Chic beach cabanas at Boirie Beach on Île d’Oléron. (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)
France’s 200 or so islands come in an astonishing range of shapes and sizes. Among them are two beauties that, along with their chic neighbor Île de Ré, are situated off the western coast of France, almost dead center between the big-surf country of Landes and Aquitaine to the south and the jutting dragon’s head of Brittany to the north.
Early to mid-autumn and late spring are the best times to hop between Île d’Oléron, Île-d’Aix, and Île de Ré in the Charente-Maritime. The first two are largely untrammeled by the international set, but the French flock there over the summer holidays and through September. When the streets empty out in the fall, the three islands are still very much alive, their air infused with the scent of cypress, tamarix, fig, and pine trees. The sun is still hot on the shoulders when you ride a bike past bleached-white cottages and glittering coves, but the trails are all but empty. This kind of adventure is not about nightlife or fashion shows, but about a bracing swim, a plate of oysters just plucked from the sea, and long nights’ rests with cool, salty air pouring in an open window.
When crossing the bridge from Marennes to the town of Le Château-d’Oléron on Île d’Oléron, nicknamed the “Luminous Island,” Fort Louvois, built in 1690 during the reign of King Louis XIV, seems to jut straight from the water.
It is a reminder of the strategic location of these islands over the centuries. But the heritage that matters here is oysters, raised and cultivated in a painstaking tradition that produces the famous Marennes-Oléron varieties. Many consider these the best in France, due to a curing process known as affinage, whereby they are matured in protected beds of rich seawater with no tides, currents, or predators.
Working oyster huts blend seamlessly with artists’ ateliers in Château-d’Oléron. (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)
The oyster industry also gives Oléron a stunning range of landscapes, marked by rows of huts painted in brilliant hues. Throughout the island, casual open-air restaurants serve fresh oysters with a chunk of lemon and chilled local white wine. Bikes are available and plentiful, but Oléron is the second-biggest French island after Corsica, with 65 miles of flawless coastline and, inland, a dense maritime forest and several charming villages, making a car useful.
Travel first to some of the 25 white-sand beaches — those like Grande Plage on the Atlantic side, with a crashing surf, and gentler ones such as Boirie, with its superchic painted cabanas, on the eastern shore. Next, head to the Chassiron lighthouse (and, for the hardy, climb its 224 steps), which is surrounded by a compass-shaped garden that is one of the Remarkable Gardens of France.
La Plage des Huttes, on the western and wilder side of the island (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)
Next, spend a morning at Fort Royer to explore the oyster harvest (wellies included), where the air is perfumed not only by the sea but also by fragrant edible plants that grow wild among the oyster beds.
How to get there: TGV train from Paris Montparnasse to La Rochelle, and then by car via the viaduct at Bourcefranc-le-Chapus. Just over the bridge is one of France’s greatest treasures: a 24/7 vending machine that dispenses oysters from Gillardeau, the most exclusive in the world, served by the world’s most celebrated chefs as well as at France’s state dinners.
Where to stay: The boutique hotel Les Jardins d’Aliénor, located on a sleepy street in the citadel town of Le Château-d’Oléron, is an impeccable island oasis and has one of Oléron’s top (and most stylish) restaurants.
Where to eat: Le Relais des Salines is the kind of place you dream about all winter — fresh fish, local produce, and a gorgeous outdoor setting among the salt marshes and oyster beds of Le Grand-Village-Plage.
Tiny Île-d’Aix sits midway between Île d’Oléron and Île-de-Ré, due north of Fort Boyard, the emblem of the region and location of France’s most celebrated game show. Aix feels like an enchanted place, somewhere to escape, for a week, or forever, either at the delicious Hotel Napoleon or in a rented house.
A hidden beach on Île-d’Aix (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)
In the sunlight, the whitewashed village is blinding. It is an enclave of sailboat-dotted coves, pristine bike paths (there are no cars on the island) that weave under parasol pines, and sprawling military forts, which underline a wealth of history. Originally, Aix was built up as a fortification under the Sun King to protect the arsenal at Rochefort on the mainland. Later, it was reinforced by Napoleon, who spent his last days as a free man at the military commander’s mansion there before surrendering to the British and being taken to Saint Helena. With him in exile was one of his generals, Gaspard Gourgaud, whose grandson bought the mansion and turned it into a fascinating museum of Napoleonic art and artifacts. Around the corner is the African Museum, filled with dioramas that rival those at Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History. They are populated with the younger Baron Gourgaud’s hunting trophies, including a black leopard from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), from an era that most of us are thankful is well behind us.
There is a powerful sense of stillness here. There are a few grocery stores and bike rental shops, as well as dressed-down oyster shacks where you can cool your heels during a spin around the island.
Rent a bike and ride around the island. (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)
How to get there: Ferry from Fouras-les-Bains and in summer, Île d’Oléron and La Rochelle.
Where to stay and where to eat: The Hôtel Napoléon occupies the main corner of town and has recently undergone a renovation. The rooms, public spaces, and restaurant are refined but relaxed. What is most beguiling is the understated exterior, with pale blue doors and shutters that blend into the old street.
Welcome to the Hotel Napoleon. (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)
Île-de-Ré’s stylish and très Parisian demeanor undergoes a 180-degree change come fall, when the fashion and money crowds clear out and the bike paths — 65 miles around the perimeter and hundreds more inland — are revealed again in all their sun-drenched glory. The famed hollyhocks begin to fade, but there are no lines at La Martinière in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, which serves what may be the most swoonworthy sea salt caramel ice cream on the planet.
Le Martinière offers sea salt caramel ice cream made with salt harvested on the island. (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)
Sea salt, of course, straight from the island. In fact, one of the most revelatory ways to spend an hour is a visit to the sauniers at a salt farm, where workers brandish large rakes over pools to form perfect mounds of pink fleur de sel as well as chunky gray gros sel.
Evening in Saint-Martin-de-Ré (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)
The charm of Île-de-Ré is in its laid-back elegance. There are fewer cars than on Oléron, and it feels both more wild and more refined. In the capital, Saint-Martin-de-Ré, it is possible to watch the morning unfold in the picturesque port with a slice of buttery gateau charentais, shop for $10 espadrilles at the covered market and then $300 sandals in town, explore the citadel, and then get lost in the ramparts that extend all along the town and water’s edge.
On Île-de-Ré, the bicycle is king, and there is no better way to get around, sailing through fields of wildflowers, past ports and stone churches. Bike maps are readily available, and a jaunt can lead east to La Flotte, the island’s largest town, or to one of the beaches that form a white ribbon along the shoreline, such as Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré on the southern coast (and whose village has an extensive — and beloved — market). Slightly north is the harbor town of Ars-en-Ré, sheltered between vineyards, salt marshes, and fields where the island’s famed new potatoes are grown (the candy version, ganache dipped in white chocolate to look like potato skin, is sold in shops). Its arresting black church spire, once a navigational tool, stands sentry over the pale white village.
View from the windy top of Phare des Baleines (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)
How to get there: TGV to La Rochelle from Paris Montparnasse and then by car.
Where to stay: The island has three thalassotherapy centers, but Le Clos Saint-Martin Hôtel & Spa in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, right across from the ramparts, goes one further with a stunning Clarins spa. In an island of quite refuges, this one is as chic as it is tranquil.
Where to eat: Île-de-Ré abounds with everything from oyster shacks to fancy nightspots, but Le Grenier à Sel in Ars-en-Ré is the chill middle ground — excellent fresh food, with a beachy outdoor feel.