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Sark: Channel island small in size, big on beauty

David Hartung
The port of Sark is shown. The island in the English Channel has 42 miles of coastline.
David Hartung Every Friday, Sark residents offer tours of their home gardens.
David Hartung A view from the water of Window in the Rock, a hiking destination on Sark.
David Hartung The islanders are fairly creative when it comes to their garden scarecrows.
David Hartung An up-close view of produce growing in a Sark garden.
David Hartung A still-working lighthouse on Sark, one of the Channel Islands between England and France.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I have a fascination with islands. Part of the magic for me is the unlimited view of sky and sea that islands provide.

On the island of Sark, almost everything you see is magical. Set in the Channel Islands between England and France, Sark is only 3.5 miles by 1.5 miles across its widest point. But it has 42 miles of coastline. Every time I caught a glimpse of the water from a hiking trail or the road, I felt a thrill. Oftentimes, the water was truly aquamarine.

I first learned about Sark from an article in National Geographic. The magazine explained that UNESCO had designated Sark as a "dark island" in recognition of its lack of light pollution.

I love to look at the sky -- day or night. I wanted to have the experience of seeing the night sky without competing manmade lights.

The more I read about Sark, the more I wanted to see it.

The Channel Islands have an interesting history that includes invasion by the Nazis. Some readers may know about that history from the book set on the larger, neighboring island, "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society."

Sark is independent but with an allegiance to England. Yet its French heritage shows up, too, in the names for most of its geography.

Except for tractors, there are no gasoline-powered vehicles on Sark. Everyone walks, bikes or rides in horse-drawn carriages.

I loved Sark from the moment I first saw it, but I had the accidental good fortune to meet some Sark residents even before I set foot on the island.

When my husband, David, and I were planning the trip, we knew we would be taking a ferry to Sark, the only public transportation to and from the island. We also could have taken a ferry from England to Sark, but we opted to save time and fly, via the airline Flybe, from London to the airport at Guernsey.

After a flight of just under an hour, we waited at St. Peter Port with many longtime Sark residents to take the ferry to the island. Just our luck, that day was very stormy. The dock master was not even sure we could cross. So we waited and talked with some Sark residents. To a person, each glowed with the love they have for their island world.

Happily, throughout our visit, we ran into those same people biking, at the grocery store, and at church. They would always stop and talk. They made us feel like we had been incorporated into island life.

When we alighted from our boat on the first day, the fern-covered hillsides rose around us. Tractor operators can take you up the hill, and they will also take your luggage to wherever you are staying. At the top of the hill, we got out of the tractor and started walking to our bed and breakfast.

I immediately liked the looks of the small main street: post office, grocery stores, bike shop, gift shops, cafes. And, of course, flowers everywhere. We found our bed and breakfast with no problem and discovered we were centrally located.

After settling in, we went for our first of many hikes. On our way to the trail marked Les Fontaines, we passed a field occupied by three large horses. With the sun setting around them, the horses took on a magical glow.

A short distance from the horses, the path cut down among ferns and wildflowers. A few feet after we started down the path, I caught my first glimpse of one edge of the island. This just thrilled me each time it happened.

We were extremely fortunate in our choice of bed and breakfast, the Clos Princess. Our hostess, Linda Williams (no relation), served a great breakfast each morning and provided a comfortable room. She also shared her two dogs that were always available for petting and snacks.

As a longtime resident of Sark, she provided us with information about the island -- like the best place to dine and the best boat guide.

I also love maps. With a small island, I liked to think I could explore it all. Our map showed a section of the island called Little Sark. When I first tried to learn about Sark from the Internet, the picture of La Coupee was one of the first places I saw. La Coupee is a high and narrow bridge of land that connects Little Sark with the rest of the island. From the picturesque La Coupee you have wonderful views of the water on both sides.

Our hostess recommended we head to Little Sark for a special meal. The signs from our bed and breakfast told us we would have a 45-minute walk. We passed both churches on Sark on our way and several beautiful stone walls. Daisies, sweet peas, rugosa roses and other wildflowers abound on the island.

We passed some interesting-looking homes with pretty flowerbeds, and then we came to La Coupee, where we saw people below us heading into the water for a swim.

As we approached La Sablonnerie Hotel with its tea garden and restaurant, we saw what turned out to be the back of the bar and restaurant first. It must have been freshly painted white because it absolutely glowed. Past the side of the building, we got our first glimpse of the gardens filed with dahlias and roses. Huge baskets of geraniums and lobelia hung in the front of the building.

We first stepped inside a little alcove lined on both sides with window seats. The maitre d' had just lit a fire. My husband could actually sit inside the fireplace. With a mug of the local Guernsey ale in hand and sitting inside the fire, he was a happy man.

The whole place puts the "A" in atmosphere.

The restaurant and hotel have been upgraded for electrical necessities, but it started from a 400-year-old farmhouse. The family who owns the property has received numerous Rosette Awards, a British organization that honors culinary achievement.

By candlelight, we started with a delicious leek and mushroom soup and finished with a homemade chocolate ice cream.

They served two kinds of warm bread the night we dined, and they had the famous Guernsey butter pressed by a wooden butter press carved out in the shape of a rose.

We walked home in a growing mist that everyone who has ever gotten lost in an old English novel can appreciate.

The hostess at our bed and breakfast also recommended we take a boat ride with George Guille. He is an expert on birds, and he helped us enjoy watching the variety of birds that visit Sark, especially the puffins.

Guille was entertaining and full of stories, like the one about the yacht that harbored in Sark for a while with a crew of 18 topless young women.

From the water, we saw many of the places we had hiked. I enjoyed having the two perspectives as the boat took us completely around the island. One noteworthy place to hike is called the Window in the Rock. We got to see it first from the water, then later hiked to it. Yes, it does look exactly like a window in a rock.

Every Friday, the islanders offer garden tours of homes on the island. We enjoyed this tremendously. But as for formal gardens, one must visit La Seigneurie Gardens. The people who designed this garden, and those who care for it now, truly know their stuff. The clematis were as large as dinner plates.

During our six-day stay on Sark, a horse-drawn carriage with a load of tourists inexplicably overturned, killing one passenger and injuring eight others.

Everyone needed for an emergency jumped to duty. The next morning, we had breakfast with a young police officer who had come over from Guernsey to help. Remember, there are no cars on the island, but emergency responders were tending to the injured in minutes. They were taken to Creux Harbor, where they were picked up by the Flying Christiana and taken to a hospital in Guernsey.

Sark also has famous sheep races and an annual folk festival, but I came to Sark to see the night sky. Unfortunately, we got only one clear night. It was amazing though. Even constellations we recognized like Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper seemed closer than at home. I will just have to go back for more sky views.

But even without a clear, starry night, for beauty and hospitality, Sark is unmatched.

Reach Susan Williams at susanwilliams@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5112.


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