Two days on Sark at La Sablonnerie

August 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

Sark is a mysterious and rather magical island.  If Herm with its sparkling turquoise sea has a rather jolly Kirrin Bay feel, then Sark is just a shade darker with its rocky cliffs and inky blue waters hinting at pirates and smugglers.

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Sark famously has no motorised transport except for the ubiquitous tractor.  Like everyone else, we hired bikes at Avenue Cycle Hire on Sark’s main drag.  It has a wild west frontier town feel with white clapboard shops and houses lining the dusty Avenue.

15 minutes later we were crossing the Coupeé, the precipitous strip of cliff which separates Sark from the almost separate island of Little Sark.  The road signs wisely tell you to dismount and walk across and you would be rash to ignore them.

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Back on our bikes and in another 5 minutes (Sark is only 3 miles long) we turned into the yard of La Sablonnerie, a most inviting looking small hotel, its white rendered walls gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine:

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We took a look at the inviting looking menu displayed on the board outside and made a mental note to choose the lobster:

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We settled in to our room – in fact not just a room but a whole cottage just down the road, perfect for the four of us.  After exploring the garden we unpacked, showered and headed back to La Sablonnerie for dinner.  Apéritifs are served in the cosy bar and owner the effusive Elizabeth La Perrée was playing the part of the perfect hostess, chatting to each group of guests and keeping the team of handsome young gap-year waiters on their toes.  From the snatches of conversation floating through the kitchen hatch I would guess that the kitchen staff are French whereas the waiters are a slightly more multicultural bunch from Austria, France and England.

Both Tim and I chose the grilled Sark lobster with lime and ginger butter – an inspired combination.  We felt very much at home in the cosy dining room with its various nooks and crannies.

Breakfast the next morning promised much but didn’t quite live up to the standard set the previous evening.  Elizabeth La Perrée was not on duty that morning and the staff sat back a little as a result.  My porridge was a little undercooked, almost muesli and I had to ask for the Sark cream and brown sugar listed on the breakfast menu.  The waiter seemed equally bewildered by an order for smoked salmon and scrambled eggs though that too was plainly listed on the menu.  Neither the bread nor the marmalade were home-made which would have been a classy touch – after all what else is there to do in Sark during the winter other than make marmalade?

After a day spent exploring just a fraction of Sark’s coastline – it may only be 3 miles long but the coastal path going up and down rocky cliffs and into tiny bays and inlets is many miles long – we had built up an appetite for dinner.  Local mackerel was my more frugal choice for this evening – perfectly fresh and delicious.  I am not usually a pudding person, even less a chocaholic but my choice of chocolate crème brûlée was to die for.  Just the right-sized portion in a tiny white porcelain ramekin, dense, creamy, chocolatey with a wafer thin caramel crust.  Sark is famous for its cream as well as its lobster and the placid Guernsey cows who produce it are happy to be photographed.

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After breakfast, we left in style in a horse-drawn carriage waved-off by Elizabeth and her staff.  It felt like having spent a rather splendid weekend away with a favourite aunt.  That is until the bill arrives…

La Sablonnerie
Little Sark
Guernsey GY9 0SD

Tel 01481 832061

www.lasablonnerie.com

Three days at the White House Hotel on Herm

August 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

This was our second visit to Herm and the White House Hotel.  Last year (summer 2008) we were newbies and booked a whole week here.  Herm is only one and a half miles long and, even with two daytrips to Sark, we were suffering from severe cabin fever after a whole week.  Three days, however, is just about perfect.

Herm has both rocky cliffs (with superb shore fishing) and fabulous white sandy beaches:

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The White House Hotel is pretty much the only game in town as far as places to stay on the island go. Herm hit the headlines last year when a 40 year lease of the island and its various properties was put up for sale at £15 million by outgoing tenants the Heyworth family who had run the island for the last 28 years.  There were concerns that a luxury hotel group might buy the island, build a helicopter pad and golf course and turn the White House into a luxury hotel and spa.  In the event, a charitable trust led by Guernsey residents John and Julia Singer acquired the lease in September 2008 saying “we’re just going to keep it the same”.

Indeed they have – not a penny on sorely needed refurbishment appears to have been spent since last year.  The place deserves a facelift and both the public rooms and bedrooms need redecorating, but I suppose all of this needs money.

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The White House is a funny old place, still insisting rather stuffily that one dresses for dinner.  We were forewarned and forarmed but couldn’t resist a snigger at the men caught out who had to put on one of the hideous jackets and ties kept in reception for this purpose.   It’s also one of those hotels where you are given a table and expected to keep that table for the entirety of your stay.  Fine if you have a sea view in a bay window but intensely frustrating if you’ve got a manky table in the corner next to the swing doors into the kitchen.

The hotel restaurant has pretensions but frankly is a bit stuffy and disappointing.  It comes with all the trappings – big burgundy leatherette four course menus, wine waiters, and a troupe of hosts, hostesses and waiters but seasonality and local food are not at all in evidence.  This is all the more sad given the abundance of seafood and fresh salads and vegetables that are so clearly in evidence in the Channel Islands in high summer.

On the first of our three evenings I chose salmon tartare (oK but a bit flabby and there are not many salmon regularly landed on Guernsey) followed by lobster bisque (this tasted like an afterthought), then belly of pork. This is not what you search out on a menu in summer but was nevertheless delicious – meltingly tender meat, crispy crackling and a hint of citrus. As a result, I had high expectations of the South African milk tart I’d chosen for pudding.  I had imagined an unctuous dulce de leche type confection but what arrived was like lumpy blancmange on a soggy pastry base, the whole coated with an extremely thick layer of of powdery cinnamon – more volcanic ash than a light dusting.  The accompanying chamomile ice cream didn’t improve the dish and was just plain weird.

The belly pork and the milk tart were for very different reasons the most memorable dishes I ate at the White House.  Dinner on our second and third evenings followed the same 4 course pattern but the food was not that memorable, either in design or execution (looking at my notes I read pork fillet, chicken supreme, steak, key lime pie, cold (yes cold) chocolate fondant…).

It’s a shame as there is clearly competence in the kitchen but no-one with a sense of what’s right for summer, what combinations work and what’s seasonal and local.  With the new owners delegating management to hired hands, I imagine standards aren’t going to improve in the near future.  With an effective monopoly on the island they don’t need to try too hard as the visitors will keep coming anyway.

To conclude, one final picture of my son George paddling in the crystal clear waters surrounding the island which, for now at least, remain Herm’s main attraction:

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