Part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, a British Crown Dependency, Alderney is closer to France than any other Channel Island – a fact that is reflected in its Norman French patois. At three-and-a-half miles long, and a mile-and-a-half wide, the island is home to around 2,000 people and an abundance of wildlife, particularly northern gannets and puffins, which are present in large numbers from mid-March to mid-July during the breeding season. Dolphins and seals are regularly spotted out on the waters too.
Alderney was occupied by the German army during World War Two and became part of Hitler’s famous defensive Atlantic Wall. As a result, 655 concrete bunkers dot the shoreline. Some have been turned into beachside retreats, others lie empty, reminding us how Europe imploded in the early 20th century. Today, islanders enjoy a virtually crime-free, peaceful life – it’s illegal for an ice cream van to sound its siren after 6pm, for example. The capital, St Anne, has a time-forgotten feel, with bunting hung over the cobbled streets, early closing on Saturdays and a go-slow vibe that is catching. To the west of the island, beyond Casquets Reef, the next stop is Newfoundland, some 2,500 miles away, giving Alderney a palpable sense of remoteness.
8am FAREWELL MAINLAND
We’re up early to catch the 8.35am flight from Gatwick to Guernsey to make the most of a spring weekend. Just over an hour later we’ve arrived in the Channel Islands and are about to board a much smaller plane for the 20-minute buzz over to Alderney.
12pm WORRIES FALL AWAY
A taxi picks us up at Alderney airport and five minutes later we’re at Braye Beach Hotel – our base for the weekend. The hotel’s location is superb, overlooking Braye Harbour, where yachts and dinghies bob and sparkle on the water. Famished after our early start, we eat in the Brasserie Restaurant, gazing out on the calm blue waters and crescent beach. We refuel on a tasty Nicoise salad with seared tuna steak and new spuds, £14 for a main dish portion.
2pm ISLAND TOUR
We’ve booked onto a two-hour wildlife minibus tour with Alderney Tours, run by John Horton (£15 per adult, alderneytours.co.uk), who is also in charge of Alderney Bird Observatory – the island is one of Europe’s top 10 migration stations. John drives slowly out of St Anne onto rugged country roads, providing a commentary on the seabirds that flock here. These include northern gannets with a 6ft wingspan, Atlantic puffins from Greenland that raft together when they arrive, darting guillemots and razorbills, storm petrels, and three types of gull – herring, lesser black-backed and greater black-backed. In April, avian visitors include migrating white storks, cranes, hoopoes, spotted flycatchers and golden oriels that get blown off course coming up from Africa.
3pm FLOWER FEAST
John tells us that the island is a haven for flora and fauna as we view Saye Bay (pronounced ‘soy’), Corblets Bay and Longis Reserve (pronounced ‘lonjy’). ‘There are 1,200 species of wild flowers here on the island – 20 times more than anywhere else in the UK. In the island’s biggest wildflower meadow there are 300 species growing – I’ve not seen the clouds of butterflies it attracts since I was a child,‘ says John. No pesticides are used on the island, which helps to explain why it is also a moth magnet, with 800-plus species aflutter, second only in variety to Dorset’s Isle of Portland, known to aficionados as ‘Moth Central’.
6pm FORT WALK
Back at Braye Beach Hotel, we have a reviving pot of tea as we contemplate the seabirds, wildflowers and German bunkers we have learnt about. As the sun starts to lower in the sky we walk over to Tourgis Battery No 3, a Victorian fort completed in 1855, designed to defend Alderney against the French Navy. Over the last few years, volunteers at the Alderney Wildlife Trust have cut back the brambles to turn the fort into a community playground. We’re lucky enough to catch a barbecue put on by The Blond Hedgehog, a new boutique hotel in St Anne. We sip red wine happily and munch burgers and griddled veggies as the sun goes down.
