As Autumn arrives in a flurry of torrential rain, it seems the perfect time to bring you this promised post: an update to my Ile de Ré guide. We went back to one of our favourite places this summer and it was as lovely as ever. We used to be frequent visitors, but veered towards Corsica for our holidays the past few years. But now both children are keen cyclists – and one in particular is a chap in need of almost constant movement – it was the perfect time to revisit this utterly glorious island of light.
Be warned: the Ile de Ré is seriously busy in the summer months. It’s connected to the mainland by its sculptural bridge, which was absolutely gridlocked when we arrived. We have never had a car when staying on the island: we tend to get a taxi (although there are also buses) from La Rochelle airport. (Pleasingly bijou in scale – it’s impossible to miss the taxi rank outside the terminal.) The advantage of this is that buses and taxis can use the bus lane – so you have the satisfaction of sailing past the queuing cars.
Of course the ideal time to go is outside peak holiday months. We used to visit in June, which was perfect: balmy days, quiet cycle paths, tables in restaurants, more locals, less invasion! May and September are good, too. In July and August, it’s the Parisians’ equivalent of the Hamptons. But, if you visit as August draws to a close, the island quietens down as the days go on and the French summer holidays draw to a close. On our last days, as the leaves started to fall from the trees, it was just me and the locals queuing to buy our baguettes in the morning.
Second warning: the Ile de Ré is expensive. It was ever thus but Brexit (sorry to utter the B word) has ramped prices up to eye-watering levels. I accidentally paid – wait for it – 23 Euros for two chunks of cheese at the market. A fruit juice could cost nearly £5. But, this being France, coffee, bread, wine and flowers are all still very reasonable. So that’s your essentials covered…
As I said to someone over Instagram Stories, this very much depends on my travelling companion. Sans children, I’d recommend either Villa Clarisse in St Martin, which is a cool, chic pared-back villa, little sister to the legendary Hôtel de Toiras (which is more old school chintzy: I am fine with this btw). We also love the beautiful, friendly Le Sénéchal in pretty Ars-en-Re, where the swallows dart across the hollyhock-strewn courtyard as you breakfast, and the vibe is relaxed, with elegant, vintage interiors which will inspire you to redecorate. (They have small houses which are ideal for families.)
With children, however, we are not hotel people. We like our own space to roam and the freedom to eat as and when we please: leisurely breakfasts in the sunshine, wine and crisps by the pool, barbecues of an eve. This time, we stayed in a very swish Airbnb in La Flotte, which was hidden down a side street and approximately one hundred times as high tech as any house I’ve ever actually lived in.
La Flotte might not have the immediate access to an amazing beach which you’d get in La Bois or Ars, but it’s neatly situated near bustling, chic St Martin, and has its own daily produce market, a good selection of cafes and restaurants (I like moules cooked the local way at Les Pieds dans L’Eau), a branch of La Martinière – the best ice cream on the island (the choice is vast, the cafe on the harbour front also serves waffles and splendid ice cream sundaes), and is near two decently-sized supermarkets. If, like us, you plan to be without a car – it’s a great base.
Obviously, there is only one answer here: get on your bike and get to the beach. If, like me, you care about the aesthetics of the ride, then make a beeline for Beach Bikes, which are a thoroughly pleasing shade of blue.
The island is criss-crossed with cycle paths, so take your time and cycle leisurely between the islands main stops, stopping off at beaches in between. (Even in the high season – if you get there early enough, you’ll have acres of sand to yourself.)
St Martin is the notional capital and suitably stylish it is, too. The pretty harbour is flanked with chi chi eateries, shops selling all manner of desirable goods (baskets *coughs*) and an aesthetic you’ll be desperate to buy into. From here, head along the coastal path (if oysters are your thing, you can stop off en route at one of the casual oyster shacks en route) to La Couarde, across the island. The beach here is a good one – it stretches along the coast to Plage du Petit Sergent and Plage des Gollandieres by La Bois Plage en Re, a much quieter, more local-feeling place to hole up. Further north, there are the salt plains of Loix, further still (not if you have a car/are cycling with legs older than four-years-old) is La Conche des Baleines – between the Phare des Baleines lighthouse and Les Portes – and the beaches tucked behind the forest paths of Trousse Chemise.
All of which I consider areas of particular expertise. Although if it’s a guide to fancy restaurants, I regret that this isn’t the blog post for you. We are more of picnic on the beach/supper by the pool. Every morning, we’d take our basket and queue with the locals at Feuillette for our baguette and croissants, topped up by lashings of coffee (and another coffee en route to wherever we were going), and local cheese and fruit from the covered market in La Flotte.
If you’re in St Martin, you’re spoiled for choice. Try Le Bistrot du Marin, where the steak (rare) and red wine flow until midnight, La Baleine Bleue, or La Table d’Olivia for a treat. We had a lovely lunch outside on the terrace at Le Saint Mart, watching the millionaire’s yachts bobbing gently on the water. The crepes were excellent, the service friendly and the prices not eye-watering. If it’s crepes you’re after, do not miss Au Gouter Breton in Ars.
My favourite places tend to be more relaxed: Les Tilleuls in Saint Marie and right-on-the-beach La Cabine du Bain in La Couarde and La Cible on the little city beach at St Martin, where we had a morning coffee with our toes in the sand, and hung out for ages without anyone batting so much as an eyelid. The children can swim or play in the sand whilst you sip a leisurely coffee (or have a leisurely lunch).
If baskets and basketry are your thing, you will need to arm yourself with a will of steel, for temptation is everywhere. Ditto chic homewares which may or may not fit in your luggage. I overheard a rather intense conversation in La Couarde about whether or not it would be possible to take a rattan coffee table on the plane home. For children’s homewares and delicious clothes for big and little girls you could do a lot worse than the lovely Iloya in St Martin. Saunter along the side streets in St Martin and Ars to find all manner of interiors boutiques and antiquities. I managed to refrain from buying any more baskets (I know!), but found some sweet little coffee cups for my new kitchen in Un Dimanche a la Mer in La Couarde.
P.S. Come back soon when one of my favourite Instagram business stars, Jennie, founder of Lois Avery is going to sharing her Ile de Re secrets with us. I was going to pop them on here but this is such a long post already – and Jennie’s tips are so good, they deserve a post of their own!