As I walked barefoot into the water, the stones beneath my feet felt huge. They weren’t sharp but the water was fierce with intimidating waves. It was December, about 4 C, and I was in the English Channel off the coast of Jersey. Swimming. But before you could say “frozen,” I was wrapped in towels, ready for a steamy shower, cups of tea and biscuits. Lots and lots of biscuits.
Yes, I went for a beach holiday in December, in chilly weather. And it was perfect. Inviting, relaxed and cozy – yes, cozy – as can be.
Jersey’s small size helps. The largest of Britain’s Channel Islands, but measuring just 14 kilometres by eight kilometres, Jersey charmed me the moment I flew in from Toronto via Gatwick Airport in London.
Our first stop was for tea in the parish of St. Peter, on the west side of the island. Driving along the main thoroughfare I remarked on the lack of high rises. Instead it was slung with Mediterranean-style low rises, many cream-coloured and white, giving an overall effect that was somehow … soft. The blue lights strung along the way, surely for the holiday season, shone a muted glow through the mist. I was smitten.
Soon, I would adjust to the weather conditions – cool and damp. Everyone there owns a good raincoat, maybe oilskin, and a serviceable hoodie. And everyone talks about whether the sun will shine. Fortunately, fireplaces are everywhere you turn indoors, from colourful heat-emitting electric to gas with flickering flames.
One other approach some locals take is to embrace the nippiness and dive right in, literally.
Swimming in the winter? Totally normal there. A cohort jumps into the sea every day, in all seasons. I missed the Christmas polar bear plunge, but no matter. I was stepping into a luxuriously heated pool inside the L’Horizon Beach Hotel and Spa on St. Brelade’s Bay when I spied a man removing a wetsuit prior to showering. The sea that day was “lovely” and "calm” he told me. I soon found out we had different definitions for those words.
Jersey swims in winter can include wetsuits and neoprene gloves and shoes, and they demand close access to warm showers and revitalizing cups of tea or milky coffee. Days before my sea dip, as we whipped around in a car on the “wrong” side of winding roads, I was educated on how to acclimatize for the sea: Don’t dive in head first, just briskly walk and “swoosh” in with the body. So that’s what I did, wearing just my regular bathing suit. And while it was a thrill, it was one I didn’t feel it necessary to repeat right away.
On dry land, staying busy was easy. Despite its size, Jersey does not lack for activities. While in the summer there’s a greater focus on the water – paddle boarding and surfing along with swimming – year-round pursuits include cycling and walking along beaches, piers and cliffs with magnificent views. Greenery seems to sprout from every surface you pass, from signposts to fences. And the sight of Jersey cows grazing happily in a large field warms the heart of animal lovers and cream aficionados alike.
For history buffs, the place is a goldmine. Jersey and the other Channel Islands were the only part of Britain to suffer occupation by the Nazis during the Second World War, seized upon for its location between France and England. Today, one can visit a plethora of deserted German bunkers, Napoleonic towers, plus spectacular medieval castles and ancient burial sites called dolmens. I visited several churches, including one known as the Glass Church (proper name St. Matthew’s) in Millbrook, featuring work by French designer René Lalique including a striking clouded glass altar. At Victoria College, a boys’ school in St. Helier, I stepped up onto a stage where the school’s regal namesake once stood herself.
Shopping – important at Christmas – is magical. Rather than mega chains, smaller department stores are the place to go. King Street, the main thoroughfare in St. Helier, Jersey’s capital, is free of cars, while nearby old cobblestone roads add to the atmosphere. On special days, an outdoor French cheese and wine market pops up, hosting vendors who come with tempting velvety goat’s cheese topped with rosemary and thyme and lots of Muscadet. A nearby flower market tempts with bouquets of stunning amaryllis, while pots of tea at the Pomme D’Or Hotel near the landmark Liberation Square make a perfect end-of-day treat.
Throughout all my adventures, one thing remained constant – besides the brisk weather. The people were beyond friendly, unpretentious and utterly welcoming. One man lent me his sheepskin coat for a day since it was unexpectedly chilly. Every person was cheerful and generous in a low-key way.
Fireplaces and cups of tea contribute to Jersey’s coziness, but it also comes from the warmth of the people.