Charm and calm on the island of Ile de Ré, France
Ile de Ré boasts as many hours of sunshine as the south of France, but it’s a world away from the lifestyle of the Côte d’Azur. Here, you’ll find small fishing boats rather than superyachts and bicycles instead of Ferraris. Nick Constance takes a peek at this gem on the French Atlantic Coast.
Halfway between Nantes and Bordeaux is the city of La Rochelle, known for its deep harbour, beautifully preserved Old Town and the impressive three-kilometre bridge linking the French mainland with the small island of Ile de Ré. Any visitors travelling to the island must pass through La Rochelle, making this a glamorous two-for-one deal.
For those with private yachts there are also three marinas on the island at Ars, La Flotte and Saint-Martin, each as glamorous and picturesque as the other. For those jetting in, it’s 19.2 km from the airport to the centre of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, so a taxi can whisk you to your hotel in around 30 minutes.
Practically every town and village on the 85-square-kilometre island is a fairytale of whitewashed houses with terracotta roofs and shutters painted a shade somewhere between green and blue. In fact, some streets are more reminiscent of Greece than France.
The countryside is a mixture of saltpans and vineyards, while the island’s beaches remain refreshingly unspoiled. Some 96 kilometres of cycle lanes also make exploring the island a real treat. The terrain is conveniently flat and points of interest are rarely more than a few miles apart. Quite simply, Ile de Ré is as bike-friendly as Amsterdam and it’s the best way to move around. Get a bike, check your map and get going seems to be the message. Bike hire shops include YooToo and Cyclo-Surf.
The capital Saint-Martin is where you should start your adventure. It’s fun, lively and gets you in the holiday mood; there’s an array of restaurants where the food and service is generally good, especially if you opt for the day’s specials: about €30 a head, with wine.
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Bed down in style
We stayed at Villa Clarisse, a charming 18th-century house in the heart of Saint-Martin’s old town and member of Relais & Châteaux. Opened in June 2011, Villa Clarisse is part of the five-star Hôtel de Toiras, but the atmosphere differs considerably.
Whereas the main hotel is all toile and chintz, archive wallpapers and antiques, Villa Clarisse is much more restrained. Rooms are beautifully light and airy and the bathrooms – straight lines and shades of beige – lean more towards contemporary designer chic. It also boasts a delightful private garden with heated pool.
Wondering around this magical island, you’re never far from the sea. So it’s no coincidence that eating out involves a lot of ocean-fresh seafood. Head for Les Embruns, a nautical-themed bistro in the backstreets of the Saint-Martin. The food here is delicious and a special mention must go to a starter of poached egg gently cooked inside a lace-thin layer of smoked salmon and served on crisp threads of lightly fried pasta. Other treats include roasted John Dory with asparagus and Colonnata bacon, topped off with a white chocolate cheesecake, washed down with a splendid selection of French wines. As there are only about 12 tables, I’d recommend making a reservation in advance.
The island is certainly a foodie heaven. Practically every village has an invitingly stocked market with stalls selling produce, from espadrilles to soap, from fresh oysters to melt-in-the-mouth bread. The largest market is at Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré while the most scenic is at La Flotte, which occupies a medieval courtyard; surely this is the original supermarket.
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On the morning of departure we pay a visit to the Musée Ernestour Cognacq keen to learn more about the island’s heritage. We then go for a quick dip in the ocean before taking a leisurely bike ride past private gardens, salt and oyster beds, and numerous vineyards. I also make a stop to take ‘wildlife’ photos of some of the local Baudets de Poitou, the famed and rather cute woolly donkeys used for pulling the island’s salt wagons in bygone days.
Ile de Ré is certainly an island of calm; as a result it’s also an artist’s paradise. Apart from the light and the stunning backdrop, there’s just something about the energy here. It’s perfectly balanced between lively and peaceful.
By train: Eurostar from London St Pancras to La Rochelle, change at Paris. www.eurostar.com
By air: Fly Paris or direct to La Rochelle-Ile de Ré airport.
Ile de Ré is accessed via the 3km Pont de Ré. Alternatively, there’s an excellent bus service direct from La Rochelle. It’s an hour’s journey from the city centre and a great way to familiarise yourself with the island. You can also board the (No 3) coach at the La Rochelle train station, which is linked to Poitiers, Tours, Bordeaux and Paris. The journey time from Paris to La Rochelle is under 3 hours. www.sncf.com
www.iledere.com (in French)