Irresistible Ile de Ré is where you’ll find half of Paris on their holidays, yet the majority of Americans have yet to discover these UNESCO world heritage islands with breathtakingly pretty villages, gorgeous beaches, and some of the most succulent, and wonderfully-priced seafood in all of France. With its laid-back island French seaside chic vibe, I refer to Ile de Re as the Nantucket of France!
The first you will notice on Ile de Re is that absolutely everyone is on bicycles so in high seasons (July to August) make sure to rent your bikes well in advance. Ile de Ré is only 18 miles long and 3 miles wide, but it can take at least two hours to cycle from one end to another. There are many wonderful beaches, vineyards, nature reserves, salt pans, and even pine forests to pedal through not to mention one fantastic oyster shack after another, so plan for a day of it!
Protective 17th-century walls enclose the island’s alluring capital, St-Martin-de-Ré, where cafés and restaurants add a buzz to the pretty harbor. Away from the lively quayside, wander along the Vauban-designed citadel fortifications and onto the lighthouse and its surrounding parkland. Stop at the indoor food market, whose stalls are filled with fantastic local produce – seafood, cheeses, meats and tempting picnic snacks including deep-fried salt cod balls.
A 15-minute bike ride away is La Flotte, St-Martin’s charming smaller brother. Cafés line its dinky little harbor and the village’s sandy beach is a magnet for early-morning cockle pickers when the tide is out. La Flotte’s food market is pure enchantment, with stalls sheltering under medieval porticoes. If you’re on two wheels, carry on eastwards for 10 minutes to the atmospheric ruins of the 12th-century Abbaye des Châteliers, a somewhat eerie sight in this flat landscape.
Antique hunters should head further west to Ars-en-Ré, which is full of bric-a-brac shops and art galleries. The village, officially one of the most beautiful in France, also has the largest harbor on the island and a sailing center. Even before you reach the outskirts, you’ll see the distinctive black-tipped white spire of the 15th-century church, which acted as a beacon for sailors before any lighthouses were built.
The beaches on the southern side are closer to the main villages and, as a result, are more popular. However, outside of the main July-August holiday period the dozen beaches that form an unbroken sandy chain around the island are surprisingly spacious.
Sandy beaches cover much of the island’s coast, which curls into a fishhook at its western end. And that’s where you want to go to avoid the summertime crowds.
Plage de la Conche des Baleines is one long sweep of sand backed by dunes and pine forests, merging into Plage de la Conche and Plage du Lizay.
Les Portes-en-Ré has a collection of beaches, including the sheltered Plage du Trousse Chemise and Plage de la Patache.
Surfers should head to Plage de Gros Jonc near Le Bois Plage-en-Ré for gear rental and lessons and kayakers can rent a canoe near the village of Loix for a lazy jaunt through the salt marshland.
UNESCO World Heritage Military Fortifications
The 9 miles of military fortifications at Saint-Martin-de-Re were built under Louis XIV from 1681 to 1691 by the military engineer Vauban, to defend the local population against an enemy siege and are unique for their scale.
There is no shortage of spectacular Seafood on Ile de Re
If you love fresh seafood, it’s hard to think of a more satisfying way of spending an afternoon than trawling through the oyster shacks along the marshes at Ile de Ré’s western coast. The marshes teem with oysters and mussels, interspersed with salt pans where the island’s prized sea salt is still harvested by hand.
Our first meal on the island was at Le Tout de Cru – a quirky and very French cafe where everything served is fresh seafood – mostly raw and some cooked – all wonderful!
Our favorite meal was stopping for Oysters and yes, plenty of gorgeous fresh seafood washed down with gorgeous white wines!
Fresh oysters waiting to be shucked and devoured!
What a delightful way to serve a coffee, a perfect afternoon pick-me-up with sweets
We had a spectacular dinner at La Baleine Bleue, an Ile de Re institution with creative and sophisticated menu, a cozy interior and terraces with a view of the harbour.
Shopping and Ice Cream
Like any holiday island, there are no shortage of cute shops with stylish clothing and souvenirs.
Tip: if you are planning on taking sea salt home as gifts, you can buy straight from the producers at self-serve stands throughout the island – leave the money in the jar and take your salt bags – its all on the honor system).
And yes eating “glace” or ice-cream is a daily activity and the long line at Le Martiniere is worth the wait!
Hotel de Toiras
The Hotel de Toiras is owned by iconic luxury hoteliers, Didier and Olivia Le Calvez, and enjoys an exceptional location at the entrance of the port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the historic capital of the island of Ré and offers ideal access, via its bridge, to the old town of La Rochelle. They also have two gorgeous villas on the island which can be offered on an exclusive private basis.
The hotel facade, typical of the old Ile de Re residences which inhabited this Atlantic cast island for nearly four centuries, fits in perfectly to the bustle of the habour life which envelopes it.
Olivia Le Calvez was able to refurbish the charming Hotel de Toiras in close co-operation with the famous interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon, by harmoniously combining the charm and authenticity of the Charente tradition with the comfort of a luxury hotel. Each of the 20 rooms and suites of the hotel dedicates its name and decor to the leading historical figures of the region. Old stones, elaborate wainscoting, period furniture, precious fabrics immerse visitors in the décor of the history of the Island of Ré.
Our charming room with A view of the Port
The Presidential Suite
The Charming Garden and adjacent Rooms
The restaurant at Hotel de Toiras, George’s, with its large terrace is the place to people watch and take in the view of the bustling port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. The George’s menu is both eclectic and modern, with a strong regional focus and a great wine list, of course also featuring wines from Villa Clarisse, the owners vineyard in St. Emilion. At least one dinner at George’s is a must while visiting the island.
Breakfast with a view at George’s
Departure morning wake up call came a little sooner than I was prepared for! Ile de Re was the perfect place to overcome our jet lag and to relax a bit before meeting up with friends in nearby Bordeaux for a week of wine tasting! It was not easy to say au revoir to this charming haven of bliss, but I cant wait to spread the word as this little “hidden gem” is definitely worth sharing with a few lucky friends!