Small enough to drive from one end to the other in around 30 minutes, Ile de Ré has an intimacy that’s alluring but never leaves you feeling restricted. Despite its size, the landscape appears to unfold for miles. Expect fields of flowers, vineyards, salt marshes and the most glorious coastline plus the prettiest little villages. It’s what makes this island a favourite with the French. Take a look at the best things to do in Ile de Ré:
Cycling on the Ile de Ré
Ile de Ré is connected to the mainland by a bridge which was completed in 1988. This hasn’t affected the charm of ‘the White island’ at all though at peak visiting times, it can be busy driving over the bridge. Cycling is a favourite pastime on the island. No wonder, it’s pretty much completely flat. It takes around 2 hours to go from one end to the other, a lovely ride. There are more than 60 miles of signposted cycle paths which wind through vineyards and fields. And with the same number of sunshine hours as the south of France, cycling is the best way to see the best bits of this pretty little island. It’s easy to hire a bike on the island with loads of outlets in the towns.
Saint-Martin de Ré
Saint-Martin-de-Ré is the main town on the island, the mini capital of Ile de Ré. This is where you’ll find some of the best restaurants, bistros, bars, and ice cream shops. The town is protected by Vauban-built fortressed walls. It spreads out around an almost impossibly gorgeous waterfront. Saint-Martin is also a World Heritage site. In the 1670s, Louis XIV’s French military engineer Vauban, was commissioned to overhaul the island’s defences. The fortifications now have UNESCO heritage status. Climb the bell tower of the church for a panoramic view over the roofs of the terracotta-roofed houses. You may well spot donkeys dressed in stripy trousers, a local tradition. It’s a hangover from the days when mosquitoes were a problem – they’re not now but hey, who doesn’t love a donkey in a pair of trousers!
Take a Tuk-tuk ride
New to the Ile de Ré and utterly brilliant fun, tuk rides can now be booked in La Flotte, Le Bois-Plage, La Couarde and Saint Martin de Ré. It’s the genius idea of a local, Christophe Sebille. His fleet of environmentally friendly, 100% electric tuk tuks are the most fun way to take a tour. You can even get picked up from your holiday accommodation and dropped off in town or back at your pickup point. The great thing about a Tuk tour is that they can access all areas. So, you get to see the tiny oyster shacks that cars can’t reach. The local drivers can show you the secret places, the salt marshes and off the beaten track. Book at the tourist office or through www.retuktuk.com/
You can’t really do anything at the salt marshes but it’s fascinating to see how the salt that flavours our dishes is produced. On the island they’ve been producing it since the middle ages. Fleur de sel salt is famous in France but it was hardly known outside of the Ile de Ré 20 years ago. People saw it on TV on programmes like MasterChef and wanted to buy it. Now, fleur de sel is revered. It costs several times what the originally salt costs as production is much more time consuming.
Production depends on terroir, the strange French word that’s untranslatable into English but includes the climate, the land and more. Fleur de sel needs the right conditions – especially wind and sun. The crystals are much finer than ordinary salt. The process of making it is totally organic and around 1kg of fleur de sel produced for every 10kg of ordinary.
I loved the salt honesty boxes you can find by the salt marshes. It makes for a perfect (not heavy) souvenir of your visit.
You’re on an island, it’s de rigeur to take a boat ride surely! And there’s plenty of choice from speed boat rides to inter island cruises, fishing trips and yachting. Boat rides can be booked at Saint-Martin, Ars, La Flotte and Portes-en-Ré (details on Ile de Ré Tourist Office website, bottom of this post).
Ice ice baby – ice cream heaven
If you’re an ice cream fan, then La Martinière on the quay in Saint-Martin de Ré will truly float your boat. But take my advice, don’t go for the oyster ice cream or potato flavour ice cream (leave those to the tourists – they’re not for savvy visitors of taste like you). Try the frozen macarons, the mouth-watering lollies or your favourite flavour ice cream. It’s very moreish but sitting on the edge of the port with a sweet treat = perfect!
Head to St Martin de Ré if you like to shop, beware they are irresistible! There are some shops which are high end with price tags to match, but they’re not all like that. I came home with clothes and knick knacks I just couldn’t leave behind and they weren’t expensive. Seaside chic at its very best.
Relax on the beach
There are seemingly endless stretches of silky golden sand surrounding Ile de Ré. More popular beaches like Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré can be busy but if you want to relax and chill in privacy, there are loads more quieter beaches such as La Couarde-sur-Mur or La Noue. Take a picnic, and spend the day staring out over the Atlantic, listening to the waves and just feeling the moment
Pretty as a picture postcard, Ars-en-Ré at the far end of the island is classified as one of the “Plus Beaux Villages de France”. It has a sleepy village vibe in the centre of the town which gets progressively livelier as you head towards the coast. The village is best known for the pointy black and white bell tower of its church which was used as a point of reference for ships. Fabulous little bars and restaurants, galleries and shops and the prettiest little streets make this a must-see.
Another “plus beaux village” on Ile de Ré, La Flotte is officially one of the prettiest villages in France. A tiny harbour town that well worth stopping off for a wander and to discover the lovely coffee shops and bistros, shops and art galleries. Don’t, whatever you do, miss the market, it really is fantastically pretty with a great atmosphere.
When to go to Ile de Re
Best months to go as far as I am concerned are May, June, September. It gets packed in summer but if you go then, head north for quieter parts of the island. My favourite time is early June before the crowds. At this time, the island smells of honeysuckle full bloom, fields of poppies light up the countryside, hollyhocks create splashes of colour in almost every street, figs are ripening and roses drip from walls and window boxes…