Not many countries consider a wetsuit their national costume and pier-jumping their national sport, but so it is in Jersey.
At least that’s what activity instructor Derek says as he hands my son and me wetsuits and kayaks.
Minutes later his point is proven when we paddle towards the bay’s headland and a towering rock stack. Wetsuited youngsters are clambering all over it and, once they reach the top, off they leap.
Jo Kessel and her son explore the great outdoors of Jersey. She writes: ‘Landlubbers will delight in miles of unblemished beaches, while for daredevils there’s surfing, paddleboarding, pier-jumping… you name it’ (stock image)
It’s a popular misconception that this largest of the Channel Islands is a sedate sort of place – a wealthy tax haven which attracts those of a certain vintage. The reality is that it’s a mecca for outdoor pursuits, ideal for families and teens, which is exactly what Gabriel and I have come to experience.
While Jersey is part of the British Isles, it is closer to France – 14 miles from Saint-Malo in Brittany, to be precise. And because it was under Normandy rule until the 13th Century, it has a French legacy. Street names are in both English and French, and the capital, St Helier, has a boules court to match those in Paris or Saint-Tropez.
What’s particularly striking about the landscape here is the intensity of the colours, from its powder-white beaches to its striking blue waters to its labyrinthine seascape of jagged granite rock stacks tinged every shade of red imaginable. ‘When people see photos of Jersey’s coastline, they presume they’ve been photoshopped,’ says Derek.’ But they haven’t. This is how Jersey looks.’
Jo bases herself at Merton Hotel in St Helier, the capital of Jersey (pictured). The hotel is ‘family-friendly with large rooms’ and a ten-minute walk from the beach
Above: Jo and her son Gabriel (above) go on a two-hour kayak excursion from St Brelade’s Bay
Take a two-hour kayak excursion from St Brelade’s Bay and you’ll navigate this rocky seascape, occasionally squeezing through gaps barely wider than your boat. Jersey has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world – twice a day at low tide the island swells to double its size – which means the vista on your return can look completely different.
Whatever the tide, however, the water’s so clear that a tangle of sea spaghetti can always be seen swaying from the seabed. Derek pulls up a clump to taste. It’s salty, crunchy and would go nicely with fish.
Our base is St Helier’s Merton Hotel, a ten-minute walk from the beach. It’s family-friendly with large rooms, a tennis court and such huge indoor and outdoor pools that there’s really no need to leave. But at just nine miles by five, this island is so easy to get around that it’s a shame not to explore, with nothing too far or too crowded.
Along the south coast, a former railway line has been converted into a cycle path and walking trail which is best experienced by hiring an electric bike from opposite the capital’s bus station. You’ll pedal past sandy beaches, quaint fishing villages and vegetation so tropical (spot the palms and birds of paradise) that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in the Caribbean.
The Crab Shack in St Brelade’s Bay makes a great pit stop, serving tacos irresistibly packed with crab, avocado, garlicky yogurt and a chilli kick.
The island’s north is more rugged and windswept and best sampled from one of the many clifftop hiking trails that climb and dip as waves crash into the rocks way below.
Veer inland and you’ll find field upon field of Jersey Royal potatoes. And wherever you are, there are signs advertising ‘Real Jersey Ice-Cream’. To spot the famous cows whose creamy milk is used to make it, however, is another matter.
The island has a (human) population of 100,000, but nobody seems to know where the cows are, until we visit the 13th Century hilltop Mont Orgueil Castle. The lady at the kiosk knows exactly where to find a cow – she fishes a £1 note out of her pocket (Jersey has its own currency) and points to its watermark. You can guess its design!
This castle is steeped in history, and were it not for Sir Walter Raleigh it would not be standing today. In 1600, Elizabeth I sent him to destroy it, but he refused, declaring it too impressive. Centuries later it was a favourite of Queen Victoria and from its battlements, on a clear day, it’s possible to see across to France.
Historic: Above is the 13th Century Mont Orgueil Castle that looms over the port of Gorey. Jo discovers from its battlements, on a clear day, it’s possible to see across to France
The island’s biggest attraction is its diversity. Landlubbers will delight in miles of unblemished beaches, while for daredevils there’s surfing, paddleboarding, pier-jumping… you name it.
Foodies are also in for a treat, with restaurants using the freshest of local ingredients. Particularly memorable for melt-in-the-mouth meat is the 12-hour slow-cooked beef brisket at BJ’s Brewhouse.
And a visit to the War Tunnels is a must. Jersey was occupied during the Second World War and the tunnels, built by the Germans as their HQ, are now a museum, showing how islanders survived and died during the occupation.
Jo ventures to Devil’s Hole, an eerie blowhole that has been eroded into Jersey’s coastline over the millennia (pictured). She describes the sight as ‘ethereal’
We save the biggest thrill till last – a RIB speedboat sea safari. The boat kicks up spray as it races through the water and passengers whoop with glee whenever it banks sharply. The safari passes German forts and uninhabited islands called Les Ecrehous, but the highlight is entering a cave that looks out on to an eerie blowhole called Devil’s Hole. It has been eroded into Jersey’s coastline over the millennia and, despite its ominous-sounding moniker, it looks ethereal.
‘That was brilliant,’ says Gabriel as we disembark.
And that’s our verdict on Jersey, too.
Jo Kessel was a guest of Jersey Tourist Board (jersey.com). B&B at Merton Hotel costs from £86 per night (mertonhotel.com). Return flights from London with British Airways cost from £71 (ba.com). Return sailings on Condor Ferries from Poole and Portsmouth to Jersey cost from £65pp (condorferries.co.uk).