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Tiny Sark, Channel Islands, Is Big on Atmosphere

March 20, 1988|ROBERT NOAH | Noah is a free-lance writer living in Paris

SARK, Channel Islands — I had been at the Sablonnerie Hotel here, one of the British Channel Islands off France, for only a few minutes. I had unpacked and was preparing to go to the sunny garden to enjoy my first Channel Islands-priced (duty-free) gin and tonic, when I realized that I had no room key.

As I ordered my drink in the bar, I asked the woman serving for a key. She smiled and explained that there were none. I was surprised and exclaimed that I hoped therefore there were no thieves.

"No," she replied simply, but with a smile. I learned later that this island has the world's smallest jail, big enough for two inmates only, and only for those who might get a bit rowdy.

That was my first Sark experience after having seen the rocky sides of the tiny island (three miles long and 1 1/2 miles at its widest) rising 300 feet out of the English Channel.

I had come by hydrofoil from Jersey, southernmost of the Channel Islands, on my way to Guernsey to the northeast, and had made plans to stay on Sark for six days. I had never heard of the island until two months before when friends raved about it--its size (or lack of it), its scenery, the friendliness of its 550 or so inhabitants and its quiet.

Travel by Foot

Cars are not allowed on the island; the little bit of traveling that can be done is by foot, bicycle, horse-drawn carriage and tractor (one out of seven residents owns one--they are used for more than farm work these days).

Places to stay include six hotels, several guest houses and some small apartments. The Sablonnerie is on Little Sark, an appendage of Sark connected by an eight-foot-wide strip of land plunging nearly 300 feet to the sea on both sides. The road has railings, thank goodness.

The Sablonnerie turned out to be perfect, not only because of all the hotels on the island it seemed to be the most charming and typically Serquois ( Sark is the anglicized spelling of the French Serque ), but also because its out-of-the-way site keeps away some of the day tourists.

La Sablonnerie is owned and run by the Perree family. Like many names on the island, theirs is French though they speak English. The elder Perree, who was born on the island, bought the hotel (originally two 16th-Century cottages) in 1948.

Daughter Elizabeth runs the hotel and restaurant with help from her father, who tends bar in the evening and takes small groups fishing in his boat. Her brother, Philip, meets the boats with his tractor and handles the luggage of guests arriving or leaving. Most of the guests are English; one couple has been vacationing here for 14 years.

The stone dining room, painted white and candlelit at dinner, hums with conversation of the guests recounting their day--which beach they walked along, their trip to Herm or Guernsey, their three-hour boat trip around the island or perhaps fishing, or a cave they discovered at low tide.

A Warm Social Center

The comfortable granite-walled reception and bar area, part of the long, low building that includes the dining room and some guest rooms, is the hotel's social center. Drinks are served there before lunch and dinner.

Many guests linger at the bar after dinner, listening to Perree's stories. The hotel has 22 rooms of varying comfort and in various buildings, none more than 50 yards from the main building.

The hotel grounds are well-kept, with a dazzling variety of flowers planted with a studied informality. Across the sandy road is the hotel's tea garden, which serves breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner for non-residents.

The island is self-sufficient in many ways: cows for the island's famous milk, cream and butter; sheep and pigs provide some of the meat. Most vegetables are locally grown and pesticide-free.

Lobster is a Sark specialty but otherwise sea products are not too common. The Sablonnerie's cuisine is a kind of English-French mix, but given a couple of days' notice they will prepare you Sark specialties such as bean jar (beans and pig's trotters) and conger (eel) soup with peas and marigold petals.

Range of Accommodations

Hotel guests can choose a bed-and-breakfast plan for about $23.50 U.S. and up or full pension for $46 U.S. and up, depending on season and accommodation. The restaurant has a fully stocked bar and a small wine list.

Two other hotels on the island also stand out. If you enjoy such amenities as a pool and central heating (necessary in off-season only), consider the Petit Champ, about $50 U.S. and up, or Stock's Hotel, about $40 U.S. and up.

The Petit Champ is down a dusty little road and so somewhat protected from the day crowd that infiltrates the island. Some rooms have sea views, including four new rooms with balconies. A heated pool is in an old quarry. The decor is a bit English Fussy.

Stocks is in a distinguished-looking building in a woods near The Avenue--the main street of the village. Its pool is surrounded by a high wood fence.

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