Ile de Ré by guest writer Fiona Quinn
Why I love Ile de Ré
The small island of Ile de Ré on the French Atlantic coast, was on my wish list since I was at school. I read in my French textbook about one of the characters going there on holiday and that was it.
The island is in Charente-Maritime, part of Nouvelle Aquitaine. My mum moved to the département of Charente in 2004, then part of the Poitou-Charentes region and since then I’ve had the chance to visit and stay on the island numerous times.
Each time I visit, I discover a little something extra that makes me feel even more at home here.
Back when I was studying French at school, the island was more remote and only reached by ferry. Today it’s joined to the mainland at La Rochelle with a 2.9km toll bridge.
So who else loves Ile de Ré ?
Despite better access which helps attract a chic clientele of French politicians, film stars and well-heeled Parisians (some compare it to the Hamptons in Long Island), this isn’t a glitzy destination. It’s remained a peaceful island.
Dotted with tranquil villages and their quaint streets filled with pastel-shuttered homes, Ile de Ré sits in a rural landscape of big skies, salt marshes surrounded by dunes and sandy beaches, vineyards and pine forests deep with ferns.
Ile de Ré translates as the island of ferns. Once occupied by the Romans, the name is believed to come from the Latin word ratis meaning ferns.
There are 10 villages on the island to visit, each with a different character: Rivedoux-Plage, La Flotte, Sainte-Marie-de-Ré, Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré, La Couarde-sur-Mer, Ars-en-Ré, Saint-Clément-des-Baleines, Les Portes-en-Ré, Loix, and the main town of Saint-Martin-de-Ré.
How to get around
The picturesque French holiday spot encourages you to take a step away from the modern-day. Promoting the use of bikes, the island has created a 110-km network of cycle paths that crisscross this tiny (almost flat) landmass through open countryside and linking beaches to small towns.
Avoiding jumping on a bike in Ile de Ré is like never taking the tube in London – everyone’s doing it. The wide trails are suitable for the whole family who can pedal safely away from passing vehicles.
Almost every hotel, campsite and village has at least one place to hire bikes and helmets, with electric bikes, trailers for kids and dogs, and even tandems. Maps detailing all the routes are available everywhere, online or via the app.
From one end to the other, the island is 30km (19 miles) long and 5km (3 miles) wide. From Sablanceaux to Les Portes-en-Ré, the cycle route is 31.5km and takes an average cyclist a little more than 2 hours to ride.
Check out hiring a bicycle here
The former capital of the island is St-Martin-de-Ré, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, the French clientele looks effortlessly chic in their linen shorts or floaty dresses on their sun-tanned bodies. The slogan on many a tote bag reflects the vibe: “Be Chic, Be Frenchy, Be Ré.”
The small harbour is surrounded by stonewashed restaurants and the town has become a stopping-off point for people flying out of La Rochelle airport (only a 30-minute drive away).
The lively harbour front is busy lunchtimes and evenings in summer, but out of season, you’ll find it easy to get a table. It’s the perfect place to sit quietly listening to the tinkle of sailing boat masts in the breeze with no sounds of passing traffic. Pedestrians walk or push their bikes through the streets, while drivers have to leave their vehicles at designated car parks, most of which are free for the first half-hour.
Locals like to start their meal with an aperitif of the Cognac-based Pineau des Charentes, followed by fresh oysters in season, moules marinèieres (mussels) or galettes (savoury buckwheat pancakes). For dessert, colourful La Martinière sells its own locally produced ice cream and has more than 60 flavours to choose from including salted caramel, mint choc chip and even Smurf.
Away from the harbour
Step away slightly from the harbourside, however, into one of the cobblestone back alleys, and you’ll get a chance to take photos of the renowned pastel-shuttered cottages and honeysuckle-lined lanes.
One tradition you can see in St-Martin is “Les ânes en culotte” or donkeys in pyjamas.
Donkeys were used throughout the island on farms and to carry salt from the marshes, which were notorious for the flies and mosquitoes that love the hairy animal’s juicy flesh.
