Ile de Re: France's Enchanted island of sun, sea and salt
Holidays in France
Madeleine Keane takes a French holiday on Ile de Re, off the west coast of the Poitou-Charentes region.
A bit like when you're expecting, you suddenly notice pregnant women at every hand's turn, when I told friends and colleagues I was going to Ile de Re (off the west coast of France's Poitou-Charentes region), to a person they all said, oh how fabulous, it's a wonderful place, we've been going forever, it's a super holiday destination for families, we've been bringing our children for years, you're so lucky, it's just magical and so on and so forth.
Thus, dizzy with anticipation I took the short 90-minute flight to La Rochelle a few weeks ago. From there it's a hop, skip and a jump across the elegant bridge which connects it to this verdant slice of loveliness. (Note, there's a return toll payable which rises to a hefty €16.50 in the summer months.)
We were staying in its main town, St Martin de Re, in the five-star Hotel de Toiras. As locations go, this one is hard to beat: the Relais et Chateaux 17th century townhouse sits at the corner of the captivating port. I've always loved the sound of boat masts clinking (the sea is so near they seem to tell you in their maritime Morse code), and from our room we could hear them, clear as day. Room in fact doesn't do justice to our stunning quarters that spring weekend: Suite Aziyade, comprising sitting room, bathroom and bedroom was exquisitely decorated in sensuous shades of rich vermilion and enhanced with some carefully curated exotic antiques.
A couple of streets away is their baby sister hotel Villa Clarisse. Mostly painted shades of white, it's more modern in decor and has a swimming pool (available to Toiras guests) with a small spa in the pipeline. Owner Olivia le Calvez, whose husband Didier was general manager at Paris's legendary Hotel Bristol, has done an exceptional job, in design, ambience and with her staff, whose smiling, unobtrusive warmth give the lie to that old canard about French insouciance.
Toiras has a tiny kitchen but what a meal they produce. We dine on scallops and white asparagus, sole with stuffed potatoes and wild mushrooms, followed by a sublime dessert of roasted pineapple served with lemon sorbet and macaroons. And it's refreshing not having to make any decisions. A glass of champagne was suggested as our aperitif while they told us what we were going to eat. With only one choice, sitting in the cosy, pretty dining room, it was a bit like being in your own home, only infinitely more sybaritic and glamorous. (I'd experienced this home-from-home atmosphere earlier when the maitre'd - a Christian Brother-educated Indian - spotting me reading in the peaceful shade of an aromatic garden draped in wisteria and ceanothus, unsolicited, brought me mint tea and lemon cake.) Such a repast definitely deserves a digestif, so we repair to the foyer's roaring log fire with a brace of silky Armagnacs.
Long known as the playground of well-heeled Parisians, Ile de Re has been described as the Gallic equivalent of the Hamptons - which isn't, in my view, entirely accurate: the French island is more understated and relaxed, less frenetic than its New York doppleganger. Also, strict plannning laws - low-storied buildings whose shutters can only be painted from a palette of greens, blues and greys - prevent the McMansion eyesores which detract from Long Island's allure. We spend a day driving round. Originally an archipelago of three islands, ultimately joined up by people, salt and silt, the place is small (30km by 5km) and with 100km of bike routes, all on the flat, we should probably cycle it - but time is short and we are self-indulgent. Bikes can be hired on the island for about €15 a day.
First stop is nearby La Flotte where the markets, brimming with bricolage, food and clothes, are in full swing. Chez Nous Comme Chez Vous and L'Ecoiller are, local sources inform us, the go to eateries in this village. As my companion will be driving home, we head to the supermarket to stock up on some French favourites - foie gras, terrine de lapin, and Le Petit Marseillais bath products - before crossing to the other side of the island and the popular seaside village of Le Bois Plage en Re.
A couple of foodie friends have raved about L'Ocean restaurant there (it's part of a hotel) and indeed it looked like the perfect spot for a long lazy summer's lunch. It's easy to visualise the sun belting down, quaffing oysters and rose, playing spot the celeb (Johnny Depp, Princess Caroline, Lionel Jospin are among the island's many aficionados) while the children lark about in the pool or on the delightful nearby beach.
After a drink in the next village of Ars en Re, we head to the top of the island, where Phare Les Baleines, a picturesque lighthouse, with a gift and coffee shop, is a good spot at which to take a break from biking.
Back at base, early evening and St Martin de Re bustles with families buying ice creams and browsing in the only shop in France devoted to TinTin, while couples peruse the chic clothes and interiors emporia, before enjoying pre-prandials in the bars dotted along the quays.
There's a comforting feeling of really being away from it all, not merely because we're surrounded by water. St Martin was heavily fortified by the great military engineer Vauban and its citadel was also used as a prison. When Alfred Dreyfus was convicted for treason, he stayed here en route to incarceration on Devil's Island. During World War II the Germans added bunkers, the remnants of which are still visible.
For our final night we enjoy a simple but satisfying meal of steak, frites and vin rouge on the other side of the harbour, in Bistro Marin before heading back for an orgy of Shakespearean celebrations on the laptop. While it was a touch cool in April, we still both adored the island's bucolic beauty, its laid-back charm and calm. Idyllic for a romantic break, Ile de Re also struck me as pitch perfect for an old-fashioned buckets and spades family holiday. It is, in summer, I imagine, an enchanted isle.
Ryanair flies three times weekly (Mon/Weds/Fri) during the summer directly from Dublin to La Rochelle. Visit ryanair.com for best available offers.
Rooms in the Hotel de Toiras start from €190, and in the Villa Clarisse from €240. Note price does not include breakfast. See hotel-de-toiras.com.
Villa Clarisse: +33 (0)5 46 68 43 00; firstname.lastname@example.org