Across an enormous bridge from La Rochelle, a bridge reminiscent of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay, lies a little French paradise, a Martha’s Vineyard, or maybe more precisely a Nantucket, à la française.
In 2007, when I took my first French road trip with some friends from the language program at the Sorbonne, we passed through La Rochelle. At the time, I wasn’t quite impressed. It was February; the city closed down – the sky grey, the air cold, the atmosphere still and quiet. Not a soul haunted the endless walkways along the seashore. So we didn’t stay long, opting instead to continue down south toward Bordeaux, with a small jaunt through Cognac on the way where we found much more to our mutual liking: vineyards, wine tastings, lush countryside. I had no idea back then what I was missing…
For years, I didn’t give La Rochelle another thought until a few months ago when friends invited me to visit their family beach house on the Ile de Ré.
Hopping on the train from Paris, it’s a 3 hour direct trip to the ocean’s side at La Rochelle. From there, you either have a car waiting for you or you take public transit (40€ cab or 5€ bus) over that enormous bridge connecting the mainland to the island.
Before the bridge was built in the late 1980s, residents and vacationers alike had to catch a ferry to and from the island. From what I gather by listening to the stories told by those who spent their childhood summer’s on the island, it was a scenic part of the adventure, a major inconvenience bien sûr, but all part of the fun, nonetheless.
And now you’ve arrived. What’s next: a walk along the beach, a lunch of oysters on a port side terrace, a stroll through the farmer’s market or along the salt marshes where the famous Ile de Ré sea salt is cultivated?
The island boasts ten towns: Rivedoux-Plage, La Flotte-en-Ré, Saint-Martin-de-Ré, Sainte-Marie-de-Ré/La Noue, Le Bois-Plage, La Couarde-sur-Mer, Loix, Ars-en-Ré, Les Portes-en-Ré, and Saint-Clément-des-Baleines. I’ve had the pleasure to visit Couarde, St Martin and Ars so far.
My impressions, as you’ll see from the slideshow below, are nothing but, well, impressed. The beaches are sandy, unlike those up north near Dieppe or down south by Cannes; and the temperature a mild, gentle 78F (26C) at the height of summer and 45F (7C) in the middle of winter.
If you can imagine it, the Ile de Ré is some sort of extraordinary mix of blue, green and grey painted wooden shutters on white stucco houses with red tile roofs against the backdrop of emerald green landscape left to nature’s preference, melded together with the aqua-green of the Atlantic and the shadow of umbrella trees spread high and wide over the sand dunes typical to the island at the water’s edge.
The next thing you’ll notice is the bikes. The Ile de Ré is a biking island. Everyone has a bike, or rents one. And everyone gets around by peddling. Bike paths are everywhere and even more common than the roads themselves.
I remember the first time I visited Martha’s Vineyard, years ago now, and that feeling I had of instantaneous relaxation, the natural beauty of the place sinking into my skin and mind. I hadn’t felt that feeling reoccur until I was lucky enough to experience the Ile de Ré. It’s a favorite vacation spot for the French (especially Parisians who live relatively near by) and it’s a paradise for those who love the simplicity that comes with the fresh air off the ocean tides, the tingle of the sun’s kiss on your shoulders as you ride a bike through the vineyards and fields of a land left noticeably to its virgin roots.
Definitely recommended. And, from what I hear, the off season – not July or August, is your best bet.