Episode Fifteen: A taste of Paradise

She couldn’t lie.

The hotel was abysmal.

She had been subscribed to ‘Secret Escapes’ for some time and their regular email bulletins offered a multitude of short breaks at knock down prices, she had eyed one of their offers online for a business class room at the Jersey Radisson Blu hotel overlooking the smart marina in St Helier, with a sense of real longing – the 5 day break was a marvellous deal and included a small Ford Fiesta rental car for free.

But then there had been that other offer. 7 days in Guernsey in a privately owned hotel practically on the beach on the west coast of the island. It didn’t promise any additional perks excepting the extra 2 days in Guernsey but of course it did allow the chance to explore the little off shore islands that lay in short proximity,  for the same price as 5 days in Jersey with no real chance of moving off the island.

Sylvianne liked the look of St Helier in Jersey very very much.

But what she wanted in her heart of hearts was to hop about more than one island, she wanted her holiday to be just like her magazine article, she wanted to be adventurous and Guernsey made that very much easier to accomplish. And so she booked her 7 days at Faulty Towers. The short 50 minute hop across the channel took 4 hours longer than anticipated due to fog, which she was to learn from a gnarly looking gentleman who sat opposite her in the coffee lounge at London City Airport, was nothing unusual, as fog regularly rolled in across the channel and engulfed the tiny islands, making landings particularly difficult due to the short runways. And so it was she had arrived at the Paradise Hotel in a taxi, who dumped her unceremoniously on the roadside and left her to struggle up the garden pathway to the hotel unaided, despite a hefty tip. How rude?

Sylvianne felt frazzled, made no better when she found herself in a cheerless reception with dull tartan carpet and caretaker at the reception who seemed vague about rooms and keys, but pressed on with a  ‘Welcome to Paradise,’ spoken in heavily accented English and a huge smile, but Sylvianne felt her limited patience quota drain to nil as she looked around at the magnolia painted wood chip walls and a battered moose head above the stairs – this wasn’t how her adventure was supposed to be!

Danek, the caretaker as he introduced himself, also doubled as a bell boy and later she discovered was also one of the waiters at both dinner and breakfast; took her bags and said he would show her to her room with the beautiful view.  Sylvianne doubted him severely.

Her room didn’t disappoint, more wood chip, a lumpy looking bed and an ensuite in avocado green, of course! More smiling from Danek as he hovered expectantly,  she would not, absolutely not, be tipping anyone anymore today, so instead she had thanked him frostily and felt close to tears as she closed the door firmly behind him. She hated it here.

Sylvianne rested her forehead against the door, and listened to Danek’s footsteps retreating along the corridor and down the winding staircase. Sylvianne closed her eyes and took in two ujjayi breaths, the deep rattling kind usually reserved for yoga practice, Linda Rice would be proud of her she thought absently, but she needed some stabilising perspective and this was the best way she knew how to achieve something approaching quick calmness.

‘It’s ok. This is all perfectly ok. You’re tired and a bit stressed. Just breathe.’

She took several more steadying breaths. She stood up and turned around, the room was just as dismal, but she chose to just overlook, it seemed easier, and instead she moved over to the enormous window and  pulled back the dated drapes to peer outside – there was truly a beautiful view. The late afternoon sun was shining across the vast expanse of an arc of a bay and the water reflected silver and had a shallow swell that just lapped at the edges of the sandy beach that lay right beneath her window which she opened  wide, to let the sea breeze in. The beach was almost empty of people, like her own private bay waiting patiently for her to arrive.

She rested her elbows on to the small window sill and leaned out to take a better look. There were stone steps leading down to the sand from the hotel garden, which had small cheery patio sets dotted about  to best admire the view, and she saw Danek bringing sparkling water to a couple of elderly patrons sat close to the step way and he chatted amiably and made them laugh, she felt a twinge of guilt that she had treated him so shabbily.  She looked back out to sea and realised how warm it was in the sunshine, something that had struck her forcibly as she had exited from the glass roofed air port to find her taxi but had been too stressed to appreciate its full force, she was quickly reevaluating now, it was glorious. She was already dressed casually in chinos and lightweight sweater, but she quickly moved to one of her suit cases and retrieved a pair of flip flops, unpacking could wait, she had her own bay to go check out, as she turned, she refused to see the calamitous room, she was on her adventure and nothing was going to spoil it, not even her own expectations.

