St Tropez on the French Riviera and the Ile de Ré, Charente-Maritime share several features – the same number of hours of sunshine for instance. Both attract a lot of tourists and celebrities in summer. But in other ways they could not be more different: bling-bling, showing off and the international jet-set on one side versus chic, elegance, charm and locals for the Ile de Ré.Or rather just ‘Ré’, as the connoisseurs say.
Ré is a long, tiny, flat island just off the Atlantic coast, near La Rochelle. Composed of 12 villages, gorgeous little white houses and cobbled streets, beautiful vineyards, potatoes and asparagus fields, cycle tracks, stunning beaches and salt marshes. The authentic and simple charm of Ré is carefully cultivated by the local councils who impose restrictive construction rules: no overhead cables, no new building higher than 2 storeys. All shutters have to be painted in one of 16 shades of blue and green only…
The ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ of the Ile de Ré is highly addictive and having spent many summers there, here are my top tips to make the most of your visit to the Ile de Ré:
Ten things you should know about visiting the Ile de Ré
Avoid August at all cost!
The population of the island jumps from 20,000 permanent residents to 250,000 people in summer! Go in June to make the most of the very long summer days or September, when the light is so special…
Where to go
The further on the island you go the wealthier it becomes. Actors, writers, the rich and the famous prefer to stay at the very end of the island in a tiny village called Les Portes. Intellectuals and politicians (including one former Prime Minister) can be seen in Ars…
Visitors who bring caravans and tents usually stop in the first part of the island.
But Ré is much more than its tribes. Be a chameleon – be everyone in one day! Start with early morning coffee at Saint -Martin before visiting the market at La Flotte. Enjoy a long lazy lunch in Ars. Cycle al afternoon in the salt marshes between Ars and Saint Clement. Swim at sunset at La Conche des Baleines. And end the day with an apero an dinner in Les Portes.
Les Frères de la Cote
With plastic chairs and tables, this is definitely not what you would call a fancy restaurant. Les 3 Frères de la Cote is however one of the best-kept secrets of the island. Locals and tourists in the know book days in advance to enjoy les 3 Frères’ signature dish: moules/frites! Arrive at 7pm for the apéro (have a pineau, the local wine) at sunset. Spectacular! Local, friendly, laidback atmosphere guaranteed.
Dip back in history
While tourists tend to go to the big farmers markets in Ars, le Bois or St Martin, there are two lovely, less known markets in La Noue and La Flotte. In La Noue, the market is small and very local. After two days, the farmers will remember your name and be happy to show you the best of the produce – it’s much cheaper than the other markets too. La Flotte’s market has been there since the 16th century and it never ceases to amaze to think how many have shopped here over the last 600 years!
Skinny dip anyone?
While there are many spots to watch the sunset from, La Conche des Baleines beach at the very end of the island is superb. It is quiet, even in summer, as soon as families have left the beach for dinner. It’s often warm until late and if you are tempted, this is the place for a skinny dip. There is also a huge wild fig tree on the sand dune, loaded with delicious figs in September. But don’t tell anyone, it’s our secret…
Head to Les Colonnes in St Martin, a UNESCO World Heritage site. From the terrace of this fabulous hotel/restaurant you’ll have great views over the Vauban fortifications. The locals love this place but often tourists are unaware of it. People watch, relax and enjoy a coffee.
Get to the soul of Ré
Fish locks are an inherent part of the cultural heritage of the island and have shaped its life and economy since the Middle Age. Take a visit to understand what this island and its people are made of…
Make a prayer in each church of the 12 villages
All the churches of the island are simply gorgeous and offer a different experience. They all very different and each played a key role in the history of the village.
In the old days towers were painted black and white to serve as a day mark for sailors. The church in Ars is still painted this way. Climb to the top of the bell tower in Saint Martin for breathtaking views. The church in Loix has a sign: ‘liberté – egalité – fraternité’, put there in 1789 over the door…
Asparagus, wine, seafood and cheese are just some of the local products of the island. In June the strawberries called Mara des Bois are simply the best. You’ll find producers stalls set up along the roads (try the one between the villages of Le Bois and La Couarde), organic and grown with love…
Ice cream or waffles with crème Chantilly?
La Martiniere in Saint Martin is the equivalent of Berthillon in Paris. If you love icecream, you’ll love ths place. It’s touristy and get busy but it’s worth it. Try the waffles with home made chantilly cream and caramel sauce made with Ile de Ré se salt – utterly delicious!
Royan, near Ile de Re, and what to see there…