‘The best things in life are usually closer than you think,” says Luke Wheadon as he pours a healthy measure of his artisan gin over ice. I’m in Guernsey with my husband to discover some of the island’s new food and drink offerings, and we’re sampling Luke’s “gin experience” in the cellar lounge of the Bella Luce, a boutique hotel in leafy St Martins.
Drinking den … the Bella Luce hotel cellar lounge, which hosts Luke Wheadon’s ‘gin experience’
Among the samples is one of Luke’s own inventions, distilled in the gleaming copper still beside us, named Old Nick after his late father. The gin is infused with hibiscus flowers and mandarin limes grown in one of the island’s vast greenhouses – which once supplied many of the UK’s tomatoes. His signature gin, created from 13 exotic botanicals, uses rock samphire foraged from a nearby cove. “Each infusion features a key ingredient that I source locally, so it’s honestly a taste of Guernsey,” he says.
Jersey may be known for its Michelin-starred restaurants but Guernsey is now establishing itself as a gastro destination, with several new eateries and bars opening this year and an increasing number of artisans creating standout products.
The following morning we walk down to the cove at Moulin Huet – a spot favoured by Renoir. Rugged cliffs tower over the sea, crowned with a mantle of wild flowers and samphire. At half-tide, a sandy beach is revealed, and a heavenly, albeit chilly, swim sorts out our gin-soaked heads.
In good spirits … Luke Wheadon goes foraging for botanicals to flavour his gin with
Renoir also frequented the La Valette bathing pools near St Peter Port, built in 1865. Victor Hugo, who made his home at nearby Hauteville, was also a fan. Years of storm damage had made them unusable but now the pools are being rejuvenated as part of an ongoing community project. It’s still early when we visit and we have the mirror-calm water to ourselves.
Back on the food trail, we warm up in Octopus, an airy new restaurant on the waterfront run by Delphine Pesrin-Auder and chef Mickael Pesrin, the couple behind Le Petit Bistro in town. Unsurprisingly local seafood takes centre stage, with bouillabaisse and crab on a long menu that also includes steaks and ramen. The breakfast choice is less bewildering, and we tuck into a “house breakfast” – Guernsey sausages, cured bacon, eggs and beans (£10) – on the terrace, with views across Havelet Bay to the ramparts of Castle Cornet.
There are reminders of an embattled past all along Guernsey’s coast: menacing German concrete bunkers; stone Martello towers, remnants of Napoleonic-era defences; and Pleinmont Tower, an intimidating six-storey lookout that stands sentry to one of the island’s most picturesque walks. Happily, there is also no shortage of tearooms or “kiosks” nearby, such as Portelet kiosk, serving hunks of Guernsey gâche (pronounced gosh), a fruit loaf that’s best spread with golden Guernsey butter.
Sea food and eat it … dishes at waterfront restaurant Octopus. Photograph: Lucy James
The island champions artisans such as Fenella Maddison with her Fort Grey blue cheese, and Rick Creber’s Home Grown Chillies. A growing number of small-batch producers are creating cider, gin, craft beer and fruit liqueurs flavoured with locally grown fruit and wild herbs. Box stalls filled with fresh produce, known as “hedge veg”, can be found on hedgerows, with an honesty jar alongside.
St Peter Port, with its cobbled streets, boutiques, restaurants and cafes, is the heart of an increasingly vibrant foodie scene. At Tintos, a tiny new tapas bar, chefs trained by London luminary José Pizarro create mouthwatering combinations: tender lamb cutlets with ajo blanco (cold garlic soup); asparagus with manchego cheese; and Monte Enebro goat’s cheese with honey. The rosemary cheesecake is silky smooth, with hints of rosemary and ginger, topped with nougat – quite exquisite.
Nearby, up Constitution Steps, is Moroccan-inspired hotel and restaurant Ziggurat. Cocktail in hand, we catch our breath in a cosy beach hut on the roof terrace. Below, slate roofs sweep down to the harbour, and beyond lie the islands of Herm, Jethou and Sark, in a glittering sea.
Moroccan magic … sea bass with a twist at Ziggurat
Closer to sea level, Slaughterhouse is another new hangout. The old abattoir beside the harbour has been given a facelift and its bar is well-stocked with local ales – such as Randalls Breda and Rocquette cider – and gins. There’s also an extensive cocktail list, while mains include pan-roasted sea bream with parma ham and sea herbs, and fennel pollen-encrusted lamb loin with miso and wild mushroom fricassée.
For those with a sweet tooth, nearby chocolatier Ben Le Prevost offers artisan confections with cumin, miso or raspberry and stinging nettle. For a more hands-on experience, Rebecca’s at Oatlands Village now offers chocolate-making workshops. I leave clutching a bag filled with boozy prunes dipped in dark chocolate and a delicate white chocolate oyster shell.
Festival capital … St Peter Port. Photograph: Alamy
Until 24 September the Guernsey Food Festival in St Peter Port will shine a spotlight on local produce, with markets, demonstrations and promotions in restaurants and bars – it’s also Cocktail Week. And in October there’s Tennerfest (1 Oct-11 Nov, three-course menus from £10 ), a six-week taste-athon in which hotels, restaurants and gastro pubs across the Channel Islands offer low-cost menus.
We complete our weekend with fish and chips on the sea wall, just up the coast at Cobo. Watching the sun set over the sea with sand between your toes, is hard to beat: simple and local. Yes, the best things in life are usually closer than you think.
• This article was amended on 15 September 2017. Condor Ferries sails from Portsmouth and Poole, not Southampton and Poole as we originally stated.