Against the odds, Sylvianne found herself strangely drawn to the offbeat charm of the Paradise Hotel, yes the decor was disgraceful and the amenities basic, but Danek and his merry band of hotel staff more than made up for the building’s lacklustre performance, because whilst the inside was dated, the hotel itself was a showcase of  Victorian glory and every single member of staff was as offbeat and quirky as the hotel they managed, and all were unfailingly warm and solicitous – they were awash with old fashioned manners and like every other guest, Sylvianne was charmed.  She had come to expect an anonymous polish to her hotels over the years, because that had been standard fayre for the Stockard holiday experience along the Med. But here at the Paradise Hotel, life was a little more battered around the edges, and after the initial shock, she realised she actually quite liked it that way.

For the first few days, Sylvianne was happy to potter about Guernsey, and she felt instantly enamoured of the island, which was French enough to be exotic to the average Brit, and British enough to be annoying to the the French.  It was easy to navigate, the bus service was direct and frequent, so getting about all across the island was quickly done and she realised there was no problem with not being given that free car deal here. Whilst she enjoyed watching the small fishing boats bob in and out of the bay outside her room, she was completely entranced with the array of boats at St Peter Port, the island’s capital; it was like a home grown Monaco, with huge Sunseeker and Fairline yachts nestling in side by side as they birthed in the marina, all brilliant white and dazzling, the rigging on the sailing boats jangling musically in the breeze. Just walking along the esplanade at the port, she felt like she should be wearing deck shoes and white canvas shorts – ahoy, sailor boy! Just being here made her feel like life could be an exciting adventure – and she had wiled away hours just taking in the bustle in the sunshine.

Sylvianne was feeling more relaxed and just like her stay at Puntagorda, she found she needed a few days to just unwind, especially after the shock of the crummy long winded journey and her initial poor assessment of the hotel, which had gently given way to an offbeat pleasure; everything was clean and she was quickly learning that the Hotel Paradise worked on a more relaxed time schedule than perhaps most people arriving here were used to, but they soon discovered there was time for everything –  manana – and it was infectious. Nor did it escape her notice that there was a sense that the beauty here was in the detail, like when she found wrapped in the bathroom a small but gorgeous stash of handmade toiletries, the Castile soap that had the unmistakable and powerful punch of French lavender essential oil, the enormously fluffy thick pile towels and what proved to be crisp cotton covered goose down duvet and pillow sets in a bed that wasn’t lumpy at all but enveloping and soft,  and lulled her off to sleep quickly to the sound of the sea lapping in the distance.

Breakfast was a very pleasant affair, Sylvianne was naturally an early riser and she maintained that habit even on her hols, so she found herself spoilt for choice over where to sit, and chose without question one of the small tables  set for one or two, on the balcony just off from the main dining area. The Hotel Paradise was the place for spectacular sunsets sat as it was on the west coast, but in the early morning light, she could watch under muted skies as the tide turned and the gulls wheeled over the peeping shoreline of the bay and let out their raucous craw craw as the sun’s first early rays began their circular tour. Today was no different, up with the gulls, Sylvianne made her way to the balcony, but stopped at a small stand by the dining room door way that prominently showed an array of tourist information, Sylvianne scanned the available material looking specifically for tour guides and  ferry timetables. She collected a handful and went straight over to her preferred table.

Quickly, like a water sprite, arrived Mimi, a petite French girl, with a cropped pixie hair cut, and large liquid dark Gallic eyes. ‘Bonjour Sylvianne.’ she said with a simply gorgeous dimpled smile, the girl was sculpted from porcelain Sylvianne couldn’t help thinking, and she also adored how her name sounded from a French person, as if it was a real name and one that lifted and floated rather than sounding long and awkward as it did on every English speaking tongue. Dressed in a neat black dress with a white pinny, she was the epitome of French waitressing fondly known the world over. Mimi had coffee pot in one had and hot milk pot in the other, and offered up the pots toward  Sylvianne with a nod, ‘Would you like coffee this morning Sylivianne?’ Sylvianne lifted her head up from studying the tour guide literature she had been browsing to smile warmly, ‘definitely’. As Mimi leaned in to pour the coffee, the wonderful percolated aroma wafted into the warming air of a fine Guernsey morning, and she looked at what Sylvianne had been reading on the table, ‘You’re going to visit the islands today perhaps Sylvianne?’

