Oysters and romance in the Ile de Ré

by simon.nixon

Loveliest of French islands, Ile de Ré has all the ingredients for an idyllic, laidback holiday. Think long sandy beaches, retro charm, friendly people and superb seafood. Who needs St Tropez?

All it needs is Cary Grant or an elfin Audrey Hepburn. I’m cycling along an empty track, sandwiched between an azure Atlantic and gently rolling fields embroidered with vineyards. After several stops for seriously smiley holiday snaps, my girlfriend and I break for lunch at a shabby chic cabane serving ocean views, oysters and local vino. It’s straight out of a Fifties romcom.

It’s also typical. If you’re after a romantic long weekend, the Ile de Ré, the intriguing finger of island off La Rochelle, has all the classic ingredients: scenery (washed by more sun than anywhere in France outside the Med), food, fun activities and a quite startling joie de vivre.

It’s infectious and it hits you early. Minutes after landing, as we crossed the bridge from the mainland, I could already feel work stress dropping away, my anxieties anchored far behind. ‘Welcome to the world’s most beautiful island,’ cooed the taxi driver in dulcet Gallic tones. ‘You’re so lucky to be going here.’

I don’t think he worked for the tourist board. And he’s certainly not the only one sharing the sentiment. Tasteful wealthy Parisians have long eschewed the overheated Riviera for the island’s almost post-war charms. Everyone, and I mean everyone, seems to be smiling: shopkeepers, hoteliers, locals shopping in the market, restaurateurs, fishermen.

But no one smiles more than cyclists, particularly young families towing toddlers in mini-carts. Free to roam the miles of car-free tracks that chase the coast and dissect the interior’s vines and salt marshes, they sport broad perma-grins. We hired our bikes from one of the many rental shops (www.cycland.fr) and spent 40 minutes crossing the island to Le Bois Plage (www.holidays-iledere.co.uk/extras/maps-for-printing), where the sand stretches for miles into the shimmering east and west.

Mums, dads and kids played volleyball and racquetball, or spread out picnics. But hell, we weren’t on a family break, so we left them far behind, strolling along the safely shelving beach, sea between our toes. It is, of course, more bracing than the Med, but with the Atlantic breeze caressing the dunes, it had a wonderful salty taste of the Hamptons.

The sand, vines and lungfuls of fresh air are all very lovely, but the epicentre of any romantic break has to be St Martin. Hollywood couldn’t conjure up a more picture-perfect French port, with whitewashed houses with terracotta tiles and pastel shutters clustered around a harbour jiggling with small yachts. It’s like pre-Bardot St Tropez before it embraced overpriced boutiques, traffic jams and Eurotrash.

The petite yet perfectly formed Hôtel de Toiras, where you open your window to hear the chatter of waterside diners, is in the thick of the action. But we chose the more serene Le Clos Saint-Martin, tucked into the Vauban fortifications three minutes' walk from the centre. Behind the façade of a Provencal farmhouse, it’s all creams, earth tones and a cosily stylish mix of period and contemporary furniture.

So the beds won’t disappoint, but what about food? Well, the Ile de Ré is a major producer of oysters, the world’s most famous natural aphrodisiac, which has to be a good start. And St Martin is a culinary hotspot, overflowing with gourmet restaurants. It shouldn’t be a surprise - its visitors are some of the most discerning members of the most discerning foodie race on earth.

Prices are around half of those in the south of France for excellent fish, fresh from the quay that morning. And service is far better. There’s none of that Riviera attitude. On at least three occasions, the owners of family-run eateries served one of the dishes and came to chat at our table.

Just about all restaurants share the same understated fishing port chic: stripped wood tables and chairs, stone or deck floors, clean white walls. At La Baleine Bleue (www.baleinebleue.com), the most renowned gastronomic restaurant in port, where we paid €120 for two with wine, I had an epic roasted lobster and sweet potato wafer followed by amazing chocolate pud.

But you don’t have to hammer the wallet. At nautically themed L’Ilot (16 Quai Nicolas Bourdin), a wonderfully fleshy daurade (white fish) with vegetables and rice on a savoury crepe was just €11. Equally good was a three-course lunch at Le Skipper (27 Quai de la Poithevinière), including plump, ocean-fresh moules and quaffable island vino, for about €20. And if you need some extra romantic assistance, local favourite L’Avant Port (8 Quai Daniel Rivaille) serves acclaimed queen scallops alongside a view of dramatic sunsets.

If eating is a crucial part of a long weekend escape, so is good old-fashioned retail mooching. St Martin is chocker with galleries selling tasteful art and sculptures influenced by the ocean: the driftwood school of design. My favourite was Promenarts (www.promenarts.com), which has a sister shop in Sydney and promotes works from Australasia, Asia and Europe, including regional artists like Nadine Bourgne.

For the island’s best market, however, we pedalled east to La Flotte, where the square dripped with zingingly fresh fish and stalls selling spices, clothes and furnishings. We browsed for an hour or so and then, over oysters and rosé, simply sat back and people-watched, submerging ourselves in the contented buzz of local life. It seemed so much more romantic than at home. I’ve never skipped down the aisle at Sainsbury's holding my partner’s hand, but I felt like doing it here – and that tells you an awful lot about the Ile de Ré.

Where to stay

Le Clos Saint-Martin
Stylish, romantic vibe - it has two pools, one reserved for adults, where you’ll be serenaded by birdsong rather than screaming kids – and fair prices, with doubles from €120 a night including a fairly average breakfast.

L'Hôtel de Toiras
History and local art merge in a 17th-century house with 20 rooms and suites and a restaurant serving pricey nouvelle cuisine in the heart of the port. Doubles from €165.

La Jolie Brise
Follows the ubiquitous whitewashed walls, shutters and terracotta tile formula, with well-equipped apartments in the market town of La Flotte, grouped around a pool and in-house bike rental. Two-person apartments from €80 per day.