The donkeys you see here wear striped cloth breeches to protect their legs and promote healing. Said to date from around 1860, the tradition started when a local woman used her husband’s shirt to dress the donkey’s wounds.
Today, children can take a short stroll on a donkey’s back around the Parc de la Barbette at the end of St-Martin harbour (from April to November weekends and holidays).
At the far end of the island, the black-and-white steeple of the 15th-century Saint-Étienne church in the village square of Ars-en-Ré pierces a cloudless sky. It was used as a landmark for passing sailors.
Nowadays, visitors climb the belltower to make the most of the far-reaching views from the village across the saltmarshes.
The village is listed as one of the most beautiful in France and has a covered food market next to outdoor stalls selling clothing and trinkets.
Also on the list as one of the most beautiful villages in France, La Flotte is a miniature version of St-Martin.
With a few restaurants dotted around its small harbour, and a smattering of upmarket souvenirs, home decor and clothing shops, the village is most known for its medieval market selling locally grown fruit and veg from the cobblestoned courtyard.
Le Phare des Baleines lighthouse
The Victorian lighthouse sits on a windy outcrop on the far western end of the island overlooking its older sibling, the 17th-century Tour Vauban. At 57-m high, the energetic can climb to the top and overlook the nearby Plage des Conches and out across the Atlantic.
What to buy on Ile de Ré
I love shopping for unique items when I travel. Ile de Ré is famous for its local produce. The island’s fertile land and abundant sea mean that souvenirs from the island are plentiful.
One of its most renowned products, sea salt, is farmed here in the traditional way. Around 75 producers harvest the salt in the marshes using age-old techniques. The two types found here are gros sel (coarse salt) used in salt mills and cooking, and fleur de sel, a fine, slightly wet salt harvested by hand. It’s then added to caramel to produce vast quantities of salted caramel.
From the sea, oysters grown on the flatbeds are a local delicacy in season, while succulent mussels and sea urchins are also regional specialities.
On land, Ile de Ré has its own Cognac and the local aperitif, Pineau des Charentes, which come from grapes grown in the local vineyards.
Fruit and veg grown here include fresh strawberries, Ile de Ré new potatoes (similar to Jersey new potatoes and picked mid April), as well as asparagus, broad beans, cherries, tomatoes and peaches.
Fragrant smells in the shops and markets come from the scented soap made from donkey’s milk (lait d’ânesse). The highly prized milk calms the skin with its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Markets throughout the island are open every day in season, and each village has a market. The largest market at Le Bois-Plage has a huge fish market, and plenty of stalls selling clothes, souvenirs and trinkets.
How to get to Ile de Ré
There are numerous flights from UK airports to La Rochelle.
Once you arrive at the airport, you can either take the bus (see By bus below) or hire a car to your destination. The car hire building is a bit of a trek from the terminal, but once in the car, it’s a short 10-minute drive to the arc-shaped toll bridge to Ile de Ré (see By car below).
Trains to La Rochelle connect from Bordeaux or Poitiers where you can join the TGV to Paris or Bordeaux. From the station, you can take the bus.
Dover to Ile de Ré by car takes around 8 hrs 30 mins non-stop. It’s 787 kms (489 miles) and the fastest route has autoroute tolls. You go via Rouen and Le Mans then take the bridge to the island.
A bus picks up from the station – connecting with the Paris train – and airport to Ile de Ré every half hour to an hour with stops in nearly every village. You can buy a ticket on the bus for 5 euros for the day or 11 euros for the week (prices as of 2019).
The 3E Express bus runs from the station with limited stops; the 3A and 3B stop at both the station and airport and stops throughout the island. It takes about 30 minutes to Rivedoux-Plage and 2 hours to Portes-en-Ré, at the end of the island. It also connects with smaller shuttle buses on the island.
About guest writer, Fiona Quinn
Fiona Quinn is a francophile travel writer and editor. She’s lived in France on and off during the past 30 years, including as a student in Paris, ski saisonnaire in Savoie and Haute Savoie, and a home-owner in sunflower-filled Charente.
Check out her website.