The Channel Islands have much more to offer than many people realise, and none more so than the intriguing islands of Sark and Herm. Joe Mourant takes us on a tour to open our eyes to some of the hidden gems and spectacular sights we can find there …
For anyone owning a powerboat here in Jersey, it often seems that we have the best of all possible worlds. Whatever one fancies doing on a given day, the options are here: lunch in France, a cruise to one of our incredible tidal reefs or a visit to one of our neighbouring Channel Islands.
Sark and Herm, in particular, offer wonderful cruising grounds, and can be enjoyed as part of either a flying visit or during a more extended stay. On a swift RIB or powerboat, neither take much more than three quarters of an hour to reach from Jersey’s main port of St Helier, and on a calm sunny day it’s very common to find oneself in a flotilla with one of the many dolphin pods that follow the currents passing between the islands.
Sark is the larger and better known of the two islands, and famously doesn’t permit any cars (not that there’d be room for any on an island of just 2.1 square miles). While this often tends to be presented as an endearing curiosity by people describing the island, the joy of exploring Sark’s quiet, verdant lanes – with only the odd walker, cyclist or tractor for company – is hard to overstate.
The island’s proximity to Jersey and Guernsey – and its renown with yachtsmen further afield – ensures that in the summer, mooring space around Sark can be very difficult to secure. While a certain number of visitor moorings are provided at Grève de la Ville and le Havre Gosselin, these soon get snapped up, and one would be lucky indeed to find one unoccupied on a sunny weekend. There are several bays, including Dixcart, Derrible and La Grande Grève, that offer very easy anchoring on sandy ground.
The island’s main commercial pier is Maseline, and this is where the hugely dependable ferry link from Guernsey transits several times a day. Other than a set of landing steps, there is not much in the way of facilities. The regular commercial traffic also means that leisure boats mustn’t delay long on the steps, and no tying up is permitted.
There is also a smaller and enclosed harbour called Creux just around the corner, and this has to be one of the most beautiful and unique harbours anywhere in the world. Accessed by passing between two old stone pier heads, it is a small area with soaring cliffs on the shoreside and a tiny beach consisting of small smooth stones, which is simply idyllic at high water. Creux is a little-used option for quick visits due to the small amount of space there, and the need to dry out.
Assuming that a visitor mooring can be located, or one is happy to drop anchor, there are several excellent places for lunch on Sark and a charming main village. However, it is worth pointing out that all of them require a very healthy hike from any mooring or anchorage: from tying up or dropping the hook, it will then take around an hour to get from the boat via tender to shore and on to the restaurant. If one anchors in Dixcart, this offers the shortest walk up through a stunning wooded valley to the restaurant at Stocks Hotel.
While it might sound small enough to explore in just a couple of hours, in fact Sark has a wealth of walks and dozens of very special places to swim. Very few of Sark’s beaches could be described as busy, and none could ever be described as overcrowded. It is perfectly normal to walk down Sark’s very steep coastline to a beach or swimming spot and find no one else is there. While the deep waters surrounding the island are a little colder than those of the neighbouring islands, the water is shockingly clear and swimming is magical.
Perhaps just as rewarding for anyone who wants to stay with their boat, or finds all moorings in use and is reluctant to leave the boat unattended at anchor, is to simply potter around the coast of Sark. Pilotage into a number of its most beautiful bays and anchorages is not challenging, and the soaring cliffs and deep, glassy waters combine to offer on-board vistas while relaxing that are very hard to beat. A particular highlight for a Sark coastal cruise is to travel underneath Point Roberts lighthouse and around to Grève de la Ville. There, one can pass the Banquette Landing, and travel around the northernmost point of Sark, L’Eperquerie Common.
Once around, Brecqhou will hove into view, and it’s impossible not to goggle at the castle that has been built upon it by the island’s billionaire owners. Far from being sympathetic to Brecqhou’s coastline, it looks rather like the results of a morning’s work at arts and crafts by some industrious six-year-olds. However, Sark’s west coast is simply stunning and there are numerous tiny bays where one can happily drop an anchor and enjoy a picnic or a swim. Some, like Port à la Jument, even offer a small area of pristine sand at the bottom of a very low spring tide, so it’s possible to venture ashore to enjoy a private beach for a few hours only a couple of dozen metres from your boat.
There is also the Gouliot Passage to enjoy, which is a narrow channel between Sark and Brecqhou. The tidal race between it can be ferocious, but the scenery is extraordinary and it is a wonderful way to access the anchorage and moorings at le Havre Gosselin if coming around Sark’s northern headland. Le Havre Gosselin itself is yet another indecently attractive area to moor, with huge cliffs, sea caves and views of Brecqhou to enjoy (and from which the castle is happily obscured). Following this path also leads you to another of Sark’s finest places to anchor, La Grande Grève.
