Green Traveller's Guide to Ile de Ré, France
In combination with our guide to La Rochelle, here is Green Traveller's blogger Ginny Light's guide to the idyllic island of Ile de Ré on the west coast of France, with tips where to stay, eat and visit based on her visit there this summer.
Until a bridge joined the Ile de Ré to the mainland in 1988 it was accessible only by boat and was a holiday spot primarily for wealthy Parisiens who did their best to keep it a secret. Nowadays, a 3km bridge spans the stretch of Atlantic Ocean across from La Rochelle so it's much easier to reach this island idyll.
The local authorities have done a fabulous job maintaining Ile de Ré as a gentile island backwater thanks to some stringent construction regulations. If you're looking for a tranquil island retreat, this is the place to come (although August is best avoided when the French descend en masse for their ‘grandes vacances’).
There are ten villages on the island and any would work as a base for a family, couple or group looking to explore the island. Twin centre breaks are possible, but given the size of the island, most explore from one point. Saint Martin de Ré, the capital, La Flotte and Ars-en-Ré are centred around pretty harbours, meanwhile Le Bois Plage en Ré has the most seaside resorty-feel and Ste Marie de Ré is the oldest village on the coast. These are the slightly larger centres with more accommodation and shops, and most have play areas, tennis courts, spas, daily markets and other services. The south side of the island has the largest sandy beaches, and while the north-west still has spectacular beaches, it tends to be less well visited. Here the beaches are backed by forests and salt marshes, both easily explored by bike.
Comparisons with the Riviera abound, presumably because of the nature of the visitors from France’s political and social elite. As far as this writer is concerned, there is no comparison - ok, the Atlantic is a little fresher than the Mediterranean, but the Ile de Ré is less stuffy, from a meteorological and attitude sense, less expensive (a harbourside moules frites can be had for 12€), and far more accessible thanks to the network of flat cycle paths, open to...
Any age With the highest point above sea level at a lofty 19 metres, and with electric bikes, child seats and trailers widely available, there is nothing to stop visitors of any age enjoying the Ile de Re by bicycle. This is most definitely not a destination for the lycra-clad crowd. For children, it is a great chance to get to the beach under their own steam. The next village, offering refreshment, sun cream, beach buckets or just a sit down, is never too far away. It is also a chance to give the map to your kids and let them guide you to the next stopping off point, which brings me to…
Getting lost There are 100km of cycle paths across the island and not all of them are clearly signposted. The cycle map, while helpful to a point because it has a table showing distances between all of the villages, does not have road names so needs to be combined with a street map or smart phone mapping app to find one’s way around. That said, it is the getting lost down hollyhock-lined cobbled streets that is one of the great pleasures of cycling the Ile de Ré. Get lost among the whitewashed houses and blue, green and grey shutters with just the rattle of the bicycle frame for company and the resplendent...
Blooms The Ile de Ré is festooned with flowers throughout the summer. The most notable is the rose trémières, or hollyhock, which establishes itself in every pavement crack and blooms all summer with its crepe-like flowers of pink, purple and cream. In places great care has been taken to cultivate flowerbeds along parts of the cycle track where hollyhocks mix with salvia, sea lavender and garlic. Nature lovers should take the time to visit the Lilleau des Niges nature reserve in the north-west. Samphire and mustard plants grow among its salt marshes in the summer, meanwhile the birdlife is boosted by migrant visitors such as the Brent Goose and Great Plover. Tables offer self-service salt shops with produce harvested the old fashioned way from basins dug into the marshes that fill with sea water that evaporates leaving behind crystals of salt. It is here that the donkeys in pyjamas once plied their trade, their legs dressed in stripey fabric to protect them from mosquitoes. The legend is kept alive for the benefit of young visitors to the island, but nowadays donkeys just help out with soap production, which utilises their milk.
Maison du Fier museum on the reserve has a number of interactive exhibits about the flora and fauna which are great for families. Most of the exhibits are still in French but gradually more is being translated into English. The museum sells cold drinks, nature-centred souvenirs and offers various tours of the reserve. Entrance costs 5€. Most visit by bike or car, but it’s also possible to paddle board around the salt marshes, one of the island’s many other sporting offerings...
