Île de Ré: Pearl of the French Atlantic

Two men cycling down a country road

Specks of sunlight showered the inside of our bus. It wasn’t too hot, not for a late July afternoon, but a little muggy nonetheless. I must have been weaving in and out of sleep because I don’t recall ever crossing the bridge separating the island from the mainland port of La Rochelle. I do remember passing the Abbaye des Châteliers; I remember the ruins standing lustrously in their field of gold, a relic time couldn’t bear to fully ravage.

By the time we rolled into the pôle d’échanges just outside the fortified walls of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, I was fully alert. The doors opened, and we were met by cooling billows of ocean breeze. There we were—midway down the French Atlantic coast, between the weathered shores of Brittany and the temperate beaches of Basque Country. Frequented by the glamorous likes of Princess Caroline and Johnny Depp, Île de Ré remains in evergreen favor with the French, and we were about to discover why.

Painted map of Ile de Ré France on a building

We trotted the cobbled road into Saint-Martin, passing window shutters baked pale by the sun and towering shoots of magenta hollyhocks. Just before the harbor were the doors of La Baronnie Hôtel & Spa, our to-be home on the island. The woman at the reception greeted us, and we proceeded to chat about the weather.

Secretly, I was anxious: it had been raining steadily on the mainland, and I feared that our stay here would be tarnished. Smiling, she explained that Île de Ré had its own microclimate and reassured us in a typically French fashion. “It could be raining ropes in La Rochelle and here the sun would still be shining.”

Left: Man admiring a tall hollyhock flower; Right: tower-view of a yellow mansion with decorated inner courtyard

She led us on a tour of the perimeters, recounting some of the hotel’s extraordinary history.

Front view of an 18th century mansion with decorative palm trees and plants

La Baronnie derives its name from the former barony of Ré, whose capital was in Saint-Martin and whose castle lay on the very spot where the hotel now stands. The present-day building was purchased in 1785 by Louis XVI for his wife, Marie Antoinette.

Man in tank top and shorts walking down corridor

It became national property after the onset of the French Revolution and fell into dilapidation before being bought in 1996 and carefully restored to its current condition.

Left: Man reading in room with blue paint; Right: elegant and rustic bathroom

We were taken to our room, a cozy nest converted from one of the manor’s rear towers. Meters away, the busy waterfront of Saint-Martin was calling.

Village waterfront with castle ruins and tower in backdrop

It was an idiosyncratic maritime melody: the shimmering dings of bicycles coming and going; the sound of boat stays slapping against their empty masts; the squawks and chirps of seabirds and tourists all came together to fill the summer air.

Quayside of village with colorful old buildings and boutiques and restaurants

To the left, quayside restaurants were slowly coming out of their siestas to prepare for the evening diners. To the right, street vendors showed off large bowls of candied fruit and juicy, marinated olives—all of which begged to be sampled and savored.

Bowls of colorful olives on display in open-air market

We strolled along the length of the quay, up and through narrower and quieter alleys, and eventually found ourselves on the city’s ramparts. The capital of an island bearing significant strategic importance, Saint-Martin was heavily fortified during the 17th century; its intricately designed star-shaped bastion has withstood heavy sieges from both the British and the Dutch. As the last boat sputtered its way into the harbor, I felt the synchronized rumbling of my own stomach.

Scuttling from restaurant to restaurant, we decided for Le Bistrot du Marin, a lively establishment with a hearty menu, hardworking staff, and one of the few kitchens open until eleven o’clock in the evening—a real rarity on the island, we later found out. Two glasses of pastis, a steak tartare and some fries later, I was happier than a clam in high water. With our bellies full and moods bubbling, we retreated back to our quite oasis in the tower.

The best and most popular way to discover the island is by bicycle. With over a hundred kilometers of routes to explore, we were eager to rent a pair of wheels and roll out of Saint-Martin. At the front desk, Joachim, the dashingly dressed receptionist du jour, handed us our bike vouchers and asked, “Do you like oysters?”

Just outside of Saint-Martin, the main bicycle path dips right, meets the ocean, and then runs alongside the shore for several kilometers. Here, maintaining a carefully calculated distance from and within each other, are the delectable oyster cabanas—small, seasonal family-run shacks that specialize in farming, shucking, and serving up their own bivalve harvests. The oysters cultivated in this region are first allowed to grow for several years out in the open sea. Upon reaching an edible size, they are then retrieved at low tide from their terroir and transported on amphibious tractors to claires—small clay ponds filled to the knee with brackish water. It is in these algae-rich basins that the oysters develop their final sweet and hazelnut flavors and finish fattening, hence their appellation: fine de claire.

Oyster farmers drive amphibious vehicle up from sea

We learned many things about oysters that day. For example, summertime is when they spawn, so during these months, you might end up with an occasional milky-looking half-shell. We learned that while some people really like them “laiteuses,” most people don’t. We learned that we were like most people.

We learned that the number (n°) given to an oyster is inversely proportionate to its weight and not an indication of its quality: n°5 is the smallest and n°0 is the largest. I had a hard time slurping a n°2, and personally found the n°3 and n°4 to be more manageable mouthfuls.

We learned and practiced the degustation ritual. We learned that the bread and butter accompanying a plate were meant to be the “chaser”; that the red wine vinegar and shallot mignonette was there to balance the shellfish’s natural, briny liquor. We learned to proficiently free the slippery flesh while holding a conversation. We learned to flip it over in its shell to ensure a smooth slurp. And we learned to chew, enjoy the texture, swallow, and relish the aftertaste. Dare I say, we had become sophomoric connoisseurs.

A plate of oysters on half shell paired with bread, lemon wedges, and white wine

The French poet Léon-Paul Fargue once expressed his love of eating oysters, comparing it to “kissing the sea on the lips.” If there is any place to begin a lifelong love affair, look no further than the oyster cabanas on Île de Ré.

With no native mountains or sloping hills, the land lies at the mercy of the winds. On a fine day, a light zephyr could sweep you from one end of the isle to the other. But find yourself against headwind and you’re in for a workout.

White horse on farm in open country

Past the alluring cabanas are stretches of salt pans, marshlands, vineyards, and golden fields of mustard flowers. You can even swap your wheels for a four-legged companion if you choose; there are several equestrian centers and stables on the island.

Further west are the villages of La Couarde-sur-Mer and Ars-en-Ré. Both are worth stopping by. Smaller and quieter than Saint-Martin, they offer perhaps a more genuine peek into life on the island. Meandering through the open-air markets is sure to yield some unexpected delights: artisanal cheeses and saucissons, local wines and handicrafts, maybe even a midday concert.

Man on bike admiring open ocean

Forming the island’s western cape is Saint-Clément-des-Baleines, named for the large number of whales that used to become stranded on its sandbanks. Just before reaching the lighthouse, veer right onto a paved forested road to the beach. Taste the salt in the air, feel the wild ocean wind, and, if you dare, take a plunge into the untamed towering waves of the rough Atlantic.

Getting to Île de Ré

The high-speed train (TGV) from Paris to the port city of La Rochelle takes a little less than three hours. From La Rochelle, Les Mouettes bus lines 3A and 3B run hourly to Île de Ré, beginning seven o’clock in the morning until eight in the evening. Depending on where you get off, the bus journey can last between thirty minutes and two hours.

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