Flowers blooming on Alderney.
Nearer to France than England, the Channel Islands in the English Channel, administered by Britain, have a uniqueness about them which is neither British nor French.
FOR centuries, many outsiders, myself included, have been drawn repeatedly to the Channel Islands, and their charm and popularity shows no sign of diminishing, even in the 21st century.
For visitors there are five main islands, all offering different scenery, culture, traditions and activities.
Alderney is the third largest Channel Island and possesses a strong individual identity. Many people compare the atmosphere on the island to the England of the 1950s, as there is a real sense of community among the residents.
And time seems to have stood relatively still.
Other quirks include the language, because until relatively recently French and the islandâ€™s own dialect were spoken. Nowadays English is the first language of residents but place names are still in French.
However, the remnants of a darker recent past are still scattered across the island from World War II when it was occupied by the Nazis. The whole population of the islands was removed by the Germans so that concentration camps could be built there. The remains of the German occupation are scattered everywhere, but are now a popular source of exploration for young children unaware of their sinister past.
Most people who come here are either families looking for a place where the children can freely explore the countryside and forts or play on the beach, or they are are older couples relishing the quiet pace of life. However, if you are seeking more, then Alderney has a relatively lively night scene with many pubs and restaurants, confirming the islandâ€™s ancient reputation among the other Channel Islands as being populated by drinkers.
While you are there, the one thing not to be missed is a journey on Alderneyâ€™s railway, the only one on the Channel Islands. The very leisurely ride takes one from the capital of St Anneâ€™s to the old Mannez Quarry, and for only Â£3 (RM15) per person, it represents value for money.
Causeway linking Big and Little Sark.
I first visited the second largest of the Channel Islands as a 13-year-old on a school trip, and I loved the scores of uncrowded beaches, country lanes and abandoned fortifications awaiting exploration.
In fact, for a small island, Guernsey offers a surprising amount of open spaces and activities for children. Returning over 20 years later as an adult, I discovered it had lost none of its charm, although I was more reluctant to climb atop the old German pillboxes perched precariously on top of cliffs.
I was also struck by the amount of flowers everywhere, with the whole island sometimes feeling like a giant garden centre.
The picturesque capital of St Peter Port, with its cobbled streets and colourful boats bobbing in the harbour is a good place to make your base, but most of the fun in Guernsey is to be found exploring its beaches and hinterland or strolling along its cliff-tops. However, unlike some of the smaller islands, Guernsey offers lots of man-made attractions targeted at the tourist market.
For history buffs, there is Castle Cornet in St Peter Portâ€™s harbour, which houses museums and reconstructions detailing life for the garrison over the centuries. There is also the ruined medieval Vale Castle and the restored 12th century Sausmarez Manor, with its formal gardens and sculptor park.
More recent history centres on the German occupation, with the German Military Underground Hospital in La Vassalerie, and the German Occupation Museum giving an interesting glimpse into this period.
When you are tired from visiting historic sites, clean beaches, or visiting garden centres, know that Guernsey is also famous for its cream teas and buttery fudge.
Jersey is the largest and most diverse of the Channel Islands, as it combines being an off-shore finance centre, home to city types in pin-stripe suits, with an ancient history and traditions and kilometres of unspoiled coastline and countryside.
The brash capital of St Helier, which is home to the banking firms, is the place to head for if you want top-class restaurants and nightlife, although it is also a good base from which to explore the island. For families, away from the obvious attractions of the beaches, there are the Island Duck tours, with an amphibious coach, the Durrel Wildlife Park, the Aquasplash Water Park and Living Legend Theme Park.
However, the islandâ€™s heritage is a big draw to visitors and the iconic 13th century Orgueil Castle, which adorns numerous postcards of Jersey, is open to visitors, as are La Corbiere Lighthouse and Elizabeth Castle and St Aubinâ€™s Fort.
All of these buildings are home to informative museums detailing their history. Other museums highly recommended are the Jersey Museum in St Helier, the Battle of the Flowers parade in Ouen and the Jersey War Museum.
Like the other islands, Jerseyâ€™s charm is in its slower pace of life and unspoiled beaches and countryside. However, in keeping with its air of sophistication, it does offer some things the others do not â€“ such as the opportunity to sample apple brandy and wines at La Mare Wine Estate.
The tiny island of Sark was, until recently, still run as a feudal kingdom, headed by the Seigneur, but now its leader and parliament are elected as the place makes some concessions to the 21st century.
However, these concessions are few as you will see when you step off the boat onto the small jetty and a tractor transports you up the steep incline to the island proper. The tractor is the only engine you will come into contact with while here, as cars and motorbikes are banned.
But, as the island is less than 5km long and 2km wide, it is easily explored on foot or by bicycle.
Most of the pleasure to be had in Sark is admiring the views as you walk along its coastline, wandering its quiet country lanes, or shopping and browsing the shops and cafes on its ancient high street.
But there is also the stately home occupied by the Seigneurs which is open to visitors and for, the swimmers, the Venus Pool, an impossibly blue pool of water which is encased by rocks and only accessible at low tide.
After sundown, if you still want to savour the outdoors, then know that Sark was the first island in the world to be classed a â€œDark Sky Islandâ€?, meaning the sky is devoid of light pollution and the stars can clearly be seen by the naked eye.
The small almost uninhabited island of Herm is a very popular daytrip for visitors from Guernsey, who are drawn to its car-free atmosphere and beautiful Shell Beach.
This beach, as its name suggests, is a good place for children and adults to search for shells, but it is also a long stretch of white sand fronting a shallow and relatively warm sea, making it good for swimming and sunbathing.
However, if you want to avoid the crowds, then a stroll among the flower-strewn hillsides and the ruins of St Tugalâ€™s chapel in the centre of the island are a pleasing alternative.
? Go to www.visitchannelislands.com for more info.