Beyond bikes Beyond cycling, the beaches, great seafood and historic streets, the Ile de Réé offers a huge range of sports. The Atlantic breeze makes for superb sailing be it scenic boat trips or sailing lessons, windsurfing and kitesurfing, meanwhile there are a number of paddle boarding, kayak and fishing outlets (www.iledere-nautisme.com). Most of the villages have tennis courts, playgrounds and the obligatory minigolf, while there’s also horse riding and Nordic walking. Speed junkies might prefer jetskiing, wakeboarding, waterskiing and ‘donut’ rides where an inflatable ring is pulled behind a boat at high speed. But mostly life on the island is serene, thanks in part to...
Rules and Regulations Rustic, rural tranquility does not happen on its own - there are countless rules and regulations that ensure that the Ile de Ré does not become a victim of its own success. Buildings over two storeys and large-scale hotel developments are banned, no construction work, private or commercial can be carried out over the summer, all shutters and doors on the island must be painted one of 16 authorised shades of blue, green and grey, and cyclists should not cycle on the main roads, and conversely many roads bear a ‘no entry’ sign with the exception of ‘sauf cycles’. There are no overhead cables, no traffic lights, no billboards, no rubbish, and no construction is allowed on the beach unless a building existed previously. No laws can stop the traffic stopping...
Ice cream One of the major causes of traffic jams in the Saint Martin de Ré harbour each summer? La Martinière ice cream shop. So famous is this ice cream maker that it is spoken of on the streets of Paris, despite not having any shops beyond the Ile de Ré. Disciples come for the 66 flavours, with new additions each year (apple and honey or pine nut were new this year) and staples such as salted caramel which incorporates the fleur de sel that is collected in the island’s salt marshes. It is the caviar of salts. For the brave there is ice cream made using the local potato or oyster flavour, also of Ile de Ré provenance. One of the latest outposts is at Le Phare des Baleines, a lighthouse popular for its epic views of the island. Also best viewed from the air are the fish locks, an ancient way of catching fish by flooding a pool with seawater then filtering the outgoing water to leave behind the catch. Magnificent in their scale and simplicity, they arc out elegantly from the foot of the lighthouse and adjoining museum.
Where to shop The shopping is rather sophisticated for an island of Ile de Ré’s size, perhaps a reflection of its cosmopolitan visitors. There are countless clothing and antique shops among the souvenirs, homewares and local produce shops. La Sardine in Saint Martin de Ré sells well made leather goods, meanwhile Chapellerie Comme au Marché does an excellent line in Panama style hats, fishermen’s hats and caps and Esprit du Sel is the place to go for marsh-harvested sea salt.
Most of the villages have daily markets every morning, with La Flotte and Le Bois Plage en Ré offering the most extensive range of local food from pineau, the popular wine-meets-cognac aperitif to baguettes, cheese, strawberries and pate - everything you need for a picnic.
If the surroundings bring out the artist in you there is an excellent art supplies shop, Atelier Denis Raulet in Ars en Re selling paper, canvas, paints and brushes. The fashionable village is also host to Marie & Benoit a trendy clothes and interiors shop that sells retro homewares and elegant French linen. Meanwhile Migration in Saint Martin de Ré offers more affordable homewares such as glasses, rugs and ceramics.
The village of Loix has an artisans village where you can see sculptures, soap and honey being made among other crafts.
Where to stay Most visitors to Ile de Ré rent holiday houses or apartments, but there are also many ‘hotel du charme’ on the island and a huge variety of campsites from rustic and basic to glamping.
Hotel Le Galion: This pretty hotel overlooks the Atlantic and the Vauban ramparts in Saint Martin de Ré. Of the 29 pretty bedrooms, 22 have sea views and all have private bathrooms with a bath and separate toilet. There’s a little outdoor terrace, a few parking spaces beneath the hotel that need to be booked in advance (15€/night), free disabled parking outside and free wifi. Double cost rooms from 115€ between April and September.
