Getaway to the Sunshine on the Île de Ré
The Parisians have left town and tourists are taking advantage of the sunny days… and, dare we say it, the lack of Parisians. But where do those Parisians go? One favoured destination is the Île de Ré. It’s just 2.5 hours on a TGV train from Paris Montparnasse to La Rochelle and then across a bridge onto the island. With a great sunshine quota, temperatures a pleasant 25 – 30 degrees Celsius, wonderful beaches, quaint white-washed villages and a laid-back pace, it’s easy to see the appeal for Parisians.
So much more than its chichi reputation suggests
Our family’s first trip to the Île de Ré came about through our curiosity. What was this island everyone talked about? French friends came up with various comparisons to try to explain it. Some likened it to a French version of Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard in the USA. But other French friends teased us and said we were getting sucked into the hype and we should just go to good old Brittany instead.
Natural beauty and simple charm
So what a wonderful surprise it was to arrive on the island and discover that what this place is really all about is enjoying nature and the simple pleasures of the beaches, the water, cycling, the woodlands, fresh seafood and beautiful white-washed villages with hollyhock flowers everywhere.
There’s a relaxed, family feel to this island. It’s not showy or pretentious
Sure, you do see a lot of Paris number plates on cars (and some Paris-style driving). And if you want to be crammed into a cafe terrace elbow-to-elbow with same people you thought you left behind in Paris, that is certainly possible in high season in some of the island’s busier spots like St Martin or La Flotte.
But the spirit of the island is much more down to earth than that. Families visit the daily outdoor markets of each village to pick up the day’s fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and bread. They cycle to the beach and the kids paddle and play. Eating out is simple and there’s a warm welcome. Grandparents are often in tow.
There’s a relaxed, family feel to this island. It’s not showy or pretentious. It’s like the anti-Côte d’Azur. You really come here to enjoy nature. We love it so much we have spent four holidays on this island. The landscape is captivating, with vineyards, salt marshes and woodland. The villages are beautiful, with white-washed cottages and their famous shutters in grey, green and blue hues. Hollyhock flowers add splashes of colour to the lanes.
The island has a microclimate that makes for sunny weather and warm temperatures. Islanders will tell you they get almost as much sunshine as Marseille! But the gentle sea breezes keep the temperature manageable for toddlers.
The bicycle reigns
You might well want to pick up a rental car at La Rochelle station if you arrive by train from Paris, or at the airport if you fly in from elsewhere. It’s handy to have a car for supermarket runs or day trips further afield, such as to the mainland. But you will quickly discover that this island is all about cycling. There are dedicated cycle paths crisscrossing all over the island and bike really is the best way to get around.
The French adore cycling and it really shows on this small island. It’s lovely to see whole families cycling to the beach together. Tiny tots proudly keeping up (often with no training wheels, even at a young age!). Parents keeping an eye on the group and the grandparents bringing up the rear. Each village has a cycle shop where you can rent bikes and it’s essential to book in advance, especially in the high season. We use Cycland and Cyclo-Surf and we have had good experiences with both.
The island really is a multi-generational destination. Toddlers can enjoy a good old-fashioned bucket-and-spade holiday, teens can learn to sail or surf, and, parents can enjoy delicious seafood and feel they’re getting a real French experience. Each village has a carousel. La Couarde and Le Bois Plage en Re have fun fairs. There are children-friendly spots like the Lighthouse and the goat farm to keep kids amused.
Gros Jonc beach
It might be a small island but the beaches are spacious. There are huge expanses to enjoy. We always recommend Gros Jonc beach to first time visitors. Little ones love the rock pools and there are always families searching for hermit crabs. Visitors to this beach can use the mini-market and restaurant of the Interlude holiday park even if they aren’t staying there and there are also public toilets. Older children can sign up for sailing lessons at the Cabane Verte sailing school. And there is a surf school there too.
We have other favourites too. For beauty head to La Conche des Baleines. Our daughter loves to watch the surfers at Les Grenettes. Out at the far end of the island, near Les Portes en Re, La Patache is great for a walk. Trousse Chemise is for strong swimmers only due to the current.
Markets, artists and oysters
We love the daily outdoor markets. In the high season, each village hosts its own market every day and the fruit, vegetables and fish are wonderful, as it the local goats cheese. Another great appeal of the island is that so many artists are drawn there by the natural beauty and the light. Every visit, we make a special visit to see the Brylinska gallery, which has now moved to Ars-en-Re as we love her work.
The seafood on the island is fantastic. One of our first stops every year is to Cabanajam, a lovely, casual place with oysters, smoked salmon and chilled wine, all served at picnic tables. We also enjoy Aux Freres de la Cote just outside Ars-en-Re, and our daughter particularly loves their frites.
Where to stay?
We stayed in a great house close to the beach and close to La Noue village centre. Ref M114 on the My Home in Ile de Re website.
We had a great stay in a La Noue house, very close to Les Grenettes beach and spacious enough for a family bigger than ours. This house is reference M114 on the My Home in Ile de Re website, which is a great resource for finding a place to stay.
You can never go wrong with an Alistair Sawday self-catering property and he recommends a sweet-looking fisherman’s cottage in St Martin, as well as the house Venelle de la Croix in Ars-en-Re, and Les Voiles in Le Bois Plage en Re.
Our daughter looks with longing every time we walk past the Interlude Holiday Park at Gros Jonc beach. You can camp there or rent a mobile home. With a fun-looking outdoor pool and it being just steps from the beach, I can see the appeal for her. They have a spa and childcare, so maybe I can be convinced!
If you want to spend a fortune, you certainly can. A first-row house with a private, heated pool like Villa Les Ensemberts would be a dream come true, but with a hefty price tag.
What if rains?
It doesn’t rain often – all that talk about the high sunshine quota really is true. But a bit of rain can happen and your back-up plans should include the best aquarium in Europe which is at La Rochelle, the swimming pool at St Martin, the Maline centre in La Couarde for film and theatre, and the goat farm.
MLP’s Top Tips
Basically, all our tips are mostly the same: do everything early in the day so that all you need to do in the afternoons is relax at the beach.
- Hit the markets and do any sight-seeing in the morning. The narrow streets of the villages get crowded by noon and it can be a bit nerve-wracking driving through the lanes with traffic, cyclists and pedestrians everywhere. The mornings are a pleasure and more peaceful.
- If it rains, go to La Rochelle Aquarium early. Why? Because as a rainy day progresses, half the holiday-makers in the entire Charente Maritime region will be doing the same.
- If you are visiting the island in the high season and arriving just in time to take over your house rental at 4pm, do think about getting onto the island much earlier in the day. A certain one of our writers nearly got divorced right there on the magnificent bridge which is, unfortunately, choc-a-block on changeover day. Beat the rush!
- There are some useful articles about the island in the New York Times and the Telegraph
- The island’s tourist office has an unusually good website Destination Ile de Re
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