Dune-backed beaches, chic shops, cycle paths and perhaps a glimpse of Johnny Depp... the Ile de Ré is one of France’s most alluring holiday islands - but pick your base carefully in high season
As you cross the arching two-mile road bridge from La Rochelle to this little French Atlantic island, you feel as though you’re shrugging off the 21st century for an old-fashioned world of bicycle rides and picnics in the sand dunes. The island claims to have as many hours of sunshine as the South of France - its summer heat tempered by Atlantic breezes - but the laidback atmosphere is a world away from the glitz of the Cote d’Azur.
Its low-key vibe attracts celebrities such as Johnny Depp, and it’s a popular bolt hole for smart Parisians - which means the charming capital of St Martin is packed during July and August. Keep it for a day visit and instead base yourself in one of the little seaside towns or villages bathed in luminous Atlantic light, where ranks of hollyhocks line the lanes and passageways and bicycles are propped up against the red-roofed, green shuttered houses.
Ditch the car as soon as you arrive and hire bikes to skim along the well-marked cycle routes that criss-cross the island, among the salt marshes and vineyards, the pine forests, oyster beds and vast, dune-backed beaches.
By ferry and car, to La Rochelle and on over the bridge (€16.50 return toll). Or travel by air or train to La Rochelle and take a taxi to your hotel (about €40 to Le Bois Plage or La Flotte, slightly more to Ars en Re). Ryanair, easyJet, Jet2 and flybe have regular summer flights from the UK.
All the main towns have bike hire shops. Hunt around for the most comfortable model; you’ll be clocking up the miles. Cyclo-Surf (www.cyclo-surf.fr) has several outlets and a range of reliable bikes for all ages in good condition (adult bikes from €28 for three days). For longer journeys consider hiring a moped or scooter (from about €50 a day).
There are two bases I’d particularly recommend: Le Bois Plage and Ars en Re.
LE BOIS PLAGE
It has a winning combination of superb, west-facing beach, a lively market and all the buzz of a small resort. It’s a manageable cycle - even for children - through cornfields to the wider range of shops and restaurants in La Flotte, St Martin and neighbouring La Couarde.
Hotels in Le Bois
Hotel L'Ocean is only 500 metres from the beach, popular with families in summer and has decor straight out of the pages of an interiors magazine. There is an understated nautical theme, soft grey and green paint against coir carpet or stripped wooden floors, Lloyd Loom chairs, a bar like an old-fashioned ship’s cabin and an outside eating area shaded by huge sails. Beyond the small garden are the newest and largest rooms, leading out onto the swimming pool. Doubles from €80.
Trésors des Dunes is a chic little b&b, even closer to the beach, with four bedrooms prettily decorated in greys and whites; breakfast is served in an airy conservatory or terrace overlooking the garden and there’s a small pool. Doubles from €95-€135 a night.
Wake up in France (www.wakeupinfrance.co.uk) has self catering properties on the island, including several in Le Bois Plage.
L’Ocean (as above) for good local fish, oysters and mussels and a changing menu of daily specials. About €35 a head with wine.
La Salicorne (0033 546 2982 37) in neighbouring La Couarde serves great seafood in its airy dining room or on the terrace; open from April to end September. From €25 a head without wine.
ARS EN RE
One of the prettiest little towns on the island, with an old quay, interesting shops and galleries and a superb market. The northern reaches of the island have an away-from-it-all feel, quieter and more laidback than the south. It’s just a short bike ride from Ars to the hook of the island and the vast, untamed beaches and pine groves around the coastal villages of St Clement des Baleines and Les Portes en Ré, popular with artists (who sell their work in local galleries) because of the clear Atlantic light. The grassy dunes around the Phare de Baleines lighthouse are reminiscent of Cape Cod - and on a clear day you feel you can almost see the shores of America.
Hotels in Ars en Ré
The hotel Le Senechal makes a charming base. Plum in the middle of Ars, it has 26 rooms, individually decorated in chalky whites and soft colours and a pretty garden with small pool; from €70 a night with breakfast for a small double to €230 for a four-bed suite. Owners also have chic self-catering properties nearby.
In nearby St Clement des Baleines, the campsite La Cote Sauvage (open April to September) is set among trees with direct access to the magnificent beach; take your own tent or hire a yurt, sleeping four in proper beds (from €210 a week).
Restaurants in Ars en Ré
Aux Freres de la Cote (00 33 54 629 0454) in Ars, a simple but buzzing fish and seafood restaurant, with tables overlooking the sea. Moules frites (€12) is its signature dish.
Or buy a picnic from Ars market, probably the best on the island - and head for a beach.