Travel: What price paradise? (pounds 1.79)

Nerys Lloyd-Pierce finds sandy beaches, very yellow butter and real peace on the still-feudal Channel Island of Sark

Imagine renting an entire island for the piffling annual sum of pounds 1.79. And not some god-forsaken rain-lashed lump of rock in the back of beyond either, but an island lapped by translucent greeny-blue water, corralled by magnificent cliffs and peppered with enticing sandy beaches; an island with a luxuriantly green hinterland speckled with handsome granite farmhouses and cottages with hollyhocks around the door and steep, densely wooded valleys plunging down to the sea.

That is what you would get if you happened to be the Seigneur of Sark. But there's no such thing as a free lunch and your small segment of paradise would not be entirely free of obligations. You would, for instance, at the drop of a hat, have to drum up 40 armed men to "keep the island free of the Queen's enemies".

Sark, which is part of the Channel Island archipelago, is the last functioning feudal constitution in the western world, with an independent legislature, judicial system and administration originating in 1565. To this day, six appointed "Officers of the Island" administer Sark's affairs and maintain law and order.

The feudal system of tenure still applies too, and no land can be held in Sark as a freehold. The Seigneur, or feudal lord, holds the tenure of the island from the Monarch in perpetuity and the feudal annuity which is paid each Michaelmas has never been adjusted according to inflation, hence the figure of pounds 1.79. The island's 40 tenants hold their property from the Seigneur. In addition to paying a feudal rent they must pledge to keep a musket handy for the defence of their isolated realm.

Sark has actively striven to keep its archaic soul intact, and one of its main attractions is the lack of traffic. By common consent, tractors are the only motorised vehicles sanctioned to travel the island's grid of unsealed roads. Even these are regulated, however, just in case anyone is tempted to abuse this vehicle's workhorse status and use it for nipping down to the shops.

The island is accessible only by boat (the islanders voted against any air links with the outside world) but even this doesn't run on a Sunday. In fact, very little does. Apart from the hotel-keepers, everyone enjoys a compulsory day of rest. And the absence of any day-trippers means that the island hush is even deeper than usual.

That said, Sark is not a Luddite's paradise. The half-dozen or so hotels offer sophisticated comforts and serve good food. All the island-grown vegetables and meat are organic, the seafood is delicious and the local butter, eggs and cheese are as yellow as the eye of a daisy. One lunchtime, in the shady garden at La Moinerie, I ate a spinach and crab quiche made with Sark eggs which gleamed on the plate like an offering from an alchemist.

Sark is one of the few places left where you can pedal a bike without the help of Valium. For someone like me who is traffic-phobic, feeling invulnerable while using two-wheeled transport is a rare treat. In fact, Sark feels reassuringly safe on all fronts and for a lone female or a family, that counts for a lot.

Sark is three miles (5km) long from north to south and the interior forms a plateau, but you pay for the breezy comforts of cycling on the flat when you fancy a swim. To get to the beaches you have no choice but to abandon the bike and use Shanks's pony to negotiate the leg-achingly steep paths down to the sea. At low tide it is possible to scramble over the rocks to the echoing depths of the Gouliot Caves. From this cool vantage point you can see the tide whisking through the narrow Gouliot Passage which separates Sark from the island of Brechou (now leased by the Barclay brothers) and search the rock pools for the waving tendrils of sea anemones. This craggy coastline has many caves, one of which is named in honour of Victor Hugo. The French writer was booted off to the Channel Islands for opposing Napoleon's coup d'etat in 1851 and during his 20 years of exile he often visited Sark.

Touring the island by horse and carriage reduces you to the status of a naff tourist, but the pungent aroma of sun-warmed horse and the chafe of leather is novel enough to compensate. Although horses tread the same routes as you take by bike, you can see over the hedges and you don't have to worry about wobbling into a ditch because you're busy looking at the scenery.

Carriage-driver Dave, a Londoner who has been driving on Sark for three years, informed me that wife-beating is still legal (though not necessarily acceptable) on the island, provided you use a stick no bigger than your little finger and you don't draw blood. He also claims that the Seigneur is entitled to take his pick of the island's virgins, but that particular right appears to have dwindled into obscurity. Michael Beaumont, the current incumbent, obviously finds it easier to exercise less controversial feudal privileges such as the right to keep the only unspayed bitch on the island and to be the sole keeper of pigeons.

Sark's permanent population of 580 people is largely dependent on the holiday industry. Thanks to building restrictions, the evidence of tourism in material terms is insignificant. But, plans are afoot to build a golf course on the island, a proposal which has met with a mixed response. The aim behind it is to pep up the tourist trade, but only a philistine could fail to see that those who make the pilgrimage to Sark do so because it hasn't been defaced by this kind of suburban amenity. It is perfectly clear really, if you need a golf course, you don't need Sark.

SARK

GETTING THERE

Jersey European Airways (tel: 08705 676 676) flies to Jersey three times daily, and there you can catch an Emeraude Lines (tel: 01534 66566) boat to Sark. Alternatively, you can fly to Guernsey and take a Sark Shipping Company (tel: 01481 724059) boat to the island.

On Sark, bicycles can be hired from Avenue Cycle Hire (tel: 01481 832102) for pounds 4 a day (pounds 4.50 for mountain bikes).

WHERE TO STAY

The Dixcart Hotel (tel: 01481 832015) is pleasant and relaxed with an attractive garden, its own bay, and log fires on chilly evenings. Bed- and-breakfast costs pounds 30-pounds 45 per person, depending on the time of year.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact the Sark Tourism Office (tel: 01481 832345).

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