Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands, about 15 miles from France and 100 miles south of mainland England. Its climate is mild, tempered by the Gulf Stream. From May to September the average temperature is 68 degrees. In winter Jersey is often windy but rarely frigid, and snow rarely sticks. As a result, the island is a hothouse where flowers are so perpetual that Rebecca Ransom, co-director of one of Jersey's major garden centers, calls them "white noise."
I knew I'd find flowers, though, because my main reason for making the trip was to visit the Eric Young Orchid Foundation, one of Jersey's — and, arguably one of the world's — greatest floral treasures. The foundation isn't as famous as other island attractions, such as the gentle Jersey cow and her sinfully rich dairy products, or Royal Jersey potatoes and Royal Bay of Grouville oysters. But orchid aficionados know the foundation because it wins awards at almost every competition it enters, including four gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society at a recent Chelsea Flower Show.
It's about a 45-minute drive from the Jersey airport to the Moorings Hotel in Gorey, on the east side of the island. To get there, I followed the south coast and passed through St. Helier, the island's capital. I had only a map from the rental car agency to direct me, because I hadn't been able to find a guidebook on Britain that included Jersey.
There's a reason for that. Technically, Jersey isn't part of Britain — or the European Union, for that matter. Traded back and forth between England and France throughout its history, Jersey chose to ally itself with Britain in the 13th century and, as a reward, was granted the unique status of "crown peculiar," which means it remains self-governing. It is subject only to the English monarch, not to the Parliament, though England handles Jersey's affairs by treaty.
The island has its own currency (which looks much like and is used interchangeably with British notes and coins, also accepted on Jersey), is blessed with some of the cleanest beaches in Europe (thanks to high-tech sewage treatment) and writes its own tax laws.
Income tax is low — 20%, compared with rates twice that in other parts of Europe — for its 90,000 residents, and there are no inheritance, capital gains or value-added taxes.
The island's chief enterprise is finance, and its benign tax environment has attracted people with pots of money. You wouldn't know about its finances from the undistinguished, middle-class vacation homes that line the south coast. Rich tax-haven seekers have tended to settle in the secluded, undeveloped farm country on the north side of the island, where gates hint at the grandeur of the houses beyond.
Tours of the island
It was dark when I arrived, and the island's winding roads are hard to navigate in any light, often petering out into "green lanes," a system of scenic routes for walkers and cyclists. I eventually found my way to Gorey Harbor, underneath Mt. Orgueil Castle, a cliff-top landmark since the 13th century.
The Moorings is a small, modest hotel owned by affable Renzo Martin, the island's Italian consul. It has fine views of wide Grouville Bay, fringed lampshades and a dining room decorated in the endearingly stuffy style of "Fawlty Towers." Here I got my first taste of Jersey's marvelous seafood: crab cakes followed by grilled European flounder, accompanied by a Muscadet.
I love summer places out of season, and I settled in at the Moorings like a bird that had forgotten to fly south for the winter. All through the night, rain quarreled with a nettlesome wind. The next morning I awoke to fitful sunshine.
There was time before my afternoon appointment with Chris Purver, curator of the Eric Young Orchid Foundation, to drive south along the coast to La Rocque, a curving spit of land that looked as though you could skip a rock across the channel to Normandy. From there I saw a stout, round Martello tower, stranded at sea as a result of high tides. It dates to about 1800 and was part of a coastal defense system the English built to deter Napoleon.
The Gallic part of Jersey's nature is most apparent on the island's eastern side facing France. Inland from La Rocque, I found the old stone Church of St. Clement, where, as I'd hoped, the daffodils were out and the 15th century murals of warrior-like St. Michael are thought to have been the inspiration of a French prioress from the saint's great Gothic shrine in Normandy, Mont-St.-Michel.
I spoke French with a woman at a grocery store in Gorey village, about a mile south of the harbor. Indeed, French was the island's official language until as late as 1960, though English is pervasive now.
After a cup of tea at the cafe at Jersey Pottery, a ceramics factory and shop also in Gorey village, I took a walk on the ridge above town. Along the way, I saw pale purple foxgloves and got caught in a hailstorm, which drove me back to the car and ultimately to the perfect weather inside a glass house at the orchid foundation.
The private orchid collection and breeding center was established in 1986 by Eric Young, an English eccentric who had three Rolls-Royces but bristled at the high cost of compost. Young came to Jersey after World War II and became a successful businessman, which enabled him to collect snuff jars and indulge his passion for orchids.