Just a sliver of an island facing La Rochelle, off the west coast of France, the ÎIe de Ré could hardly be called a well-kept secret. Its virtues are extolled in the papers every other week, and some have even dubbed it the 'other St Tropez' due to its celebrity clientele. Must be a crowded tourist hell, right? Weirdly enough, it is not.
Despite the hordes that make it past the toll of the bridge each year, the island still feels wild. Secluded. Special. It’s covered in picturesque cycle paths weaving past unspoilt beaches and salt marshes, through fragrant pine woods and wild bird reserves. And it’s almost completely flat – you can feel virtuous about being active on holiday while hardly making any effort at all.
Its beaches are varied, offering opportunities to walk for miles on massive expanses of sand at low tide, or collect shells in rock pools, or even jump on a boat to sail off into the sunset, a glass of rosé in one hand and an oyster in the other.
History abounds, from the Fort de la Prée (which acted as the last bastion to stave off the Duke of Buckingham’s attempts to take over France from the Atlantic) to the beach named Trousse-Chemise after the ladies who would lift up their skirts (“retrousser sa chemise”) to taunt passing British sailors with what “they would never conquer”.
Admittedly, the fact that the glitterati have started visiting means that there are a few more sushi shops and spas than necessarily feel authentic, and it can sometimes feel a bit, “oh, you’re so not wearing the right deckshoes, dahling”, but guess what? Once you’ve had your fill of breathtaking natural beauty, this makes for brilliant people-watching at the many harbour-front cafés in the charming cobbled villages dotted all around.
Of course, let’s not forget the food. This is France at its best: the produce is as fresh as can be, from the fancy sole in truffle sauce eaten on the white tablecloth of a chintzy gastronomic dining room to the oysters shucked at the simple stools of a shack overlooking the water. In fact the island has its own trademarked fine de clair oysters, as well as a sought-after salt (“fleur de sel”), a variety of new potatoes (watch out Jersey royals, the “grenaille” are delicious) and even its own saffron plantation, jam kitchens and goats for making cheese. And vines, obviously – with as many hours of sunshine per year as some towns on the Med, the island is on the very edge of the region from which cognac producers farm their grapes. The ÎIe de Ré has its own well-established distillery producing wines, pineaus, cognacs and recently even its own vodka and beer.
So yes, the ÎIe de Ré is popular, famous and full of the beautiful people. But dive right in and you’ll realise just why it’s such a hit. As you sit looking out to sea at low tide, shucking the oyster you just collected from the very rock you are sitting on, you’ll forget anything else around you exists at all.