The Île de Ré, a compact island off France’s Atlantic coast near La Rochelle, is known as the French version of the Hamptons on Long Island, New York, and it’s easy to see why. With pine-backed dunes leading to white beaches and reputedly as much sunshine as the South of France, it’s a favorite getaway for sophisticated vacationers from Paris, which is about a three-hour train ride away. The best time to go is June or September, when the beaches are empty. In July and August, the population swells by more than 150,000, the traffic across the bridge from La Rochelle is heavier, and prices are higher. (Most parking is free except during July and August.)
Île de Ré is known for its white sandy beaches. (Photo: Thinkstock)
But if the Île de Ré does resemble the Hamptons, it is the Hamptons of yesteryear, before billionaires began competing to see who could build the biggest beachfront mansion. Development on the island is strictly controlled, and its 10 towns are collections of low-rise whitewashed buildings with orange-tiled roofs, green shutters, and colorful hollyhocks lining the narrow streets. Riviera-ish bling is frowned upon in favor of understÎated charm, with sailboats preferred to mega-yachts and bicycles to the Escalade. When French celebrities (plus Johnny Depp) visit, they are left alone. Here are 10 reasons why you, too, might like it:
1.) The Beaches: The Île de Ré’s calling card is its long, sandy beaches, with rolling surf for strong swimmers and rock pools for paddlers. The most accessible and family-friendly are found near Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré on the island’s south side. Plage de la Conche to the northwest is especially quiet and beautiful, reached by paths through a piney wood.
The family-friendly Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré is a big island attraction. (Photo: Ellin Stein)
2.) St.-Martin-de-Ré: The island’s principal town. Here you’ll find boutiques, a Gothic church, a local history museum, and historic fortifications commissioned by Louis XIV to defend against the menacing English. Relax on the terrace of one of the excellent restaurants, such as Le Bistrot du Marin or Le Serghi (their coffee-cognac glacé is a spiritual experience), and watch the sun set over the charming port.
The picturesque port at St.-Martin-de-Ré (Photo: Ellin Stein)
3.) La Flotte: Another picturesque port, La Flotte — which has been designated one of France’s 151 most beautiful villages — has a glorious open-air market in a medieval courtyard overflowing with regional produce (stock up on Charentais melon), wines, and cheeses, homemade pâtés and preserves, freshly baked brioche, and, of course, all manner of fresh fish and crustaceans.
You could spend a long and delicious day grocery shopping at La Flotte. (Photo: Ellin Stein)
4.) The Salt Marshes: Much of the island’s northwest is made up of working salt marshes, where the gourmet fleur de sel, notable for its faint taste of violets, is produced. Here you’ll also find cabanes, informal restaurants where you can eat superfresh oysters recently plucked from their beds on the marsh.
5.) Car-Free Living: Only 19 miles long by three miles wide and largely flat, the island is ideal for cycling on the 60 miles of safe, segregated bike paths. Rentals (try YooToo) are widely available and start at 7.50 euros a day (about $10). Electric bikes are available from 22 euros ($30). If you don’t feel like pedaling, take the bus that stops at all 10 towns (an all-day pass is 5 euros, about $7).
6.) The Lighthouse View: If you’re feeling energetic, climb the 257 steps to the top of the 1854 lighthouse, the Phare des Baleines. At 187 feet, it’s one of the highest in France. Great for spectacular vistas from the western tip of the island.
For a great view of the island, climb this historic lighthouse. (Photo: Ellin Stein)
7.) The Salted Caramels: After all this cycling and step-climbing, reward yourself with a visit to Île de Ré Chocolate & Caramels, where you can watch the resident chocolatier create artisan caramels that make perfect lightweight gifts.
8.) The Local Spirits: Acres of vineyards produce grapes for the excellent local brandy, an element in the island’s traditional aperitif Pineau. The Coopérative Vinicole, a factory and showroom for local producers, offers tastings and bottles for sale.
9.) The Family Fun: In addition to the beaches and biking, almost every town has a carousel and playground for the younger set. The kids will especially love rides on St. Martin’s adorable “donkeys in trousers” (originally worn by donkeys working on the salt marshes to protect them from mosquitoes).
Donkeys in trousers are a popular attraction for young visitors. (Photo: Dave Haygarth/Flickr)
10.) The Charming Hotels: Like period luxury? Head to St. Martin, which has the 5-star Hotel de Toiras, an antiques-filled, 16th-century merchant’s house overlooking the port. The south side of the island offers more informal but just as charming lodging in the small, off-the-beaten-track Trésor des Dunes (near Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré) and the hip Le Senechal in Ars-en-Ré. If you’re on a budget, several campgrounds have clean, well-equipped mobile homes.