A union of European cultures

Special to The Times

Elevated on a lush plateau 300 feet above the deep, a mere 22 miles off the Normandy coast of France and 100 miles south of England, the tiny isle of Sark is far from the madding crowd. Cars are banned. Sturdy legs and a rented bicycle are all you need to cover its 5 1/4 square miles.

Still ruled by a seigneur, or lord, Sark is the smallest independent entity in the Commonwealth, Europe's last feudal fiefdom and — as my family and I discovered last summer — one of tranquillity's finest keeps. It was here on a bicycle path that we slowed down and fully fathomed the charm of Sark and its sister Channel Islands, floating splinters of a bygone civility.

Unable to engage rooms at La Sablonnerie, a renowned rustic inn on Sark's southern flank, we consoled ourselves with traditional Sark cream tea in its cozy garden hidden behind a hedgerow. Serenaded by a distant cowbell, my wife, Claudie, and I sipped the full-bodied house blend in perfect serenity. Our 13-year-old daughter, Aurélie, and 8-year-old son, Jacques, chose sodas and passed on the cucumber sandwiches.

But everybody dug with voracious delight into the meal's main attraction, a stack of warm scones that we cleaved in two, dabbed with jam and spread thick with yellow clotted cream fresh from the cows we had just bicycled by.

Sark and sister isles Jersey and Guernsey are part of an archipelago divided into two self-governing bailiwicks, both loyal to the British crown but deeply rooted in French culture. The hybrid heritage felt strangely familiar and particularly congenial for me, a first-generation American, and my wife, who is French, as we island-hopped to visit Gallic-flavored towns, medieval castles and the eccentric former home of author Victor Hugo, among other sites.

The carrot for the kids was the Battle of Flowers, an annual carnival on Jersey scheduled for Aug. 12 and 13 this year and considered one of Europe's finest. A family-friendly community event with none of the rowdiness of a New Orleans Mardi Gras, the Jersey celebration is a cavalcade of colossal floats, fantasies covered with woven tapestries of flowers, the islands' most famous natural resource, accompanied by costumed revelers, dancers and bands.

During our six days in the Channel Islands, we met no other Americans. Affluent English retirees, attracted by the absence of capital gains and inheritance taxes, and tourists from other parts of the United Kingdom are present in droves. Many come for the climate — 68 degrees on average from May to September and more sunny days than anywhere in Britain.

History is another draw. Annexed by the Duchy of Normandy in the 10th century and used as a refueling station by William the Conqueror in his conquest of England in 1066, the islands maintain a bicultural identity that dates to 1204, when the English King John (the same sire who harassed Robin Hood) lost Normandy to the French King Philip II (Philippe Auguste). Given the choice, the locals threw in their lot with the British monarch and thus earned in perpetuity the quasi-independent status of "crown peculiar."

Though English is spoken everywhere today, Anglo-Norman was the lingua franca as late as the 1920s. Few speak the old dialect anymore, but place names and folklore keep it alive.

Beauty with a past One of the great traditions is the Battle of Flowers on the waterfront in St. Helier, Jersey's capital. We were in the thick of things, comfortably ensconced on a grandstand, as the band struck up "God Save the Queen" and a dapper gent in a gray seersucker suit seated in front of us — the lieutenant governor, it turned out — rose to proclaim, "May the 2003 battle commence!"

A sky-blue tank shot pastel-colored petals into the crowd, and that was about as bellicose as things got. The flower-bonneted grande dame to our left lamented the passing of the battles of yore, at which competitors would strip their floats bare of blossoms to bombard the enemy and one another.

Still, the mood was hardly sedate. Green Hulk look-alikes gesticulated with comic menace from a float called Bizarre Affair, a monumentally bosomed flamenco giantess commandeered a motorized bull and a titanic Cat in the Hat (our children's favorite) from the parish of Grouville went chapeau to chapeau with the Mad Hatter from Trinity parish — all of them bedecked with flowers.

About 4,500 locals are involved in the planning and execution of the event, according to the Official Programme, with as many as 150 volunteers engaged in the hand-gluing of flowers on each float. The proximity of the ocean adds to the aura, as if the floats all come gliding in on the surf, Botticelli's "Birth of Venus"- style.

