Destination Guide – L’Île de Ré (Atlantic Coast, France)

France’s Atlantic Coast is perhaps best known for it’s long white sandy beaches, heavy swell and epic sand dunes, but it’s picture perfect islands have thankfully remained a little more elusive; one of the main reasons we fell in love with the postcard-pretty Île de Ré this summer.

Travelling from La Rochelle (a picturesque medieval fortified port town and popular holiday destination in its own right), you’ll first glimpse this 30-kilometre long island as you reach the top of the arching bridge that connects it to the main land.

Ile de Re South Beach
Ile de Re’s Long Sandy Beaches

With the arrival of warmer weather, chic Parisians flock to this island’s white sand beaches and historical ports in favour of the crowded beaches of the Riviera. Île de Ré provides the perfect mix of island life à la française: shopping village markets, cycling coast-hugging vineyard-weaving trails and eating local oysters by the sea.

And the oysters alone make a trip to Île de Ré worthwhile; this idyllic island is located in France’s most celebrated oyster growing region, the Marennes Oléron. Oysters here are known for their quality and flavour, especially those that have been matured in claires (sea-side oyster basins filled with saltwater to refine the oyster and remove impurities while it fattens) and are sold as fines or speciales de claires. They can be enjoyed directly, shucked at the source, from one of the many producers’ cabane à huîtres – rustic wooden oyster shacks with sea-facing terraces built by oestriculteurs on their oyster farms – dotted along the northern coast. To go with your freshly harvested oysters, these shacks also provide chilled wines and gourmand seafood platters. Ré Ostréa, has some of the island’s best quality oysters, as well as a stunning sea-facing terrace.

Oyster shack
Oyster shack on Ile de Re

Oyster consumption doesn’t stop outside of the cabanes, and you’ll see many island holidaymakers downing the local speciality in the numerous cafés and bistros that adorn the old port towns of the Island’s northern coast. Saint-Martin de Ré (a UNESCO heritage protected former citadel that has retained all of its old charms) is the largest and oldest of these, and remains the cultural centre of Ré island life. Overlooking the harbour here is the Hotel Tories, a refurbished 17th century shipbuilders house that oozes old-school charm. There is a small dining room, La Table d’Olivia, serving simple and refined seafood dishes (bookings are essential, even for hotel guests). From here, you’re only a skip away from the harbour’s eateries where seafood served on sun-clad terraces is the order of the day. Our pick is Bistrot Marin, a modest diner with a dedicated kitchen team dishing up excellent seasonal seafood and bistro classics; think prawns, oysters, fresh fish or, if you’ve hit your seafood limit, terrines, steaks and duck.

Make sure to venture outside of Saint-Martin de Ré to the Island’s other villages, each with their own unique feel. La Flotte, Ré Island’s next biggest port, is a lower-key version of Saint-Martin (including a pleasant harbour and well-to-do clientele), but boasts one of the island’s most charming markets set in a medieval courtyard.

The large butcher stall is a highlight, with one of the best rillons charentais (a life-changing chunky hash of slow-cooked pork and fat) you’re likely to come across. Also in the square, Coffee n Co, a local coffee roaster operating out of a van, does mean espressos with more than a dozen single origin roasts available to be enjoyed with home made pastries.

In the middle of the island, Ars-en-Ré, though much smaller, is perhaps the most picturesque of all the island’s villages with a pretty central square surrounded by the island’s iconic whitewashed cottages complete with their colourful wooden shutters.

A handful of these cottages, right in the centre of town, make up Hotel Le Sénéchal, a hip, laid-back hotel with light-filled rooms offering views over the village and onto the sea. The hotel does a mean breakfast spread, but for other meals, head around the corner to the excellent Tour du Sénéchal. This food store serves breakfast and lunch, as can provide you with everything you’ll need for an epic picnic. Open in the evenings until 9:30pm, Tour du Sénéchal also operates as a wine bar serving simple tapas and local charcuterie and cheese. The drink selection is small but one of the best on the island, along with La Part Des Anges, in neighbouring Couarde-Sur-Mer, a boisterous wine bar and cave a manger, with an even greater selection of low-sulfite and natural wines.

