Relax: you’re on Ré

by Mary.Novakovich

There’s no need to rush on Ile de Ré. Once you're on this enchanting island off France’s Atlantic coast, swap four wheels for two, tuck into fresh seafood and enjoy a few days out of time

You notice the difference as soon as you cross the bridge that connects La Rochelle with one of France’s most enchanting islands. Here, on the Ile de Ré, time slows down; cars are replaced by bicycles; even the air is softer – in fact, it has more of a Riviera temperature than you would expect along France’s Atlantic coast. It’s hardly a secret among visitors to France, and it’s long been a favourite among the more discerning celebrity and second-home buyers from Paris and Britain, who take advantage of budget flights to La Rochelle. But unless you choose to visit at the height of summer, this sliver of land that measures only 5km by 30km never fails to draw you in and charm you thoroughly.
St-Martin-de-Ré is the island’s capital, a lively place with a pretty harbour, winding cobblestone streets, excellent seafood restaurants and a bustling market. There are several hotels on the quayside, including the luxury Hotel de Toiras and the more affordable Hotel du Port, but for a truly relaxing experience, head around the corner from the harbour entrance to the Hotel Le Clos St-Martin. Built in the two-storey rétais style with whitewashed exteriors and pale shutters, it’s elegant, tranquil and immensely comfortable. Doubles start at €105 per night.
It’s hard to tear yourself away from the two pools (one reserved only for adults) when the atmosphere is so seductively serene, but it won’t be long before you find yourself wanting to imitate the locals and get on your bike. For a country as bicycle-mad as France, it’s not surprising to discover that the Ile de Ré has an extensive and well-organised network of flat cycle paths that makes cycling an absolute joy – and that goes for less athletic types too. Everyone’s on two wheels here, even tiny children strapped into mini bike trailers. Every town and village has bike hire shops, and a day’s hire costs about €10 a day. Liberty Cycles on Cours Pasteur near Le Clos St-Martin offers hotel guests a 15 per cent discount.
Once you’ve got yourself kitted out, follow the bike trail that leads east to La Flotte, which can be reached within 15 minutes while cycling at a leisurely pace. Like St-Martin, La Flotte has a busy quayside full of restaurants and cafés, and it’s also worth wandering through the old market hall to savour the delicious produce on offer every morning. It also has a couple of beaches, but the southern side of the island is where you will find long sandy beaches covering about 15km of the coast. Cycle through the fragrant pine forests (where there are some very good campsites) to reach Sainte-Marie or Le Bois-Plage, where the beaches have got good facilities but where you won’t find the high prices and poseurs of the Côte d’Azur.
The further north you head along the island, the more you notice changes in the landscape; the acres of vineyards (which produce a very good wine) give way to grids of salt marshes. In the old days, the local breed of very shaggy donkey used to pull the salt carts while dressed in colourful trousers to prevent insects from biting their legs. Now every souvenir shop will sell you anything that can be fitted with a little donkey wearing the obligatory bright trousers. It’s a typically idiosyncratic rétais souvenir to pick up, although foodies would be better off buying some of the beautifully presented jars of local sea salt.
One thing you can’t take home, however, is the plentiful local seafood. Oyster and mussel beds dot the landscape, and the delicious creatures turn up on the menus of almost every restaurant on the island. Le Belem in St-Martin’s harbour is particularly good, and the free floorshow provided by the strollers along the quayside adds to the enjoyment of a big plate of mussels and chips on a warm summer’s evening.
While you sit back and savour the relaxed atmosphere, bear in mind that things could change on the Ile de Ré within a few years. The admittedly steep €16.50 bridge toll charge is technically allowed to come to an end in 2012 when the costs of building the bridge will have been paid off. Second-home residents argue that the high toll prevents colossal numbers of day-trippers from spilling on to the island every summer, and want the charge to stay. Locals, on the other hand, wouldn’t mind a cheaper way to nip back and forth to the mainland. It’s hard to say who will win the age-old argument between incomers and locals, but you can only hope that the island itself won’t lose out.