This sandy beach – Sark’s largest – sits beneath La Coupée, the narrow isthmus connecting Sark with Little Sark. Not recommended for those with a severe fear of heights, La Coupée is only a few metres across and the views on either side are dizzying. To the west is La Grande Grève beach, which has always been very popular with visiting boaters.
After enjoying some time in Sark, a blast across to the island of Herm for an ice cream or a snack is mandatory. Much smaller than Sark, Herm boasts the famed Shell Beach. This is a hugely popular anchorage with yachtsmen and a magnet for visiting boats – perhaps somewhat to its detriment on sunny weekends and bank holidays when the traffic to and from the beach, with many vessels travelling at fairly high speed, can be incredibly disruptive and makes rafting impossible. This incredible stretch of sand is picturesque almost beyond words, and offers a wonderful detour from Sark. Ice creams and snacks are available from the beach, or from the beach cafe at nearby Belvoir Bay, and both have good sandy ground to drop a hook (although anchors dragging are commonplace and that can very easily spoil an afternoon, as I have discovered there myself the hard way!).
It is a fantastic place to launch a paddleboard or go ashore on a tender, as the beach has huge amounts of landing room and then offers a great access point to walk around to the other side of the island. The beach forms a natural ‘V’ around the tip of Herm, and while there are some challenging reefs if one attempts to round Herm at its northern point, leaving a boat at Shell Beach and making the walk can be a wonderful way to appreciate this enormous beach.
If, as is often the case, upon arrival Shell Beach looks packed out with dozens of boats, one can always travel around the southern part of Herm through the Percée Passage and access the picturesque anchorage off the Rosière Steps. This set of steps is where both the Herm ferry and many visiting boaters land people ashore. The channel features striking views of both Herm and the small neighbouring island of Jethou and Guernsey beyond, and while all the moorings there are private, this anchorage can be a useful location to stop and await sufficient water in Herm’s tiny harbour, or drop an anchor.
When I take guests to Herm on one of our charter trips, this will be where I land them, assuming we arrive around three hours either side of low water. If the tide is much higher than this, the steps will be covered and a very strong southerly current cascades down this sound and makes reaching the area by the steps all but impossible. There are several excellent places to enjoy a fine lunch in the sun once ashore, and there are numerous lovely walks around Herm’s short coastline.
History of Sark
Sark, often described as the ‘Jewel of the Channel Islands’, is part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey. With around 500 residents, it is famously car-free. Bicycles predominate, and horses and carts and the odd tractor can also be seen. At one time it sheltered a small monastic community; however, by the 16th century it had become a den of rogues and pirates. Occupied by the Germans between 1940 and 1945, it was considered Europe’s last feudal state before a change to their governmental system in 2008.
Herm is also part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey. It is just 1.5 miles long and 0.5 miles wide. As in Sark, cars are banned; however, Herm has gone one step further and also prohibits bicycles! Over an average summer it will expect over 100,000 visitors, the vast majority of whom are day trippers from Guernsey. Herm’s small primary school has less than a dozen students, and the island has no resident doctor. A much-loved ambulance launch named the Flying Christine III evacuates medical emergencies from both Herm and Sark.
What to do
Sark and Herm are stress-free havens for lovers of wildlife and the outdoors. Due to the predominance of single-day visitors, many of the islands’ more remote areas are very quiet as people tend to follow the more oft-trodden paths. Sark in particular has numerous bays and beaches, which, while admittedly can be something of a walk to access down the island’s steep coastlines, offer enormous rewards in terms of peace and quiet. Both islands have very highly regarded hotels, including Stocks Hotel (Sark) and The White House (Herm). They also boast high-quality eateries specialising in local seafood. When on Sark, the hiring of bicycles (which can be done from either Avenue Cycles or A-B Cycles) is highly recommended and enables a lot more ground to be covered!
About the Author
Joe Mourant is a skipper and advanced Powerboat instructor at Le Mourier Swim/Sea/Save, the Channel Islands’ largest powerboat training school. With a fleet of charter and training vessels, Le Mourier instructs powerboat and motor yacht cruising from beginner to Yachtmaster level. Le Mourier also offers private powerboat charters, tours and trips, and private pilotage lessons exploring Jersey, the surrounding Channel Islands and the French coast. Visit them at www.lemourier.co.uk.