Where to eat La Cible is one of two restaurants on the beach in Ile de Ré (La Cabane de La Patache is the other one). It flows onto the beach in the day with a simple coffee and pastries breakfast served from 8.30am and offers atmospheric, casual dining in the evening. The changing menu utilises local ingredients as well as reflecting global influences. I ate a superb tuna tartare with lime and basil that was fresh and piquant. Mains such as octopus of Galicia with semolina in cuttlefish ink reflect Mediterranean influences meanwhile the playful cocktail menu and free shuttle bus to a La Pergola nightclub that departs at 1.30am suggests a party atmosphere descends once plates have been cleared. A two course meal costs around 22€.
There are countless family-run oyster shacks or ‘cabane’ along the coast offering freshly plucked seafood and sometimes cooked dishes alongside local wine. Ré Ostréa just outside Saint Martin de Ré offers bar stool dining alongside the oyster beds. For the oyster addict, there is now a vending machine at L’Huitriere de Ré in Ars en Ré that dispenses oysters 24/7, thought to be a world-first.
Le Bistrot du Marin is a portside institution in Saint Martin de Ré that stays open all year, unlike many restaurants, and is consequently popular with residents as well as visitors. The Daily specials are a reasonable 6.90€ for starters and desserts and around 16€ for a main course. I had a simply prepared but delicious plate of langoustines and followed with a steak with the restaurant’s famous homemade chips. The service is happy and relaxed and the comings and going of the harbour make for great entertainment.
O Parloir feels like walking into a brocante with its mismatched furniture and courtyard hung with quirky art. The vibe is Balearic thanks to the dance music backdrop and experimental dishes. It costs between 18.70€ and 29.50€ for two courses. I had a fresh and flavoursome tartare of seabass with mango followed by beef onglet with confiture red onion.
Cote Jardin has a terrace shaded by grapevines away from the hustle of Saint Martin de Ré harbour. My monkfish brochette with homemade tagliatelle and pesto was delicately cooked and delicious, although tartare of beef was evidently the most popular dish looking at the other diners. The bill comes to around 28€ for two courses a la carte or 17€ from the daily menu.
Getting around There are electric and fuel buses between the villages and connecting the island with the mainland, or as some residents call it, the continent. The buses around the villages are free and cost a few euros?? for a longer journey around the island. Neither buses nor cars are immune to the stifling traffic jams that dog the island in August so the best option is to leave the car in one of the many free public car parks, such as the one just outside Saint Martin de Ré and take to two wheels for the bulk of the holiday. Bar a cross-island trip of around 30km, most journeys by bike are less than 10km. There are bike rental shops in every village which offer bicycles, trailers, child seats, locks, helmets, electric bikes, tandems, tricycles, mountain bikes, fat tyre bikes (for riding on sand) and child bikes. Taxis are few and need to be booked in advance (get taxi numbers from the tourist board webiste, below) but new to the island is Re Tuktuk, an electric tuk-tuk that seats six and offers tours or just pick-ups.
Getting there By train: There's a direct train from Paris to La Rochelle then you can board a bus just outside the train station for the short journey over the bridge to Ile de Ré. Currently the journey from Paris to La Rochelle is just over 3 hours, but from this July the LGV fast train will launch between Paris and La Rochelle reducing the journey time to 2.5 hours.
>> See Greentraveller's journey planner: Train from London to Ile de Ré
By ferry: The closest ferry port, St Malo, is about 3.5 hour’s drive away. It is served from the UK by Brittany Ferries.
Crossing the 3km bridge to the Ile de Ré by car costs 16.50€ in summer (half price in winter) and is free on foot or by bicycle. Taxis from the airport cost around 40€ or there is a bus from the airport or from La Rochelle train station. The website of the lle de Ré tourist board has a well translated English version and is a good place to start planning a trip with detailed information about transport as well as accommodation and what to do on the island.
==== Disclosure: Ginny Light was a guest of the French Tourist Office, Atout France. She has full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting Ile de Ré in June 2017. All opinions are the author’s own.