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Saint-Martin-de-Ré harbor. Photo by Yann le Henand.
L’Île de Ré has an enduring love affair with the sea: it shapes every aspect from the cadence of life to the colour scheme. The landscape is layered in green, white and blue—from the painted boats to the lumbering hollyhocks around each doorway. In fact, there’s a building code to maintain the two-story height and the local features. This slender, 30-kilometre island is connected by bridge to La Rochelle, a port city near the Bay of Biscay.
L’Île de Ré’s nickname is the French Hamptons: in the summertime, Paris is the subtext when throngs of harried city-dwellers arrive with beach bags in tow, beguiled by promises of rejuvenation. The island’s population is approximately 17,000 and multiplies twentyfold in the summer. But it differs from the Hamptons in one important respect: it lacks pretension and focuses on les petits plaisirs: oysters washed down with the local Pineau de Charentes; the powdery dunes; the aroma of pine and lavender in the air.
Start your tour in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the historic capital and the liveliest of the ten municipalities. You can inhale flaky pains au chocolat at the Maison Marin while reviewing the map of l’Île de Ré inscribed on its exterior. For a better view of the city, clamber up the road to the Église St-Martin, the Gothic church that commands the skyline; from the tower, you can see a tide of apricot roof-tiles and the star-shaped citadel erected by Marquis de Vauban, Louis XIV’s military engineer.
St-Martin-de-Ré. Photo by AntoineDoyen
Here, the bicycle is king of the road and the best way to explore the island’s tranquil beauty and 100 kilometres of trails. Careen through the port and cross a moat where ânes are grazing in a field ablaze with hollyhocks. These donkeys were once salt-bearers clad en culotte (in trousers); the accoutrement was meant to act as a flyswatter. The bicycle trails rarely feel congested although every family on l’Île de Ré seems to be on wheels. It’s easy to wander from the main trails, but impossible to get lost – all roads eventually lead you home.
You’ll need to get used to the rugged cobblestones to catch glimpses of other towns on the island. In Loix, a weathered farmhouse turns out to be the Salt Museum. Breathlessly race up all 257 steps of Phare des Baleines (the Whales’ Lighthouse) to admire the archipelago from a bird’s eye view; children can be seen playing hide-and-seek in the abandoned bunkers on the polished beaches of Saint Clément des Baleines. Circle back and land on the promenade of the island’s most popular beach Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré where bankers peruse Le Monde, newlyweds tenderly embrace, and toddlers fingerprint sandcastles.
Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Photo by photox0906
When you return to Saint-Martin-de-Ré, an army of sunburned shoulders will greet you in front of the island’s revered ice cream parlour La Martinière. If childhood could be distilled into one flavour, it would be found here, in lustrous tubs laden with glaces. Fleur de Sel is the signature flavour, but they also have Rocher (with crunchy Ferrero Rocher bits), cactus flower or peach-lavender; other flavors are not for the faint of heart—or stomach—like the oyster-caviar ice cream.
Île-de-Ré port and lighthouse. Photo by Yvon Merlier.
L’Île de Ré is the anti-Ibiza: in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the nightlife consists of people sauntering around the port. The excitement goes up a notch when a motorcycle gingerly skirts the port under the glare of locals and tourists alike. Most visitors linger on the quay peering into sailboats, imagining whom they belonged to or where they had been. On a clear night, the moon can seem so close that it appears to be anchored to one of the masts.
On l’Île de Ré the illusion of time is powerful, but every visitor wonders how swiftly it will unravel once you leave the island’s charms behind. Just remember to put a polished stone in your pocket: it’s a succinct reminder of the sea’s inexorable might. It allows the enchanted island to always remains within reach.
PHOTO CREDITS: Flickr photos published per Creative Commons 3.0 license with photographer credit in captions
Cara Waterfall aspires to a Parisian state of mind—their manifesto for life, their appreciation for les petits plaisirs. A former Paris resident, writing for BonjourParis sparks her dreams of Paris. Please click on her name to read more about her and to see other stories she written for BonjourParis.
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