Enjoy the relaxed pace of life in ‘the Hamptons of France’, a stylish island renowned for its seafood and beaches
It’s not hard to see how Île de Ré became the bolthole of choice for summer holidaymakers fleeing the French capital. With its wide expanses of beach interspersed with pretty towns and villages, the island has a look of accidental perfectionism: a sort of Paris-on-Sea. Everywhere houses are uniformly cream, with terracotta roofs and shutters mostly emerald green hut occasionaly grey or blue, echoing the colours of the ocean.
In season, the island comes alive, its fashionable visitors pedalling the many excellent cycle paths on sit-up-and-beg bikes, pedigree lap dogs peering from their baskets. Others, returning from market, are carrying freshly caught oysters, dainty new potatoes, and some of the island’s prized fleur de sel: salt harvested from the sea by hand and exported all over the world.
“It’s expensive, but for cooking you need just one crystal”, says Brice Collonnier, scooping a handful from a glistening pile at his salt farm in Loix, where square dams criss-cross a flat, windswept landscape. “It’s very strong: like an explosion in your mouth.” He is one of a crop of young farmers – the average age is about 40 – who have moved to Île de Ré to revive the age-old art of evaporating seawater in open pans. ‘When we harvest, it’s ready – we don’t add a thing, it’s a completely natural product.’ And, he says, an ideal accompaniment to the island’s ample seafood.
The sea is the Île de Ré’s lifeblood, always visible alongside its other major industry: bringing holiday dreams to life. At Le-Bois- Plage-en-Ré, the island’s longest and most popular beach, swimmers and sunbathers mingle with oystercatchers wading into the depths; below the star-shaped ramparts at St-Martin-de-Ré, a favoured picnic spot, fishermen rake the seabed for cockles.
Elsewhere, this fortified town, a Unesco World Heritage site, is a maze of cobbled streets and historic houses. They lean in to each other as if sharing gossip as juicy as that traded by the locals, sitting on their front steps in the sunshine.
With its dark-green shutters and white walls, small hotel Les Vignes de la Chapelle is very typical of Île de Ré. Right on the coast in the tiny village of Ste-Marie-de-Ré . it’s surrounded by vineyards. Rooms are are spacious, each with two floors, a lounge, dining garea and kitchenette, plus a terrace opening onto a landscaped garden and pool. Book a salt farm tour through the Ecomusée du Marais Salant or bike hire at Yootoo.