Don’t skip the south coast of the island that stretches between Rivedoux-Plage in the east, to Saint-Clément-des-Baleines on the isolated west coast. This side of the island is known for its laid back vibes, with rocky ports and yachts giving way to sandy beaches and surfboards.

Ile de Re
Ile de Re South Beaches

Our favourite of the beach villages is Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré which boasts a stunning, long beach, a diverse selection of cafes, beach bars, and restaurants and hosts the island’s biggest food and craft market that spills out from the market hall onto the small cobbled lanes surrounding the central square. L’Hotel Restaurant l’Ocean is one of the best dining options in town, and also offers cosy rooms in a charming cottage with a well-appointed swimming pool.

Whether you stay by the beach or in one of the port towns, the entire island is easily accessible by bike. The majority of visitors choose to pedal around the island’s 100 kilometres of dedicated cycling paths, weaving around the ruggered coast and criss-crossing vineyards and oyster farms. The only trip that might test your legs is if you venture out to the lighthouse at the far west of the island. If you do make it this far, climb to the top and check out one of the most spectacular views in France.

When to Go

Île de Ré is an increasingly popular summer destination in France, and accommodation should be booked well in advance during peak season.

Shoulder seasons, May to June or September to October, are the best times to go, when crowds thin out a little and accommodation is easier to book.

How to get there

Île de Ré is connected to the mainland by a toll bridge at La Rochelle (€16.50 return in summer, €9 return the rest of the year). Regular bus services run from La Rochelle between the island villages.

La Rochelle is 3h30 by TGV from Paris, with trains leaving every two hours.

Direct flights to La Rochelle airports are available from Lyon, Poitiers, London Stansted and Southampton year round, and in summer from Geneva, London Gatwick, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Dublin and Porto.

Where to eat

Ré Ostréa
Oyster Shack, € (count up to €120 for dinner and drinks for two)
Address: Chemin de la Galère, 17410 Saint-Martin-de-Ré
Phone: +33 6 63 91 80 19

La Table d’Olivia
Contemporary French, €€ (count €120-200 for dinner and drinks for two)
Address: 1 Quai Job Foran, 17410 St. Martin-de-Re
Phone: +33 5 46 35 40 32

Bistrot Marin
Classic French, € (count up to €120 for dinner and drinks for two)Address: 10 Quai Nicolas Baudin, 17410 Saint-Martin-de-Ré
Phone: +33 5 46 68 74 66

Restaurant l’Ocean
Contemporary French, € (count up to €120 for dinner and drinks for two)
Address: 172, rue Saint-Martin – 17580 Le Bois Plage en Ré
Phone: +33 5 46 09 23 07

Where to drink

La Tour Sénéchal
Address: 7 Place Carnot, 17590 Ars-en-Ré
Phone: +33 5 46 29 41 12

La Part des Anges
Address: 42 Grande Rue, 17670 La Couarde-sur-Mer
Phone: +33 6 71 17 90 01

What to do

Île de Ré is a cyclist’s paradise with over 100 kilometres of bike paths. Bike hire is available all over the island. Cyclo-Surf is one of the largest hire agencies, with eight locations across the village.

Address: 7 Avenue Victor Bouthillier, 17410 Saint-Martin-de-Ré
Phone: +33 5 46 09 08 28

Where to stay

Hotel Toiras
5* hotel, doubles from €210
Restaurant, Contemporary French, € (count up to €120 for dinner and drinks for two)
Address: 1 Quai Job Foran, 17410 St. Martin-de-Re
Phone: +33 5 46 35 40 32

Hotel Restaurant L’Ocean
3* hotel, doubles from €85
Address: 172, rue Saint-Martin – 17580 Le Bois Plage en Ré
Phone: +33 5 46 09 23 07

Hotel Le Sénéchal
3* hotel, doubles from €85
Address: 6 Rue Gambetta, 17590 Ars-en-Ré
Phone: +33 5 46 29 40 42