Nothing ever changes on this pristine, out-of-the-way island off the coast of northwestern France, and that’s precisely the point. A writer traverses the Île de Ré’s miles of bike paths, samples 22 flavours of ice cream, and meets a few donkeys wearing coloured pants. Text by Thomas Chatterton Williams; photographs by Manuel Obadia-Wills
A decade ago my French wife and I moved from our apartment in Brooklyn to the Right Bank of Paris. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a challenge to acclimate myself to the rain and low skies that ruthlessly blot out the winter sun in northern France. On the other hand, there’s nothing like a European summer. Vacations are prioritised, and you can travel between a dozen countries with the ease we Americans move up and down the Eastern seaboard.
The summer of 2020 was, for obvious reasons, the first in 10 that we didn’t set foot outside France. We’d abandoned our home in Paris back in March, days before the nationwide lockdown, to hole up with friends in a village in the Loire-Atlantique, just below Brittany. In July, we doubled down on our urban exodus and found a rental house in a tiny port town in Brittany itself, on the Côtes d’Armor, where we télétravail-ed from the garden, drank the excellent local cider, and swam in the cold, clear ocean.
By that point, some of our friends reflexively began to look again to Italy, Greece, and Spain for their vacations, willing their lives back to some semblance of normalcy through stubborn habit. But our stint along France’s bracing northwestern coastline had turned my wanderlust inward, reawakening in me an appetite for this country—an embarrassment of both natural and cultivated riches—that open borders and too-cheap flights had dampened.
And so, in early August 2020, we continued our exploration of the beguiling Atlantic and headed for the Île de Ré, an 85-square-kilometre oasis of sand dunes, marshland, and sprawling vineyards off the coast of La Rochelle, which is just two and a half hours from Paris by high-speed train.
If Brittany evokes the dramatic seascapes of Maine or Cape Cod—sailboats bobbing beneath painted lighthouses, heavy waves beating against a jagged coast—the Île de Ré is something like a French Martha’s Vineyard. And like its Massachusetts counterpart, the island is far more popular with French tourists than it is with visitors from outside the country. This lends it a pleasing air of authenticity that is, like everywhere, harder to come by than it once was.
Accessible only by ferry until 1988, today the Île de Ré is a 40-minute taxi ride from the Gare de La Rochelle via a bridge that joins the island to a swathe of mainland given over to heavy industry. Perhaps this unglamorous approach is why, on first blush, the Île de Ré can present a deceptive shyness, greeting a visitor with a relaxed modesty and angling itself away from France and out to sea, demanding you venture deeper inside to engage its numerous intrinsic charms.
Along the boat-lined quayside of the old port town of St.-Martin-de-Ré, my cab driver deposited me in front of a handsome 17th-century limestone facade. Large blue-and-white-striped umbrellas held the tenacious midday sun at bay over a cluster of cafe tables, marking the entrance to the Hôtel de Toiras. I was due to stay here for the first night, in a generous suite of rooms overlooking the harbour, and my wife, Valentine, and our two children, six-year-old Marlow and two-year-old Saul, were to join me for three more.
In the spring of 2020, the Rétaises, as the 20,000 mostly retired year-round inhabitants of the Île de Ré are called, found themselves inundated by some 4,000 well-heeled second- homeowners fleeing Paris, Bordeaux, and France’s other virus-ridden metropolitan centres. But it was far from the first time the island had been invaded. The extravagantly christened Jean Caylar d’Anduze de Saint-Bonnet, Marquis de Toiras, for whom our lodgings had been named, secured a place in history in the 1625 Recovery of Ré Island, in which he beat back the Huguenot rebels of La Rochelle. He was then named governor of the territory and repelled the Duke of Buckingham’s forces during the three-month Siege of St.-Martin- de-Ré, just two years later.
The fortifications that Toiras initiated—and that later, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, one of France’s greatest military engineers, ingeniously expanded— dominate St.-Martin’s shoreline and, along with the semi-ruined, namesake church, lend it a distinctively historical flavour. I hung my clothes and stowed my bags in the vast wallpapered dressing area of my room at the hotel—and set out to explore.
Crossing the threshold from the cool tranquillity of the Toiras lobby back into the harbour’s bustle, I was immediately reminded that it was August, high season. All of my friends who were knowledgeable about the island had advised me that the best time to visit was after the rentrée, in September or October, or just before the rush, between April and June. In ordinary times, I could see their logic, but this year, after eight weeks of mandatory quarantine, I found it reassuring to be among these meandering masses. Hell maybe other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre so memorably put it, but there are times when other people can be heavenly. This year, at least, I didn’t want to be left alone.
As it happened, St.-Martin, being one of the two most densely populated municipalities on the Île de Ré, had a mandatory outdoor mask policy in effect. But the island is still very much a part of France, and this means that sometimes one must choose between being safe and being chic. I found a table at Le Belem, one of the many inviting terraces that line the inner harbour and serve up towering platters of fruits de mer, and I cracked the Rachel Cusk novel I’d been meaning to read. When I glanced up, a pair of elegantly dressed middle-aged women were standing nearby, greeting each other haltingly before carefully pulling down their face masks to double-kiss.
