The Ile de Ré, on France's Atlantic coast, is where the chicest of the chic go to escape the crowds on Paris Plage. But we can get there, too, and it doesn't have to break la banque!
I knew two things about La Rochelle. Firstly, that the hapless Duke of Buckingham had attempted to attack the fortress there in 1627, but had supplied his troops with siege ladders that were too short. Secondly – and perhaps more usefully – I knew that we could fly there from our local airport, Southampton.
So when we zeroed in on options for a week away, we plumped for a flight to La Rochelle and a stay on the magical Ile de Ré. The island has a growing reputation as a place to be seen in, overtaking the overcrowded Cote d’Azur for some commentators. The short taxi-ride over the Pont de Ré showed us why.
We stayed in Couarde sur Mer, on the island’s south coast, at the Hotel de la Plage. It served as a comfortable, fairly relaxed base, situated, as the name suggests, close to the sea. Couarde boasts a five-kilometre-long sandy beach, complete with watersports, a Kid’s Club and (best of all!) rockpools. The hotel also had a swimming pool, usefully shaded to keep little ones out of the mid-afternoon heat. The pool is described as chauffée, but that was perhaps a little wide of the mark.
The town centre buzzed, but in a laidback sort of way. There is a distinct vibe to the Ile de Ré, generated by those superb beaches and the whitewashed towns with their open-air markets. On the northern coast, the filmset look of St Martin is an intriguing mix of rural charm and sharp designer shops. The luckless Duke of Buckingham tried and failed to conquer the fortress here, too, but a walk around the huge walls is a must for the modern invader. Afterwards, try the Bistrot du Marin on the quayside if you’re in the mood for one of those French lunches that stretch into the afternoon (www.bistrotdumarin.com).
Nearby La Flotte has a quayside packed with excellent restaurants, serving the ubiquitous moules marinière, accompanied by the favoured Ile de Ré tipple, a bottle of ice-cold Rosé des Dunes.
All these towns and villages are linked by a well-established network of cycle routes (see http://www.toutavelo.fr/), which allows visitors to explore the island at their own pace – in our case, a compromise between the high-octane BMX bikes the kids used and my wife’s matronly “sit up and beg”. Whatever gear you choose, cycling through acres of vineyards or past quiet, pastel-shuttered houses is a pleasure of the purest kind. As you bowl along past the saltbeds and protected marsh habitats for which the Ile de Ré is famous, heading towards an idyllic uncrowded beach, you are reminded of what holidays should be all about.
http://www.holidays-iledere.co.uk: this web site is excellent, detailing all the accommodation, from luxury, keeping-up-with-the-Sarkozys style, to more homely B&Bs. It also gives the prospective visitor plenty of background and allows them to research activities.