The Île de Ré is loved for its island charm, with a touch of French chic. Residents, known as the Rétois, are proud of island life and you’ll see neat, white-washed villages, a profusion of hollyhocks and near-endless beaches caressed by a turquoise sea.
The best beaches (many with children’s clubs) are in the south, where Le-Bois-Plage is deservedly popular. For more seclusion, head SW, near the Phare des Baleines lighthouse, or to the rockier northern beaches (great for rock pooling). Water enthusiasts can enjoy sailing, surfing, windsurfing and more – local tourist offices know all the best spots.
Exploring the island’s many picture postcard villages can be great fun. You can drive, but island roads weren’t made for heavy traffic. A greener way to get around at your own rhythm is by bike – there are well signed cycle routes and numerous cycle-hire points all over the island.
Saint Martin-de-Ré, the main town of the island for over 400 years, has boutiques, cafés, restaurants and brightly coloured boats in the harbour, and is an essential visit. Finding itself at the centre of coastal conflicts, the town was fortified, and a stroll around the ramparts makes a great scenic walk, while children love riding the famous ‘donkeys in pants’ - traditionally the animals’ legs were covered while working in the salt marshes.
Officially one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France, Ars-en Ré is a pretty port with traditional white cottages with green shutters. The prominent church spire is painted black and white to provide a day-mark for mariners – in summer climb to the top of the church for views of nearby forests and oyster beds.
On the north coast, La Flotte-en-Ré (another of France’s Most Beautiful Villages) has a port filled with small sailing and fishing vessels. It also has a colourful history – the Fort de la Prée, built in 1626, is the island’s oldest defensive site and played a major role in battles with the English.
L’Abbaye des Châteliers, built by Cistercian monks in the 12th century, was pillaged and burnt, but is now lovingly restored. Children’s treasure hunts explore the village and the seashore – enrol at La Maison du Platin.
The 55m high Phare des Baleines, on the western tip of the island, is France’s second oldest lighthouse, built in 1855. Climb 257 stone steps to the top for fantastic views of the Vendée coast, the Breton straits and surrounding marshland. The oldest lighthouse? The nearby Saint-Clement des Baleines, built in 1682.
Saint Martin de Ré
3 Rue du Père Ignace
+33 (0)5 46 09 00 55; www.holidays-iledere.co.uk