Ile de Ré
“George Washington slept here…” If you are from or have been to the mid-Atlantic United States you have seen a sign like this in every small town that had an inn. Would you believe that there is even a sign like this here in France? On the Ile de Ré, at the Hotel de Toiras. Yes, George Washington slept there too, well not quite. The hotel is a renovated 17th century mansion in St Martin de Ré originally constructed by a prominent boat builder, so he could have slept here had he come to France. Their most luxurious room is none-the-less called the suite présidentielle George Washington and his portrait is above the in-suite fireplace. However the name of the suite comes via a Rétais, Nicolas Martiau, an early immigrant to Virginia and a distant ancestor of Washington. Well they stretched a bit in their naming, but they caught our attention! Each of the other 20 rooms is carefully decorated right out of the 17th and 18th century. There is also a lovely fireplace downstairs in the cozy lobby. It is a charming place to stay but what is even better is the island itself.
Ile de Ré, like many other French islands is a collection of nature and villages, the particularity of this island though is that it is a haven for bicycles. It is possible to ride all over the island – which is essentially flat, the highest point being 20 meters above sea level. St Martin de Ré is at about the mid-point of this 26 kilometer long island, making an excellent base. The island is simpler to access than many other islands as well in that it is connected to the mainland at La Rochelle by a three kilometer bridge, which makes it just 30 minutes from the train station in La Rochelle, which in turn is just under three hours from Paris by the TGV Atlantique. Most hotels will arrange transfers from the station, so you don’t need a car, and locals and visitors alike mostly get around by bicycle. Many hotels provide bikes, there are several rental shops or you can take your own bike on the train. In any case a bike is a must as there are 100 kilometers of paved bike paths on this island which is the fourth largest in France. And the real bonus is the climate. Ile de Ré has lots of sun all year round – it is the third sunniest spot in France just behind the south-east and Corsica. It doesn’t ever get too cold, nor too hot, so it is perfect for biking pretty much year round. We were there in October in shirt sleeves and it was just beautiful. The golden leafed vineyards were being harvested by a fascinating machine that flicked the grapes into the collection tub with flying rubber “fingers”. Migrating birds were passing through. The island is a haven for shore birds because of the tidal flats and marshes, so don’t forget your binoculars! You’ll enjoy birds at every turn in the bike path. Another spot for binoculars is the top of the 19th century lighthouse. Climb up the spiral staircase to the top for a grand look around. Another high viewpoint is the church steeple in St Martin, keep trying it’ll be open at some point!
There is plenty of history on Ré as well. Cycle to the ruins of the abbey to enjoy the golden light of evening. Walk the Vauban ramparts around the fort at St Martin. The fort is still a prison and in the past was the departure point for prisoners being sent to le bagne in Cayenne (do you remember the novel “Papillion”?). There are remains of the WWII Atlantic wall blockhouses on the beach where “The Longest Day” was filmed and a nautical museum too.
And many other treats such as the markets of locally grown products and fish – many residents of the island earn their living from agriculture, try the famous potatoes – the tiniest and most tender you have have tasted, sprinkle them with some locally cultivated salt and add some salicorns on the side or oysters fresh out of the beds at a beach cabana, the sounds of the sailboats in port, an afternoon at the port of La Rochelle… what’s not to like? Surely George Washington would have loved it had he made it there. Website