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Understanding Ile de Ré means being au fait with the French term, bobo: bourgeois-bohemian. Spanning just 30km, this Atlantic island in the south west of France is known for its understated, inherent chic. Dreamy ports, crashing waves and vibrant markets are all part of its day to day charm, as are jacket-wearing donkeys (tres chic non?) and idyllic seafood restaurants. Long has it been the go-to sunning spot for rich Parisians and savvy A-listers; locals know that Audrey Tautou fetches her morning baguettes from the market at Ars en Ré, and where to find Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis’ old holiday home. But it’s the done thing to play it cool, meaning despite its star-studded summer months, Ile de Ré remains fresh and untouched by the masses (and little documented online).
Still, every summer the population surges from July to September, known as “la saison”. Holidaying on the island means submitting to the relaxed vibe and letting wild beaches and cobbled streets whisk you away. From the moment you set foot to sand, you renounce stress, resign car to driveway and while away the hours riding old-school bicycles – the preferred mode of transport – to one of three spots: beach, market or restaurant. Vast oyster farms and salt marshes stretch across the land, and with herons and seagulls swooping around them, the call of nature is never far. At the top of your island bucket list should be oyster tasting. Why? Ile de Ré oysters are tipped as the best in the world.
Nature aside, the island is made up of several small villages – St Martin is the largest and La Couarde the chicest – all of which are interconnected by bike paths. Due to building regulations, each of them has remained quintessentially Ile de Ré – never taller than one story and white-washed with shutters painted in traditional maritime colours.
Having spent a lifetime holidaying in La Couarde, and later moonlighting in summer jobs as supermarket cashier, ice cream girl and oyster farmer, take it from an insider: Ile de Ré is one of the most wildly attractive and addictive places you’ll ever discover. Book your flights and pack the espadrilles; here’s how to spend a summer weekend off radar on Ile de Ré, including the best bits you won’t find online.
This three-star hotel sits in the beating heart of La Couarde – the most elegant village on the island. With leafy tree branches spilling into each other over the terrace and an old carousel still turning merrily a few metres away, it’s the true Ile de Ré experience. Rooms are no frills, yet clean and painted in the island tones of white, grey and light blue and sea green. It’s a simple unembellished glamour that matches up with the relaxed local ambience. The breakfast (very important) might just be the best you ever had. Thanks to Monsieur Marin’s renowned bakery a short way down the street, you’ll be presented with boundless springy pastries and breads, with local jams to match. Tranquility is inescapable. Rooms from €85.
For all the sweet, understated hotels of the island, there’s one that smacks of luxury. Located in the main town of St Martin, four-star Le Clos is tucked away just behind the buzzing centre. Sticking to a traditional colour palette of blue-grey and white, the rooms offer spacious, relaxed living and the staff on reception (who are used to hosting famous faces) know how to look after their guests. Unlike most hotels here, this one is also equipped with a spa, Le Spa by Clarins, which is available for personal hire even if you aren’t staying there. With relaxation spots, herbal teas, Clarins treatments and hammam spa facilities, it will set you straight into holiday mode. As for restaurants, they are just around the corner – go explore. Room price varies.
Translating as “the beach hut” La Cabine de Bain is every bit the shabby-chic lieu that people flock to the island to enjoy. Located on the corner of La Couarde’s quintessential cobbled main street – which makes up the idyllic view from its terrace – the restaurant is a favourite among locals and tourists. Don’t let its chilled atmosphere fool you, though: it’s owned by a decorated Northern Irish chef (known for his phenomenal sauces) and his French wife. The menu varies day to day depending on the fisherman’s catch, but you can expect freshly caught seafood, beautifully assembled dishes that pack a punch and sauces you’ll never forget. Smart diners book in for lunch to make the most of the cut price set menu.
Popular is underrated. A seat on the elegant blue and white terrace of the island’s most famous restaurant, La Baleine Bleue, is hot property for good reason. Here, it starts and finishes with electric ambience; situated on the inner rim of the port in St Martin, it’s best on a summer evening, when the sun sets and casts a red hue over the boats and water. The classic French menu is heavily influenced by seafood given its surroundings, but is intended to suit all. Pricey it may be, but for the quality, the buzz and the view, it’s very much worth it. Don’t go home yet. Once dinner’s over, the tables are pushed back to make room for dancing, and when that wraps up is anyone’s guess.
Treat this restaurant as our little secret. Only open during the summer months and hidden away in the backstreets of La Couarde, La Salicorne has an exclusive, fine-dining feel and it certainly doesn’t shout about itself (it’s France – nonchalance always works). People come here to indulge; think rich French cooking, unexpected combinations like scallops in roquefort sauce and expertly selected wine to match. Unlike most restaurants of this calibre, the short menu at La Salicorne virtually never changes; as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, and believe us, broke it ain’t.
