Île de Ré Surprises
I was always drawn to this sliver of land jutting into the Atlantic off France’s west coast, its reputation of a great summer laid back hide-a-way called out to me. My first time driving over the high curving modern bridge from La Rochelle sold me. The scent of salty air, pine forests, and not a high-rise in sight. Ile de Re is many low key little hamlets with more fishing and sail boats then yachts. And even though the population swells in summer you never see crowds.
When you come off the bridge and go right towards a La Flotte you will see the walls of Fort de La Pree built in 1625, interestingly still in use today, guarding not a military purpose, but a liquid one. Cliffside cellars are harboring the distilled second maturing of Camus’ Ile de Re Fine Island Cognac. The process of cellaring here with its close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean imparts a maritime, subtly salty character through the barrels. This special cognac is made in small batches and from grapes grown on Ile de Re, it is the perfect gift to go home with you so that can savor that maritime flavor and dream of coming back.
Drop in La Flotte village for the colorful outdoor markets for the fruits, cheese, pates and vegetables in the fresh sunshine or even shop for some designer bargains that seem to find their way to this market. I was off to the storybook Saint Martin de Re, a 17 century preserved harbor town where the quay is lined with cafes and oyster cabanas. The anchor is a beautiful large townhouse L’Hotel de Torias, the Relais & Chateaux property, where it is as formal as you will get on the island, blue silks, toile and chintz mixed with lovely antiques. Dining here is five star as well.
But I walked down the cobbled residential lane where hollyhocks were pushing skyward against whitewashed walls, turning onto rue du General Lapasset and there is Villa Clarissa. A soothing haven with large airy rooms mostly in calm white that overlook a garden and pool. This would be my lodging as I surveyed the island. Built in 1817 the villa was the birthplace and home of General Lapasset, an honored military man.
Sunset walks along the beach or quay always ended with an aperitif… and almost always a bite to eat at L’Avant Port for some skinny (no calorie) fish tartare, or oysters from Angelique and Sebastien’s farm. Here the motto is “Fish from the Boat to the Plate” and it was. Morning croissants were walked off window shopping around town. Here you will find seaside chic homewares, galleries, antiques at Barbotine’s which is like a movie set and all kinds of summer linens, hippy skirts to Max Mara. If you venture further afield it’s by bicycle – cycle paths criss cross the pine forests, vineyards and small cottages inland. All the houses have either green or blue shutters in one of 16 approved shades, everything is protected here, but it does give it a harmony that the islanders love.
Something else the islanders love are the donkeys in pajamas. Yes, for someone new, it is a head turner! First these are not your everyday donkeys, they are a special breed called Poitou, larger than average all around - larger heads, ears and legs and an unmistakably unique coat of long shaggy hair that even further emphasizes their size. Normally they would have been used to work the land, but here they worked the salt industry. Being in the salt marshes every day their owners made special leggings to protect the donkeys’ legs from the mosquitos, other bug bites and the salt. The owners dressed them daily in their stripped canvas leggings and sometimes a straw hat to protect them from the sun. Today, these docile donkeys no longer work the salt flats but are in the seafront Parc de la Barbette to give children rides. After 300 years they are still much a part of the Ile de Re landscape and still of course, happily wear their pajamas trousers.
Sometimes it just pays to drive across that bridge!
L’Hotel de Toiras 1, quai Job Foran
Villa Clarisse, 5 rue du General Lapasset