9pm WILDLIFE HUNT
As the light fades we join a bat and hedgehog hunt with the Alderney Wildlife Trust (£6 per adult, on Tuesdays from April to October, book at alderneywildlife.org). Tonight, Roland Gauvain is at the helm, the knowledgeable CEO of the trust who is descended from an old Alderney family. Among the fields and hedgerows behind the fort, we hold aloft bat detectors and are rewarded by a Morse Code-like sputter – a pipistrelle bat fly-past as they catch some of the 3,000 midges they eat per night. Afterwards, we walk up into St Anne – a hive of blonde hedgehog activity. Around 800 hogs here are believed to be derived from pet hedgehogs that were brought to the island in the 1960s, and which carried a genetic variation resulting in blond spines. We visit a garden hotspot that Roland knows about and come snout to snout with a blondie caught in torchlight. We ooh and ahh for a few minutes then walk over to the Butes park, another hog heaven, to see several more of these snuffly creatures.
10am TWO WHEELS GOOD
After breakfast we walk up into St Anne to hire some electric bikes from Cycle & Surf (£14 per day, cycleandsurf.co.uk). I feel a little apprehensive but the bike is easy to operate and soon I whizz along the roads and, even better, hills with ease. Within two hours we’ve cycled through Longis Common to get to Mannez Lighthouse – where we bump into John Horton doing some bird ringing – then back past Corblets Bay, Saye Bay and onto the giant breakwater at Braye Harbour. Back in St Anne we feel we’ve earned our lunch of baby leaf salad and crab cakes at convivial hotel, The Georgian House, mains from £10 (georgianalderney.com).
12pm SEABIRD SAFARI
We’re booked onto the Alderney Wildlife Trust’s boat Sula for a two-hour chug around the island and its archipelago of uninhabited islets, Burhou and Little Burhou (where the puffins live), Les Etacs and Coque Lihou – all major seabird sites. Once more, our guide is Roland Gauvain who is a stream of fascinating Alderney facts. Boat tours run every Wednesday and Saturday, from March to October, costing £25 per adult (alderneywildlife.org).
2pm GLORIOUS GANNETS
Gingerly, we cross The Swinge, the strait between Alderney and Burhou known for its racing tidal waters, to look at puffins on Burhou. Result! We get puffins and seals, and watch them for 20 minutes at a polite distance. Then, Sula turns south towards Les Etacs where some 5,900 pairs of Northern gannets nest and rear their young each year – the largest gannet colony in the Channel. There’s a cacophony of sound as we approach the giant rocks, packed with gannets landing and taking off. ‘Anything between three and 50 gannets go out together on foraging trips,’ says Roland. ‘They fly at 30 miles an hour and can make up to 150-mile round trips to find the two to three pounds of fish they need.’ From the boat we see several squadrons flying low over the water, a magnificent, unforgettable sight.
7pm A DAY TO REMEMBER
That evening, over cocktails at the Braye Beach Hotel, we feel immersed in Alderney’s spectacular world of nature. For dinner, we eat sirloin steak, frites and salad with an excellent bottle of red in The Vaults steakhouse, downstairs. Now all that remains is to enjoy a day on sandy Braye Beach before we go home.
NEED TO KNOW
coast stayed at the four-star Braye Beach Hotel, a platinum room with beach view starts at £131 per night, B&B. The hotel has three restaurants (0800 2800550, brayebeach.com).
The Blond Hedgehog is a new boutique hotel St Anne. There are seven luxurious rooms, two suites, and a cottage, from £230 per room per night (01481 823230, blondehedgehog.com).
HOW TO GET THERE
FLY. Aurigny offers direct flights to Guernsey from London Gatwick and Stansted, Southampton, Bristol, East Midlands, Manchester, Leeds/Bradford and Norwich. One-way flights from Guernsey to Alderney start from £64pp. (aurigny.com).
FLY AND FERRY. The Little Ferry Company offers an inter-island Guernsey to Alderney passenger ferry service from the end of May to the end of September. It runs twice a day all week. Tickets start from £40 (thelittleferrycompany.com).
FERRY TO GUERNSEY. Condor Ferries’ high-speed Condor Liberation ferry sails from Poole to Guernsey in three hours, from £35 one way (for a foot passenger). The conventional ferry from Portsmouth takes seven hours. There is a daily service between April and September (condorferries. co.uk).