Ile de Ré is made for cycling, but after kilometres out exploring, your body’s bound to beg for a well-earned treat. Au Gouter Breton is a takeout creperie on the oft travelled cycle route to Ars en Ré and – frankly – it’s a must visit. Just a few metres up from the main port of the village on (yet another) pretty cobbled street, the little shop serves galettes; savoury pancakes originating from Brittany, that are usually packed with egg, ham and cheese. It’s the ultimate comforting lunch and the most French fast food you’ll ever discover. The bonus? It’ll set you back virtually nothing. Wander down and eat yours by the port, watching the boats sail by.
One rule: Ile de Ré without a bike is not Ile de Ré at all. As soon as you arrive, head for one of the many rental shops and hire your bike out for the whole weekend. From coastal routes where waves crash and foam every few pedal strokes to scenic rides by the fresh salt marshes and oyster farms, the island is covered in intertwining cycle paths. Take the route to Le Phare des Baleines, the towering white and red lighthouse on the west coast which dates back to 1849, to swat up on history and catch an incredible view. But it’s the simple pleasure of evening air against sunned skin as you pedal towards dinner and back that’s most charming of all. That quirk alone is what makes Ile de Ré addictive, romantic and impossible to forget. Check out Cyclosurf, a network of eight bicycle rental shops on Ile de Ré.
Renowned for its world-class oysters, Ile de Ré is speckled with seafood shacks as common as you might imagine rum bars in Martinique. Heed our advice: skip ordering oysters in restaurants. Time dies when you’re eating seafood straight from the producer, surrounded by their salt marshes, oyster beds and the herons that stalk around them (and you’ll be saved an unnecessarily huge price hike). Follow signs saying “degustation” (that means “tasting”) and you’ll be discreetly tucking into ocean fresh oysters, mussels and clams in no time. La Cabane du Feneau in Loix comes highly recommended; lost to the world between the marshes, their oysters are served in rustic baskets decked out with seaweed.
A hard life of sun, sea and cycling requires well-planned stop-offs; cool off from the heat at this La Couarde ice-cream shop. Small, it may be, but Alain, who founded the business 36 years ago, keeps his shop well stocked with unforgettable flavours – over 60, to be precise. Chocolate lovers will be hooked by the zingy chocolate orange, but for a taste of the island’s specialty, opt for a scoop of salted caramel. Made with “fleur de sel” – the fine salt you’ll see piling up in the sun-bathed marshes – it packs a punch. Alain also serves crepes and waffles, because…when on holiday, why not?
Being a small island, beaches are never hard to find, no matter where you choose to stay. Lucky enough, the best ones are also in close proximity to markets. Our suggestion? Make a day of it and cycle into La Couarde in time to catch the morning market, which sells fresh fish, meat and vegetables, as well as clothing and souvenirs. Once suitably stocked, make for the beach. Surfers and watersport seekers will love la plage de la Pergola, but if you want to lounge with metres of sand to yourself (and zero sign of tourism) turn right and walk along. It quickly gets less and less busy, meaning peace and quiet, but for the crashing of the waves and the squawk of the gulls.
Party people, direct yourselves to La Pergola, La Couarde’s only nightclub. The beachside bar, club and terrace is invariably packed as soon as la saison kicks in. Locals mix with holiday makers, and the island ambience can get wild (in an innocent Euro-pop kind of way). It’s a classic French discotheque, so be ready for anything, from US charts toppers to Mika, Shakira and old bangers like the Grease mega-mix. Here, anything goes, and the bartenders’ stealthy cocktails certainly encourage clubbers to throw some shapes. It’s not Chiltern Firehouse, but you’re on Ile de Ré: it’s most fun when you let your hair down and leave everything else behind.
This très chic wine bar is located on the main street of La Couarde, and benefits from a constant stream of well-dressed aficionados. With an outdoor terrace and garden as well as indoor seating, the light interiors make for a welcoming environment in which to sample fine French wine, charcuterie and cheese. One vital piece of advice: don’t waste time with the wine produced on Ile de Ré. It’s not good, and all the locals know it. Ask the staff to point you in the direction of something from further south to make the most of your visit. You’ll lose track of time, but that’s not such a bad thing with a glass of Bordeaux firmly in hand. In the morning, stop by for a coffee en route to the market.
Those not in the know would have a hard time finding this small wine cellar on the main street of La Couarde, run by a friendly monsieur named Greg. It’s not a bar, per se, but he’s a real connoisseur and great salesman and you’ll quickly find yourself taken by his humorous conversation and amusing t-shirts, with several tasters in hand. A huge mix of people frequent the small, bottle-covered cellar, from locals, to visitors from as far afield as Russia. (And rumour has it that Greg has recently started serving pizza, which is an undeniable bonus.) L’Accro Paul offers a unique experience that money can’t buy. Splash out a little, though, and leave with a bottle chosen to suit you perfectly.
This St Martin club is legend. It’s changed hands and names a number of times, but the important news is that it’s still going strong. Given the relaxed feel of the island, a surprising amount of revelers party at Le Bastion by night and only begin to wander home when the sun starts to rise. It’s as close to Ibiza as Ile de Ré comes, and with a line-up of locally well-known DJs, the hype is real. Needless to say, it’s best on a Saturday night; turn up around one am when the party really gets going.
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