guernsey is the principal island of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which includes the tiny neighboring islands of Herm, Sark and Alderney.
At the beginning of steam navigation, the island developed into a hugely popular British holiday destination, due to its comparably sunnier climate than the U.K. and warmer waters, lovely beaches, rugged coastline and pastoral scenery that includes the handsome and much-prized Guernsey dairy cows. More recently, the delightful setting and the island's tax benefits have attracted large numbers of off-island Brits to settle there. While its status is of a British Crown Dependency, the islanders have a good deal of independence, and most visibly to tourists, Guernsey has its own coins, banknotes and stamps.
The Channel Islands became a part of the Duchy of Normandy (France) in 933 A.D., but after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when the Dukes of Normandy became the kings of England, the island became English property. When the English monarchy was restored, the islanders were given the choice in 1204 to revert to the French or stay with the English and remain self-governing, which they remain so to this day, with their own legal system, taxes and the aforementioned currency and stamps.
During modern times, Guernsey's most difficult period came during World War II, when the British government stated that it would not protect the Channel Islands from invasion and then gave the population a few days to decide to stay or leave. Half left, mainly women and children, and the number of Germans who came to occupy the island matched the population. They stayed almost five years; and by the occupation's end, the local population and the German soldiers were virtually starving due to a food embargo by the U.K. in an attempt to starve out the occupying force. The Channel Islands were finally liberated some 11 months after the Normandy landings, which ironically were within sight and sound along the nearby French Coast, on the 9th May 1945 -- one day after the rest of Europe as the German commander refused to surrender until the following morning. The German occupation left a large number of sites that can be visited today, including fortifications all along the coast, trenches, bunkers, disused anti-aircraft guns, an underground military hospital and an occupation museum. (And for some pre-trip reading, "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society," a delightful book, brings alive the German occupation period and its aftermath in a series of fictitious letters.)
Today, visitors come to enjoy St. Peter Port's bustling harbor scene, museums and historic attractions, as well as to head out into the countryside and along the coastline for short walks and scenic views. The island also has a number of festivals throughout the year, starting with the May 9th Liberation Day celebrations, and including literary, nautical and culinary events, as well as local shows and carnivals.
Guernsey has become increasingly popular as a cruise ship port of call in recent years, with more than 100 calls scheduled in 2015. The season starts in May and runs through until October as part of round-Britain or Atlantic Island cruises, during repositioning voyages between Northern Europe and the Mediterranean and on short-break trips that leave from Southampton.