‘Yes I was just trying to decide where I wanted to go and when the ferries operated, to plan my little excursions for the remainder of the week. Have you visited them?’

Mimi nodded, ‘I have seen them all. I worked for a little while on Jersey too. Herm is my favourite, so pretty, you will like it very much I think.’ As Mimi finished pouring, Danek appeared with a breakfast menu, he clearly had overheard and as he passed the card to Syvianne, he added, ‘Herm is pretty, but this week Sark has sheep racing, you must go there, it’s fun.’ Mimi laughed at that, ‘Ah yes! He’s right, you have to go to that, I had forgotten it is this week, they do it every year, but Herm is still my favourite.’

Sylvianne picked up her coffee cup and held it under her nose just taking in the smell of it, and she looked out at the bay, looking calm and blue today;  Danek was going to bring her toast and she was going to smother it in the Hotel’s own made marmalade, honestly, breakfasts couldn’t get any better than this! She had every intention of seeing all the neighbouring islands, but the sheep racing was an obvious must-do, looking at the ferry timetable, she would be visiting Herm first, then sheep racing on Sark and finally a long day on Alderney. What fascinated Sylvianne was how each island presented a slightly different facet of island life and she was curious to see if the tourist blurb actually stacked up in reality, she was looking forward to the next few days immensely.

As she sat and contemplated the remainder of her week, she watched as a few more guests began to filter in to the dining room for breakfast, mostly couples, but some with young children, she could see that Danek was very good with wayward little ones, there was no end to his talents it seemed. As she watched the families, with Dad’s in shorts and sandals, and lily white legs unused to seeing sunshine, and harried Mums ordering ‘Coco Pops’, Sylvianne couldn’t help but feel that this, her first sojourn out in the world on her own was going rather well and it was a novelty to not have to take anyone else’s preferences in to consideration, because this holiday was entirely up to her, what she did and when she did it, and with that thought, she sighed contentedly. She was loving this freedom and was glad she had acted on the impetus to go and not talk herself out of it as she had done in so many areas of her life, lacking the basic confidence to act on ideas or fancies – it was a sad reflection and she was really happy she had given herself this trip, it marked a sea change in Sylvianne that even she didn’t altogether appreciate.

Her proposed small island visits would be accomplished on assorted sea faring vessels, she could fly to Alderney but that was rather expensive, and there was a regular weekly service on the Bumblebee catamaran for a bargain ticket which Sylvianne found more acceptable, even if it would take over an hour to get there, but she’d have to pre book her seat on the Sark Belle if she was going to guarantee getting to see the racing sheep,  Sark it appeared was a very popular destination with tourists and locals alike. Less of an issue was Herm, the shortest and most easily accessed which was just a quick twenty minute hop out across the bay.  All this could be planned over the days to come, today however was an unplanned treat, having come across the details from talking to a middle aged gentleman the day previous, who was also staying at the Hotel Paradise, she was really pleased she had struck up a conversation with him as they both took afternoon tea outside in the hotel gardens, because he was both lively and informed and happy to give her some points of interest on Guernsey that wasn’t included in the standard tourist guides. She liked the fact this was serendipitous, a little gem of an outing easily accomplished but completely unexpected, because today, Sylvianne was off  on foot to visit the isle of Lihou, she could allow herself something of a lazy start to her morning because you could only reach Lihou  at certain times of the day being dependent on the tides, a bit like a watery Brigadoon. For now, she had time enough to be ordering herself some more of that toast and marmalade.

Sylvianne gave herself an hour for the gentle meander around her bay toward  the headland at L’Eree, as she strolled, she tracked the tide steadily backing out of the bay further and further, the sandy shoreline expanding rapidly and becoming more rocky as she rounded the headland which gave way to the saltwater marshes of the nature reserve there and the appearance of the uniform man made dolomite causeway winding through the rockery for some 750 meters to Lihou. There were already people navigating the causeway and stopping every now and again to inspect rock pools that shimmered under the midday sun. Seeing a number of people already headed across  made her feel slightly better about the prospect of crossing the low tide walk way herself, there was something about the sea, its enormous power and unpredictability that scared her to her city bred core, scared and awed her in equal measure, but in this instance at least it was nerves that had tried to get the better of her.

