Each year there seem to be some locations where everyone is going on holiday. Recent popular destinations have included Oman, Croatia, Greece and this year, the Ile de Ré. If you haven’t heard of the Ile de Ré (and quite honestly, if you haven’t, where have you been?) it’s a small island, just 19 miles (30 kms) long and 3 miles (5 kms) wide, off the west coast of France. It’s accessed by a dramatic 1.8 mile (2.9kms) long toll bridge from La Rochelle which makes arriving an event.
We don’t tend to deliberately follow travel trends, but after years of hearing both of my brothers telling me how wonderful and relaxing and perfect the Ile de Ré was I decided to try and build it into our holiday plans. If you’ve read some of my other blogs you’ll know that we often spend time in a family home on the border of the Dordogne and Lot region in France. We usually build in some time discovering another region on our holidays (heading west to Bordeaux and the coast near there, or south to the Pyrenean foothills for example). This year we chose to split our fortnight in two, with 8 nights at the family home, and then 7 nights on the Ile de Ré.
Did it meet expectations? Absolutely! So, with no further ado, here are our favourite things about our week on the Ile de Ré.
Bikes! We loved using our bikes to get everywhere. Everyone uses bikes to get around on the Ile de Ré. It’s mostly flat and has a great network of car-free cycle paths that criss-cross the island. Imagine this – first evening of the holiday, jump on the bikes for an exploratory cycle from your accommodation. You find yourself in a gorgeous little town with a restaurant that serves huge bowls of mussels and massive pizzas. Winning already. After a delicious meal you cycle home through vineyards (yes, they were a surprise to us too!) at dusk. Kids over the moon to be cycling late and we loved finishing our evening with a burst of fresh air.
We brought our own bikes on holiday but there are plenty of cycle hire companies dotted across the island and each one that we saw had a variety of kid-friendly options available including trailers and tag-along bikes. Most mornings we cycled to a nearby town for a market stroll and a coffee or lunch. In the afternoon Mr P would strap the bodyboards to his back and we’d jump back on the bikes to head to the beach. As on the first night, we headed out for dinner on a couple more nights and cycled back at dusk.
Location! At first it felt like the middle of nowhere but as we got our bearings we realised that our campsite was slap bang in the middle of everything we wanted. Just 10 to 15 minutes cycle to our nearest towns St-Marie-de-Ré to the south and La Flotte to the north, another 10 minutes further on and we could reach the island’s main town, St-Martin-de-Ré. And as the island is only 3 miles wide at its widest point, we were never far from a beach.
Camping! After a week in a comfortable house we chose to camp for our second week. We love camping in our own tent, but for a whole week’s stay we decided to upgrade to a safari tent.
We chose to stay at Huttopia Chardons Bleu which not only offers safari tents (with optional upgrade to include a shower and loo – best €100 we ever spent) but also smarter chalets and ‘gypsy caravans’. Though the campsite was full we never felt that it was too crowded. We often went to the pool at the end of the day when there was plenty of room for the boys to splash around. Croissants for breakfast and a bar and restaurant serving pizza fulfilled our needs. There was a kids club but our boys preferred spending their mornings with us.
Beach! As the boys are really keen on bodyboarding we focused on beaches which would be good for that. Many of the beaches near us were rocky but Gros Jonc, one of the more popular beaches on the island, is sandy and has great waves – not too big, not too small. It is also patrolled by lifeguards which was just as well as there were many beginner surfers in the water when we were there. It was only a 25 minute cycle away for us, but there is limited parking available for those arriving in cars. There’s also an ice cream place serving delicious ice creams in supersized waffle cones.
Rocky beaches have got their uses though. Pop down at low tide and join the local fisherman hunting for marine life. We spent a very happy morning rockpooling at Plage de Montamer, our closest beach, topped off with delicious pastries on the way home. You can read more about our rock-pooling adventure here.
Our campsite recommended that we try a beach at the far west of the island as it was meant to have good waves and be a lot quieter than Gros Jonc. We knew it might be a bit far to cycle so we slightly reluctantly got in the car and went exploring.
We found the beautiful Plage du Petit Bec backed by sand dunes and pine forests. We’d packed a picnic (topped up by food bought in the market in Les Portes-en-Ré) so got there early and found it was almost empty. It did get busier as the afternoon went on, but was never crowded. There were no facilities there but that gave it a really chilled atmosphere.
Markets! You haven’t ticked off your French holiday bucket list unless you’ve visited a market. Luckily for us our local town, La Flotte, held one every morning in the market square. This is the place to stock up on fresh fruit and veg and see what else takes your fancy. For us that meant visiting the fishmonger and selecting a variety of shellfish to cook up back at camp.
La Flotte is full of lovely shops bursting with tempting goods – great souvenirs, clothes, beachwear as well as cheese, fish and meat. We also enjoyed the small street market at Les-Portes-en-Ré where we stocked up with yummy treats for our beach picnic – warm chicken wings and the most delicious prawn beignets (donuts).
…and shops! Beware the temptations of the shops on the Ile-de-Ré. All three of the towns we spent time in (La Flotte, St-Martin-de-Ré, Les Portes-en-Ré) were stuffed to the brim with gorgeous shops full of stylish homeware, quick-dry beach hammams, trinkets and clothes. Luckily for me my two boys don’t have much patience with those types of shops, so my wallet got off lightly!
Food! If you’re not into shellfish there’s plenty on offer, but if, like us, you are then a week on the Ile-de-Ré is a gastronomic delight! Huge steaming bowls of mussels, crayfish, prawns, lots of different types and sizes of clams – we were in heaven. Not to mention the oysters! As you travel around the island you’ll see oyster beds and salt marshes (the island produces top quality salt), and oyster shacks are dotted around too. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to make it to one of the famous oyster shacks, but we made up for it when we went out for lunch or dinner. The kids even tried them!
Have you been to the Ile-de-Ré? What are your top tips? Where’s your favourite place to visit on the French cost?