Visiting the Île de Ré and not hiring a bike is a bit like turning up to a fancy dress party in your normal clothes; everyone cycles here. The island’s bike lanes are the arteries through which everyday life flows, routing riders to pretty villages, fragrant markets, sandy beaches and numerous places of interest where languid hours can be merrily whiled away.
When Parisians abandon the capital over the summer months, many make a beeline for the Île de Ré, where the easy-going pace forces you to contemplate the finer things in life: a good cheese from a local market; a freshly shucked oyster; the song of a skylark floating down from a cloudless sky.
Two decades ago, only a handful of holidaymakers made it to this seahorse-shaped island, which floats off the west coast of France, a short hop from La Rochelle. But then a bridge was built to the mainland, and overnight Île de Ré started to evolve from a windswept agricultural outpost to one of the country’s trendiest seaside destinations.
It’s the St Tropez of western France — or so the cliche goes. But that seems a little unfair. The Île de Ré feels altogether more wholesome and less superficial than its supposed southern counterpart.
The island got rich on salt, but the white gold rush didn’t last. The once-thriving industry has now all but evaporated; a handful of dedicated individuals continue to ply their trade on the salt pans, but they’re labouring for pride and posterity rather than profit. Much of the salt was exported through Saint-Martin, the island’s UNESCO-listed capital, whose labyrinthine lanes are lined with whitewashed buildings, boutique shops and rambling restaurants. It’s a carefully cultivated aesthetic; island authorities have strict rules on how its towns and villages should look.
Speaking of beauty, the Île de Ré’s beaches are a major draw. Sweeping, sandy and free from development, they’re places to contemplate life, and then return the following year to do it all again.
Three to try: Laid-back afternoon excursions
The Île de Ré is renowned for its birdlife, which can be seen island-wide, but is perhaps best viewed at the Réserve Naturelle de Lilleau des Niges, near Ars-en-Ré. Look out for the avocet, marsh harrier and black-winged stilt, which has red legs and a long up-curved beak.
Café du Commerce
This eccentric watering hole in Ars-en-Ré is festooned with peculiar paraphernalia (things like wooden skis, ceramic doves and old film posters), which make no sense and are all the better for it. It’s the perfect place to gaze over the quay on a sunny afternoon, and the food is good too.
Conche des Baleines
The sweeping sands and grassy dunes of Conche des Baleines conspire to make it one of the best beaches on the Île de Ré. It’s worth sticking around until dusk here because the lingering sunsets really are magnificent; the nearby lighthouse is also worth a visit. Allow about 20 minutes by bike from Ars-en-Ré.
Bring it home
Donkeys in pyjamas
Eyewitness: Prisoner of paradise
The scenery, if not a cure for an aching derriere, is certainly a distraction. I watch as vineyards that wouldn’t look out of place in Bordeaux give way to shimmering salt pans that could belong to Africa. Oyster farms, too, become a regular sight.
Oysters are the Île de Ré’s signature dish and the cycle lanes are littered with shacks selling them. I stop at one — La Cabane de l’huître du Saunier — for a plate of the freshly shucked shellfish and a glass of local rosé, which sommeliers scoff at but I find passable.
La Cabane is located in the no man’s land in the middle of the Île de Ré. The landscapes here are wild; there are no villages, few houses. The manicured streets of Saint-Martin, due east, seem like a long way away.
I slurp the delicious oysters down before hopping back on my bike and heading west to Ars-en-Ré, another town of manicured beauty. Its houses, as the rules state, are whitewashed, with terracotta roofs and blue shutters.
Here I meet a Parisian called Bernard Frigière, who left the capital and settled on the island because his GP told him to. “I was diagnosed with asthma and my doctor said I should come here for the air,” he says.
“That was back in the 1960s.”
Save for stints in Paris and New York, Frigière has lived here ever since; the Île de Ré’s picturesque landscapes and pace of life just kept luring him back.
I like Ars because its streets echo with birdsong and because pirates are supposedly buried in its cemetery. But the main reason is because Ars has the closest thing I can find on the island to a pub. Sitting right on the harbour, the quirky Café du Commerce is decked out with art deco antiques. It’s owned by Pierre Ollivier, another Parisian, who can often be spotted sipping wine and puffing cigarettes on the deck with the house dog, Netty.
“I came here for the first time 60 years ago,” says Ollivier, who’s now 68. “The island is different from the rest of France. It has its own identity. The people here are welcoming and friendly.”
Ollivier has travelled all over the world — he used to own restaurants in Paris and Texas — but his love affair with the Île de Ré endured. He bought the Café du Commerce back in 1984 and hasn’t been able to drag himself away since. “When I was young, my dream was to buy a boat and sail around the world,” he says. “I never thought I’d stay here.”
But the Île de Ré just won’t let him go; he’s a prisoner of paradise, though maybe we’re all prisoners of somewhere.
Many budget carriers fly to La Rochelle from the UK, but if you have time, take the train (Eurostar then TGV), lingering in Paris for a day or two. From La Rochelle, bus it to Ars-en-Ré, check in at Hôtel Le Sénéchal (doubles from £88), hire bikes (cycland.fr) and explore the island at your leisure.
Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)