With an afternoon and evening devoted to the battle, the three nights we had scheduled for Jersey were barely enough. At 45 square miles, Jersey is the largest of the Channel isles — a big, wide-open garden with wild crocuses dappling the sand dunes and yellow gorse and lavender spiking the meadows inland. The island boasts some of the cleanest beaches in Europe, though the cool sea breeze and brisk tidewaters made our heated pool at the Portelet Hotel in St. Brelade a more expedient bathing option.

For American visitors, Jersey's link to our country's history is as compelling as the island's natural beauty. After King Charles was executed in 1649, the De Carteret family of Jersey harbored the future King Charles II, who subsequently repaid his hosts' hospitality by granting them two tracts of land in the American colonies. One tract, west of the Hudson River, blossomed into the Garden State of New Jersey.

A symbol of old Jersey towers over Gorey Harbor in the parish of St. Martin: Mont Orgueil, also known as Gorey Castle, one of Britain's best-preserved medieval fortresses. To my jubilant son, it was a Playmobile castle come alive, knights and all. Commenced under King John in the early 13th century on the site of an Iron Age rampart (a vestige of which survives), the castle was modified and expanded during the next 400 years. Actors in period garb tease history out of the old stones.

"It kills with its claws, not its beak!" said a chain-mail-clad 14th century lord of the fierce-looking Harris hawk perched on his wrist. Not wanting to be mistaken for a midday snack, I cowered when, on the knight's prompting, the bird spread its wings and took flight.

From the 14th century, we traveled 10 miles east and five millenniums back to Neolithic times at Grouville parish's La Hougue Bie, one of Europe's largest and best-kept prehistoric monuments. A burial chamber from 3500 BC forms the hollow core of this man-made mound topped with two medieval chapels. Bowing our heads and crawling into the pit with some trepidation, we experienced an eerie communion with our forebears. Archeologists theorize that La Hougue Bie might have been a ceremonial site. At autumn and spring equinox, its orientation permits rays of sunlight to enter its mouth. Modernity rudely intruded with a German command bunker behind the mound, a reminder that the Channel Islands were occupied during World War II.

We began our last day of Jersey sightseeing chatting up a goodwyf in 17th century attire at St. Lawrence parish's Hamptonne Country Life Museum, which isn't so much a museum as it is a faithful re-creation of a farm in a bygone era. The grounds include a 19th century farmhouse and working cider mill as well as a sloping pasture shared by geese and cattle. The children followed a little dog down an environmental trail, largely ignoring the instructive signs, and engaged in a fallen-apple fight in the orchard. Daddy kept his cool with a glass of old-fashioned hard cider pressed at the site.

Because the names by which Jersey roads are commonly known do not accord with their alpha-numeric counterparts on the map, we made the best of a wrong turn or two down lovely green lanes before finally finding our way to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust's zoo in Trinity parish. It's a kind of social clinic for speckled bears from the Andes, lemurs from Madagascar, orangutans from Sumatra and other rare species, and the zoo's animal-friendly environment made us feel more like privileged guests than leering spectators. The children got to pet a boa and glimpse a garrulous fruit bat up close.

Gallic-flavored Guernsey An hour's ferry ride from Jersey lies Guernsey, at 24 square miles the second largest of the Channel Islands. Though farther from France, Guernsey is more Gallic in appearance and temperament. St. Peter Port, the quaint old capital, retains a distinctly French flavor with fashionable boutiques and cafes lining narrow, winding back streets.

We fueled the troops with toffee and other vintage sweets at the Victorian Shop & Parlour on Cornet Street before ascending the steep slope to 38 Hauteville St., home from 1856 to 1870 to Victor Hugo. Today, Hauteville House is maintained by the city of Paris.

Hugo went into voluntary exile after the coup d'état of Emperor Napoleon III. Here he completed his masterpiece, "Les Misérables," among other works. He turned his digs into a kind of talking storybook with such whimsies as a mantelpiece made of overturned table legs and shipping crates inscribed with an eclectic list of kindred spirits, including Lincoln, Columbus and Christ, with whom he claimed to have communed at séances and table turnings.

Down below, by St. Peter Port's Havelet Bay, Castle Cornet, the worthy old keep conceived by King John to combat the French, is the city's second most visited site. But the children were weary of museums, and we had to rush through.