Perhaps the most noticeable physical feature of the Île de Ré is the pleasantly recurring motif of sun-bleached workers’ cottages, with Spanish tile roofs and cheery, asparagus-green, silt-grey, or chalky-blue wooden shutters. These almost uniformly modest structures come sheathed in hollyhocks and exude a sense of understated luxury and effortless good living. Though many of the older lots were originally set aside for salt workers who laboured on the island’s fortifications, they now rival in price per square foot those in the tonier neighbourhoods of Paris. After my satisfactorily gluttonous meal, I wandered through the maze of residential backstreets, some of them as narrow as a sofa, until I emerged at the base of the citadel.
There, I found myself in near-solitude as I ascended a verdant hilltop, looking out over a series of deep folds and centuries-old, grass-covered gashes engineered by Vauban. These were really waterless moats—in some places, the width of Broadway or even wider—that could be flooded in the crack of a cannon shot with the surrounding ocean water, were an invading army to become trapped in them. To anyone approaching by sea, however, they remain below the sightline. I marvelled at Vauban’s cunning and took the scenic route back to my hotel along that spectacular coast, its football fields of emerald-green marshland giving way to sparkling blue waves.
At lunch the next day, I ate what felt like the platonic ideal of the island’s ubiquitous seafood platter at a homey little restaurant called Le Tout du Cru (“Everything Raw”), tucked into a photogenic alleyway dominated by a shuttered old cinema. From there, I proceeded to an ice-cream tasting that had been arranged for my family, but there had been a slight misunderstanding about the time of my wife and children’s arrival. Xavier Cathala, the affable owner of a 50-year-old institution of artisanal glace, La Martinière, led me away from the ceaseless queues in front of his main shop—where he serves some 6,000 customers a day in high season—and into a quiet room in his patisserie next door, where I was presented with 22 heaping bowls of both classic and extravagantly conceived and executed ice creams and sorbets.
“But where are your children?” Cathala laughed, gesturing at the bounty spread before us, “and your wife? We were expecting them!” I bashfully explained that they were delayed driving down from Brittany, but that it would be my burden now to dutifully pick up their slack.
It was hardly a challenge. There was a crisp beer-flavoured sorbet, as well as a scarlet-hued variety made from raspberries and red peppers. The ingredients are seasonal: I was told that in September there is a fig option to die for and, from time to time, glace à l’huître (yes, oyster). If the latter sounds too outré, the vanilla, pistachio, and hazelnut staples were as rich and fragrant as anything I’d ever come across in Naples or Rome. But as Cathala was quick to point out, he makes them with less air, à la française, so they are denser and colder on the tongue. On this scorching-hot day, that distinction felt like it mattered.
By the time my family had settled in the next morning, I was eager to roam beyond the confines of St.-Martin. By far the most pleasant way to do this is to take advantage of the island’s incredible network of pistes cyclables, or bicycle paths—some 109 beautifully paved kilometres that crisscross endless acres of vineyards and salt marshes to connect the Île de Ré’s 10 distinctive municipalities. My friend Henri, who several years ago began trading late-night weekends in Paris for predawn wake-up calls to go surf the winter swells that crash against the island’s shores, advised me to head for fashionable Les Portes-en-Ré in the far northwest.
I’d plotted a loose itinerary that would get us there and back in about three hours. We decided to make a day of it, with lunch and a few stops at the beaches in between. Around the corner from the Hôtel de Toiras are several bicycle rental companies. Considering the distance we planned to cover, we picked up two electric models from YooToo, with a sporty three-wheel chariot attachment on my wife’s for Saul, and a tandem seat for Marlow on mine.
On the way out, we passed one of the island’s signature quirks, les ânes en culotte, or donkeys that roam the seaside fields outfitted in custom-made red and blue pants originally conceived to protect them from mosquitoes as they worked the salt marshes. Today, they’re principally worn to provide the visiting children with something to point at in awe. Somehow, my daughter was not nearly as intrigued by this sight as I’d anticipated, so off we went to pick up the trail.
The summer pleasures we had experienced so far on this trip, while wonderful, had not been entirely dissimilar to those of other French holidays we’d had. But it was on this bike ride that the specificity of the Île de Ré’s charms began to hit me. Some 80 per cent of the landmass of the island has been preserved, with no construction allowed; there are no grand hotels clogging the beaches, no enormous villas fencing you out, no high-rises obstructing the views. Everything remains on a genuinely human scale. As we raced across miles of vineyards, locked in sync with the hundreds of other cyclists coming and going, I had the fleeting impression that, from a God’s-eye-perspective, we’d resemble nothing more than one of those ant-army highways cutting through the grass. Yet, far from making me resentful of the hordes around us, this realisation left me appreciative of the fact that here, even in high season, so many human bodies could traverse such considerable distances without relying on combustion engines, and before a backdrop of unblemished natural beauty.
