NO ONE remembers what the air fare from Gatwick to Guernsey was 30 years ago. British Airways has no record, and at the time my parents did not care about the expense: two-and-four-halves to the Channel Islands was soon buried in the family overdraft. Anyway, it was a small price to pay for what they saw as life insurance.

The Tornados were number one in the charts with 'Telstar', a timely instrumental jangle celebrating the latest US satellite. High above the Caribbean, American spy aircraft were photographing missile silos in Cuba and nuclear warheads on Soviet ships steaming towards the island. In capital cities thousands of miles away, tension was rising between Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro and Jack Kennedy.

It was growing in our house, too: we lived only a couple of miles from the runway at Gatwick, which meant Mum, Dad, Penny, Sarah, Jo and I would be prime targets in a nuclear conflict. We knew American planes landed at Gatwick, because we had waved President Kennedy off from there after his visit to Britain a year earlier. It was reasonable to assume that a Soviet missile was pointing at the airport - and our house.

'We were quite convinced there was going to be a nuclear war,' my father recalled, 'and felt you lot had to be taken to safety.' We children could not comprehend the notion that someone might want to obliterate our peaceful universe, and what is more we did not much care: we were going on an aeroplane.

A Vickers Viscount whisked us from Gatwick to Guernsey in what seemed like five minutes; having repeated the journey in 1992, I have to report that it now takes an hour. My parents did their best to explain why we had suddenly changed from a poor, non-car-driving, non-TV-owning household into a jetsetting family. One thing troubled me about their gentle explanation of impending doom: if we were trying to get away from an airport because it was a target, why had we flown somewhere? Guernsey airport seemed just as grand as Gatwick. The complexities of strategic warfare were beyond a six-year-old.

When I grew old enough to comprehend the horror of what we were trying to escape, I assumed we had gone to Guernsey because it was the closest and cheapest destination away from the mainland. In fact, my parents had given the matter a great deal of thought. In the course of his work as a science journalist, my father had learnt of a water desalination plant in Guernsey - potentially useful in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. 'Also an island seemed a good place to avoid the marauding hordes after the war,' he added.

However unusual the reasons for our choice of holiday destination, we had a wonderful time and encountered no marauding hordes. The landscapes were glorious sweeps of bold colour, scenery lifted from a storybook. The deep greens of the fields, the gold of the sand and the sunsets, and the blues of the sky and the sea defied any ordinary spectrum. Better still, ice-cream and Tizer were in limitless supply. I also noted my parents' glee on discovering that Player's Gold Leaf were duty-free.

For a week the world held its breath on the brink of World War III, while we ate, drank and went our merry childish way. 'There was a bus stop right outside the hotel,' my mother remembers, 'and we never had to wait more than five minutes for a bus to anywhere on the island.' The nuclear threat diminished as we shuttled and snacked across Guernsey.

Was it really like that? In the intervening 30 years I have visited Cuba several times, but have only just returned to Guernsey. Gratifyingly, the island seems trapped in an early Sixties time-warp.

The capital is St Peter Port, a jolly and overgrown fishing village protected by Castle Cornet, perched on a rock out to sea. Handsome granite houses stumble down Tower Hill to the town centre. Here, the Market Halls comprise a grand Victorian melange of wrought iron and graceful glass. The market stalls overflow almost into the pews of the Town Church, which sprawls in an ungainly but quaint fashion from its medieval heart.

Even aged six, I sensed there was something odd about Guernsey. The street names are pure franglais: Couture Water Lanes and Allez Street. Guernsey lies within the protective embrace of Cherbourg and the Cotentin peninsula, much closer to the French shore (30 miles) than the English coast (70 miles). The Channel Islands were part of William the Conqueror's feudal fiefdom when he invaded England. Territory has changed hands between France and England regularly in the past millennium, and somehow when the music stopped we were left with les iles normandes.

Guernsey's present bus service bears little relation to the high-frequency network my mother recalls, so I rented a bicycle (without stabilisers). The ride round the island was a comforting confirmation of half-remembered images, soft hills painted with the same broad sweeps of colour. In 1962, of course, the island was much bigger, and one particularly scruffy cafe used to be a gleamingly good restaurant. But as journeys-back-in-time go, it was a treat. Guernsey has no beaches to match those in Cuba, but the coastline is lovely: jagged fingers of rock jab out at the Channel, and the horizon is decorated by the neighbouring islands of Herm and Sark.

Havana boasts a Museum of the Revolution, complete with a 'Cretin's Corner' featuring Ronald Reagan. In Guernsey, the German Occupation Museum commemorates the last war. The Channel Islands fell into Nazi hands, and the museum occupies bunkers left by the Germans; these could have been useful had the Cuban missile crisis become a full-scale war. From here, a path leads to the tiny bay of Petit Bot along a ravine draped in dense foliage. The intensity of colour and smell is almost tropical, rather like the forest on the fringes of Cuba's Bay of Pigs.

The food in Guernsey is mega-tons better than in Cuba. The Cafe de l'Escalier, at the top of one of St Peter Port's many staircases, serves excellent French cuisine, though the accordion music is a little oppressive. You need not look far for nightlife in Guernsey. Duty-free lager louts maraud around the town centre, and on Friday night every pub seems to be staging a Young Drinkers' Convention. The music on the juke-box is considerably older than the clientele, and I think I might have caught a snatch of 'Telstar'.

Three decades on, Fidel Castro has survived Jack Kennedy, Che Guevara and the Soviet Union. The threat of nuclear annihilation seems to have subsided. My parents still live a couple of miles from the runway at Gatwick airport. And Guernsey has not changed a bit.



Ferries: British Channel Island Ferries (0202 681155) sails from Poole to Guernsey twice daily (once on Sundays). The adult return fare is pounds 49; a car is pounds 65.

Flights: You can fly direct to Guernsey from a dozen UK airports (the choice is even wider in summer). The return fares below are the lowest available and carry restrictions.

Jersey European (0345 676676): Belfast pounds 139, Bristol pounds 78, Gatwick pounds 59, Exeter pounds 70, Birmingham pounds 98, Manchester pounds 118.

CityFlyer Express (0345 222111 or 081-897 4000 from the London area): Gatwick pounds 59.

Air UK (0345 666777): Southampton pounds 84, Heathrow pounds 95, Stansted pounds 95.

Air Corbiere (0534 42444): Gloucester pounds 156, Coventry pounds 178, Liverpool pounds 190.

Accommodation: Simon Calder stayed in the Marine Hotel (0481 724978) in St Peter Port, which costs around pounds 15 per person per night including breakfast.

Further information: Details of other accommodation and further information on the whole island can be obtained from Guernsey Tourism on 0481 723552.


A fortnightly charter flight operates between Stansted and Havana. South American Experience (071-976 5511) sells the return flight for pounds 330, or pounds 399 including 13 nights' accommodation.

(Photographs omitted)