We dashed about the island for 1 1/2 days, coming face to face with, among other treasures, a Stone Age archer scratched into the capstone of the Déhus Dolmen, a prehistoric grave and La Gran'mère du Chimquière, a female figure carved in stone with a quizzical look at the gate of St. Martin's churchyard. Another grave called Le Creux es Faies, legend has it, was the entrance to fairyland.

Fairyland lives on the isle of Sark, 45 minutes by ferry from St. Peter Port. The lush gardens of La Seigneurie, home of the seigneurs of Sark since 1730, might just as well have belonged to Glenda, the good witch. And the ominous keep built by reclusive twin brothers towering over Brechou, the islet next door, could well have been modeled on the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West.

From La Coupée, a concrete-fortified neck of rock joining the main part of the island (Big Sark) to the southern part (Little Sark), the view is dizzying and dazzling. Layered shades of blue and the gray streaks of distant land bring to mind a Turner canvas — not coincidentally, as it turns out: The English master summered on Sark. And though my son's little legs did not hold out on the homestretch and I had to walk his bike beside my own, the family declared its wish to return to the isle one day. Best of all, the kids pointed out and the parents reluctantly conceded, there's no stuffy museum on Sark to spoil the fun.

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Island hopping

GETTING THERE:

The flight schedule to the Channel Islands is such that some travelers may prefer to fly into London, spend the night, then continue to the islands the next day. Travelers can reach Guernsey without an overnight stay by flying from LAX to London's Heathrow Airport and connecting through nearby Gatwick Airport. (For transit advice, go to http://www.baa.co.uk/main/airports/heathrow/getting_here_frame.html and click on Travelling Between Airports.) Few airlines arrive at Heathrow early enough to make a Gatwick connection to Guernsey on the same day. They include American, British and United, which fly to Heathrow and connect to Jersey European Airways or Aurigny Air Services at Gatwick. Restricted round-trip fares start at $991.

Ferries run from England and France to the Channel Islands. The principal lines are Condor Ferries, http://www.condorferries.co.uk , and Emeraude Jersey ferries, http://www.emeraude.co.uk . (Condor also runs a ferry from Guernsey to Sark.) One-way rates between England and Jersey start at about $50 for foot passengers and $405 for a car and family of five.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below, dial 011 (international code), 44 (country code) and the local numbers.

WHERE TO STAY:

All rates are per person unless otherwise noted and include full British breakfast.

Portelet Hotel, Le Chemin du Portelet, St. Brelade, Jersey; 1534-741-204, http://www.portelethotel.com . An impeccably managed Art Deco-style classic. Ocean views. Heated pool. Summer rates start at about $115, children stay for half price.

Old Court House Inn, St. Aubin's Harbor, St. Brelade, Jersey; 1534-746-433, http://www.oldcourthousejersey.com . In summer, about $110 for a room, $160 for a suite with lounge and private garden.

Hotel de Havelet, Havelet, St. Peter Port, Guernsey; 1481-722-199, http://www.havelet.sarniahotels.com . A stately Georgian mansion overlooking the harbor. Resident historian runs complimentary twice-weekly island tours. Summer rates from $115.

La Sablonnerie Hotel, Little Sark, Sark; 1481-832-061, http://www.lasablonnerie.com . Summer rates start around $110 and include dinner.

WHERE TO EAT:

Zanzibar Restaurant, St. Brelade's Bay, Jersey, 1534-741-081. A stylish beach eatery. Dover sole and swordfish are among the prime catches. Starters from $9, main courses from $28.

Old Portelet Inn, St. Brelade, 1534-741-899. A 17th century farmhouse with such classic pub fare as steak and mushroom pie ($12) and kids' playroom.

Christies, Le Pollet, St. Peter Port, Guernsey; 1481-726-624. Three-course prix fixe early dinner special ($20) included a memorable poached salmon.

TO LEARN MORE:

Channel Islands: Jersey Tourism, http://www.jersey.com ; Guernsey Tourist Board, http://www.guernseytouristboard.com ; Sark Tourism, http://www.sark.info ; Battle of Flowers (Aug. 12-13), http://www.battleofflowers.com .

— Peter Wortsman

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