The Île de Ré is said to enjoy a microclimate that leaves it with a similar amount of sunshine to the south of France, though it typically is blessed with fresher Atlantic air. We happened to visit during a heatwave, and that cool breeze evaded us as we finally parked our bikes in Ars-en-Ré, the area in the southwestern part of the island where the former prime minister of France, Lionel Jospin, has kept a house for years.
Every side street you turn into in Ars is a living Pinterest post of casual French seaside chic. Waiting for our lunch reservation at the jam-packed Chez Rémi, we took the opportunity for a stroll. Saul, whose love for all manner of motorised vehicles is as unwavering as it is precocious, drew my eye to a gorgeously preserved vintage Land Rover Defender, roof removed, body painted the exact same hue as the house’s sage-green shutters.
We popped into Marie et Angele, on Rue du Havre, a lovely and inconspicuous little vintage shop dealing in military surplus and sailing staples as well as perfectly beat-in bleues de travail, or worker’s jackets, of every faded patina. My wife and I both picked out the same cream-coloured long undershirts for when the weather turns autumnal.
Back at Chez Rémi, we ordered a quick lunch of chicken Caesar salads and Aperol Spritzes—man cannot, it turns out, live on fruits de mer alone—then cycled out to the decidedly family-friendly Plage de la Conche, at St.-Clément-des-Baleines, where the sand was baked with sun and the clear blue water was shallow and calm as a cool bath.
When the heat became unbearable, we climbed back onto our electric caravan and toured the neighbourhood of Les Portes, as Henri had suggested. It was quiet and residential in a comfortably gentrified way, without anything like the tourist volume of St.-Martin or even Ars. It was where we would get a place, I told Valentine if I had an extra million or two to spare. She shushed me (truth be told, I say some version of this refrain to her everywhere new that we go, though such promiscuity certainly makes it no less true) and stopped to point out the wry humour in the names of the exquisite little cobblestoned streets called impasses: ‘Impasse du Paradis’ (literally, dead-end of paradise); ‘Bout du Monde’ (end of the world); ‘Sortilèges’ (sorcery!).
By the time we pedalled through the vast rust- and pink-tinted salt marshes in Loix and endless vineyards, through the fortifications and back to the Toiras, even with the much-appreciated aid of our electric motors, we were exhausted from the relentless sun. Before we even finished our aperitifs at O Parloir, a comfortable outdoor restaurant, it was clear that nothing short of immediate sleep for Saul and room-service Bolognese for Marlow would keep the peace.
On our last full day, our foursome split along gender lines: the women went hunting for gifts and antiques in the numerous well-stocked shops of St.- Martin, and the men climbed onto the electric chariot and cycled down to the nearby Bois-Plage, where Saul and I frolicked in the water until he was beat.
After a high-concept but hearty late-afternoon family lunch of deconstructed langoustines at Les Embruns, I glanced at my watch and realised it was nearly time for me to attend an oyster tasting. The delightfully hidden Ré Ostréa nestles rows of high tables between oyster beds and the lapping shores of the Atlantic. I ordered local rosé and did my best to polish off the three-point oysters and shrimp that came with it—until I realised that I was due back at the Toiras for dinner in less than three hours.
The centrepiece of the hotel is a lush interior courtyard garden, with palms and white rosebushes set beside harlequin paving stones, where the heaping breakfast buffet was served daily, and where, that evening, we ate an immaculate, farm-fresh meal. As the children played in the garden and we were finishing our wine, Valentine glanced up to see that the only other diners left were a friend of a friend from Paris and her husband at the table behind us. When it comes to the artful science of vacation, the truth is that there is more than enough terrestrial heaven to go around in France—but no such thing as private knowledge.
Exploring Île de Ré
Hôtel de Toiras: The opulent design of the 19 rooms at this quayside refuge in St.-Martin-de-Ré will make you feel like an aristocrat. Doubles from INR 33,305
- Chez Rémi Nab: an outdoor table at this Ars-en-Ré institution. Prix fixe from INR 2,607
- La Martinière: Quite possibly the best ice cream and sorbet in France.
- Le Belem: Perfect people-watching in the heart of St.-Martin. Prix fixe from INR 1,192; 29 Quai de la Poithevinière
- Les Embruns: High-concept riffs on the island’s mainstays. Prix fixe from INR 1,043
- Le Tout du Cru: A standout raw- seafood venue. Prix fixe from INR 1,341
- O Parloir: Artfully presented dishes in a vibrantly decorated space. Prix fixe from INR 2,906
- Ré Ostréa: Simple beachside dining with fresh oysters. Degustation prix fixe from INR 2,161
Marie et Angele: Vintage workwear and military surplus. 37 Rue de Havre