She didn’t have any walking boots sadly but was prepared to sacrifice her pair of old Sketchers to the puddles, but she could see that there were a good number of people making their way to Lihou  who were dressed for the great outdoors, kitted out with boots,  outback hats and Nordic walking sticks, but thankfully the terrain didn’t look like she was completely out of her depth wearing  simple jeans and T shirt,; the sun was shining high and it was a perfect afternoon to navigate the tiny island before making the journey back some three hours later, when the causeway is once again  swallowed up by the incoming tide.

Sylvianne found herself falling in to step behind a middle aged couple who were casually dressed, even if they were wearing more sturdy shoes, they both had a good set of binoculars each and the woman was holding on tight to a bird watching note book. Sylvianne acknowledged them with a smile and a ‘Afternoon’  ‘Afternoon’ they chorused in unison turning to her as she reached level with them.

‘Off twiching?’ Sylvianne enquired as she pointed to the binos and book, it was pretty good guess really, but etiquette demanded she state the obvious. ‘ We are new at it, but yes, we are hoping to spot a red plover. And you?’ Syvianne delved in to her hessian tote bag and produced a less than impressive set of battered binos of her own and a small sketch pad. ‘I’m hoping to draw some red plovers.’ They all laughed lightly,  ‘So if I find them, I will be sure to send them your way.’ Amiably they fell in to picking their way through the seaweed banks alongside each other, as they discussed the bird populations to be found on the island.

Sylvianne was mildly entertained to find out this couple who had both recently taken early retirement, had just taken up bird watching as a means of getting them out and about in the fresh air; hence the state of the art binoculars she surmised, this was a return visit to Guernsey but their first visit to Lihou.  Sylvianne understood that the bird watching and the great outdoors was something of a forced activity for this pair, and she couldn’t help but feel that they might not get from Lihou anything other than ticking off a box marked – visit a Rugged Rock, similarly listening to their account of their holiday in Guernsey so far  she felt that it too pretty much ticked the box marked – Revisit the Channel Isles; which was a shame really because she felt there was so much more to absorb than simply being in the Channel Islands for a bit of warmth to the sun and a nice hotel! She stopped her musing when as they neared the beach on Lihou , Carole exclaimed over to her husband, ‘well look Collin. It’s green.’ Sylvianne looked and understood what Carole meant, as they had wound their way through the inter tidal rockery, you could be forgiven for thinking Lihou was nothing more than a hunk of  greyish rock sticking out from the sea but as they neared you could see it looked far more vibrant and as Carole had said, distinctly green under the grasses that spread up and out.

Once beached, Carole and Collin took off at a clip but Sylvianne hesitated to take in the prettily plumed Turnstone’s and long beaked Redshank’s wading around the pools in the shore line looking for food, completely oblivious to the odd groups of people who trudged on past.  Sylvianne was conscious that she only had about two full hours to explore, and so it was important that she take in the whole island – she wanted to commit the views to memory, rather than sitting in one place and sketching in detail – so she committed quick strokes to paper which she would flesh out later on,  she wanted to recreate her perspective of the island visit and so there would be no photography, not today, she was more interested in absorbing the little island, listening to the birds and feeling the wind off the sea  – this visit was about heightening all her senses to experience the island  that she would later commit to paper. There was something singularly intrepid feeling for Sylvianne, a sense of real freedom stood atop the island watching Little Egrets sail over head and looking back toward the headland of Guernsey, she felt  as if she were a million miles away from civilisation – and suddenly she was seized with the notion that she would never get enough of this, up until today, here on Lihou, she hadn’t felt it, felt some inexorable pull to face the sea breeze  whipping at her hair, hadn’t felt the vibrancy of being quietly at one with a rough hewn edge of nature – it wasn’t there in Guernsey, which was simply too large, too metropolitan, too elegant – it was a beautiful island, a beautiful holiday, but here on Lihou she experienced the very core of what she had hoped to find when she first looked longingly at that article in her magazine, sat safe and cocooned on her sofa. Here at Lihou she discovered what  part of the pull of an island life was truly all about.