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Belle Isle: Exploring Île de Ré, France’s Lovely Summer Secret

L’Île de Ré, c’est un privilège,” I was informed on a recent visit by an oyster vendor at the daily market in the village of La Flotte, scenically tucked beneath wooden arcades that date back to medieval times. And that’s just what the small Atlantic island, some three hours by train from Paris, feels like: a privilege, a discovery, a well-kept secret even among French visitors.

Only 19 miles long and three miles wide, Ré is often called France’s version of Nantucket. And the two islands do indeed share certain characteristics, including windswept beaches, a moody Atlantic coastal climate and spectacular light, especially during the picture-perfect sunsets. But Île de Ré is française to its core, with white-washed villages, incredible daily food markets and a bounty of culinary delights, including some of the world’s best oysters.

Contact Indagare  for assistance planning a trip to Île de Ré. Our travel specialists can match you with the best hotels, arrange great meals and activities and organize special excursions.

The countryside is exquisite, studded with pines and palms and encompassing large expanses of unspoiled vineyards, wildflower fields and salt marshes, all competing for attention. Because the island is flat as a crêpe, moreover, the expansive blue ocean is always nearby, sparkling like a shimmering backdrop in the distance.

Don’t expect the pomp and glitz of the French Riviera—Île de Ré is for those who appreciate understatement. But it does have style, as is evident in hotels like Villa Clarisse and Le Sénéchal, the lovely homeware boutiques of St.-Martin-de-Ré and the breezy seaside fashion on display—espadrilles instead of stilettos, sarongs instead of designer dresses.

Related: Five Travel Tips for Exploring Île de Ré

Days are full of wonderful rituals of the sort that come naturally to the French: a sunrise beach walk followed by strong coffee, shopping for a picnic at the morning market, walking to the beach past wild hollyhock and bougainvillea-draped façades, sussing out the perfect oyster shack (here more elegantly termed cabane), strolling harbor-side in the early evening, dining al fresco at small tables set too close together, biking home through salt-laced air.

In short, Île de Ré is the kind of place that reminds you that life’s simplest pleasures are often the most powerful. And at some point during your stay, you realize that rediscovering yourself in this state—sun-kissed, wind-blown, happy—is the greatest privilege of all.

Related: Olivia Le Calvez Shares Her Île de Ré Secrets

Where To Stay

Hotels on Île de Ré are small, privately owned and book up fast during the high season.

The Grande Dame: Hôtel de Toiras

With a prime location overlooking the lovely harbor of St.-Martin, this Relais & Châteaux property occupies a 17th-century mansion that has been restored with great taste and style. Each of the 20 rooms is unique in layout and design, but all are graced with such details as precious fabrics, gorgeous wallpapers and antique furnishings. The best ones have views of the harbor. Although the Toiras’s ambience is decidedly grand and old-world, the warm staff makes it feel welcoming. Fine dining restaurant La Table d’Olivia is one of the island’s most acclaimed for a romantic big night out. hotel-de-toiras.com

The Designer Retreat: Villa Clarisse

The sister property to De Toiras, this hotel could not be more different in character. Housed in a former convent away from the bustle of the port (but still centrally located), it has an exquisite garden with a small pool and sitting nooks surrounded by planters containing flowers and fragrant herbs. Serenity continues in the nine rooms and suites. Created in collaboration with star designer Jean-Yves Rochon, they are white, contemporary and spacious. St.-Martin’s restaurants and shops are just steps from the property (which does not have a restaurant), but what’s best about Villa Clarisse is the sense it gives you of hiding out. villa-clarisse.com

The Village Beauty: Hôtel Le Sénéchal

Presided over by the dramatic Gothic spire of Église Saint-Étienne and boasting a refined port scene, the western village of Ars-en-Ré is the island’s intellectual capital. If you choose this as your base, you must stay at the stylish, cozy boutique Hôtel Le Sénéchal. Composed of a cluster of fishermen’s cottages stitched together by narrow stairways, it has 22 guest rooms, all different in layout but sharing a modern-meets-seaside-chic style, with exposed brick walls and unfussy décor (the owner is a local architect). The interior gardens are a marvel, and there’s a small pool. Book early: during the summer, Le Sénéchal is always full. en.hotel-le-senechal.com

Hôtel Le Sénéchal

Hôtel Le Sénéchal

Getting There

A three-hour ride on the TGV from Paris brings you to La Rochelle, from which it’s a 45-minute drive across the bridge to Île de Ré.

Getting Around

Many of the towns, such as St.-Martin-de-Ré, are car-free, and once on the island, most visitors abandon their cars in favor of bikes. Taxis, however, are expensive, so if you’re planning to travel between villages at night for dinner, you may want to rent a car.

Island Memento

Salt. For centuries, this was the island’s major product, and today 2,000 tons (down from 30,000 in the early 1900s) are still harvested from the salt pans that dot the island. Buy small pouches of the “white gold” at the self-serve stands beside the bike paths that connect Ars-en-Ré and Les Portes. The daily produce markets in various villages are also worth a visit: many also sell accessories, like fouta beach towels.

Indagare Tip

If you see a dish of vanet on the menu, order it. A distant cousin of the scallop, this delectable seafood is smaller, sweeter and does not travel well, meaning you can only get it here.

Contact Indagare  for assistance planning a trip to Île de Ré. Our travel specialists can match you with the best hotels, arrange great meals and activities and organize special excursions.

– Simone Girner on April 24, 2018

Quotable

Île de Ré is the kind of place that reminds you that life’s simplest pleasures are often the most powerful.

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