Liz Gill visits this charming little island off the French coast
I’ve learned two new French words during my stay on the Ile de Ré: le phare and schtroumpf.
Le Grand Phare des Baleines is the Great Lighthouse of the Whales at the western tip of the island from where its powerful beam can be seen for over 30 miles. At 187 feet it’s one of the tallest in France and a climb up its 257 steps is rewarded by panoramic views of the island, the surrounding sea and the city of La Rochelle across the connecting bridge.
Schtroumpf, however, might challenge even the most experienced linguist. It’s the French for Smurf, those little blue cartoon characters who apparently originated in Belgium. I’ve encountered the word though as the name of an ice-cream at a celebrated parlour in the capital Saint Martin. It’s blue – of course – and tastes of marzipan.
In a way these two words rather sum up for me the appeal of this delightful little island which has so much to offer in such a small area – it’s only 18 miles long and barely three miles wide – and which could be ideal for a three generation holiday.
It has an interesting past and an attractive present: ten pretty villages, lively markets, busy harbours and marinas, good shops, cafes and restaurants serving delicious food and wine and a landscape that includes fields, salt marshes and pine woods as well as long sandy beaches. It also has the only donkeys in the world who wear trousers.
The island was originally settled in the early 12th century by monks who built an abbey and developed an economy by planting vines and extracting salt. Over the years it was caught up in various wars between Catholics and Protestants – La Rochelle was a Huguenot stronghold – and between England, France and Holland. At one point 5000 English soldiers and 100 cavalrymen besieged Saint Martin until the French recaptured it. Its almost intact walls and star-shaped ramparts, built by the great military engineer Vauban in the 17th century and now a World Heritage Site, are witness to its military past.
Elsewhere are reminders of its other great influence – the Atlantic Ocean. A village green has a huge anchor as a memorial to those lost at sea; many churches have votive offerings in the shape of boats, a thank you for delivery from a storm, a prayer for safe sailing.
The sea is still yielding its harvest. As well as the salt flats and the signature fish dishes in the restaurants there are hundreds of oyster beds many with cafes alongside selling them fresh from the water and priced according to size, to be taken perhaps with a bottle of local wine: even in such a small place there are seven kinds of soil producing two million bottles a year. For those like me who don’t enjoy oysters there are wonderful seafood alternatives. It is even possible to gather your own clams and cockles at low tide though there are limits on their size and the weight each gatherer is allowed. We spot groups bowed low in concentration picking their way across sand and rock pools in search of supper.
For easier meals the choice seems endless. At the fantastic food market in Bois Plage near where we are staying, for instance, I count ten kinds of tapenade, lose track of varieties of saucissons at 20 and don’t even attempt to tot up the cheeses. One of the surprises of the Sunêlia Interlude holiday camp where we are staying is the food in the restaurant. Being France, of course, one would expect it to be good; what I had not anticipated was its sophistication. The dishes were complex and classy – and dramatically presented – making the evening meal feel like a real occasion.
In fact the whole Interlude ambience was far more sophisticated generally than I’d ever expected. You can just pitch a tent there and still enjoy all the facilities – the children’s clubs and playgrounds, the entertainment, the activities which range from aquaerobics through karaoke to zumba – but if you want to go up market you can choose one of the stylish new lodges tucked away under the pine trees which combine the pleasure of feeling close to nature – I heard a cuckoo on my first morning – with the comforts of a good size bed, a coffee machine and an en suite.
The spa is another surprise. It has had the Spas de France label – a measure of quality – for two years now and offers dozens of different treatments – scrubs, massages, body, wraps, facials – as well as a sauna, steam room and Jacuzzi. I had a facial massage which I’m sure would have been very relaxing if I had not been already completely chilled out. As well as an outdoor family swimming pool there is also an indoor balneotherapy pool with jets and bubbles and invigorating ‘gooseneck’ fountains.
There is pampering for new mothers and even treatment for children and adolescents based on the Toofruit brand which as its name suggests is based on fruit. It might seem to us singularly French to be encouraging six and seven year-olds to think about skin care but it is probably great fun to have a pedicure alongside mummy and granny.
The island offers activities for all ages including sailing, skateboarding, surfing, golf, beach volleyball, windsurfing, tennis and horse riding. We tried sea kayaking – hard work but exhilarating – and, best fun of all, giant paddle-boarding where eight of you try and stand up while paddling like mad through the waves. It was hard to tell whether we fell down because we could not balance or because we were laughing too much.
One of the features of the Ile de Ré that I personally found most appealing is that it is perfect for cycling wimps like me – flat as a pancake and covered with over 60 miles of cycling paths. It meant I could tootle along on one of Interlude’s basic and easy bikes and not worry about wobbling into traffic, simply able to enjoy looking out across vineyards and poppy-dense fields or cruise through narrow streets with their green shuttered white houses and hollyhock borders. Cycle maps include road signs, distances and times between points and instructions on where you have to dismount and wheel your bikes.
So in Saint Marten we parked them and climbed the church bell tower for more lovely views before lunching by the harbour and taking dessert at the famous ice cream stall Martinière with its 30 plus flavours. Our guide Sophie says it is a family ritual to come here every year on the first day it reopens after the winter. I feel duty bound to try, as well as the Smurf one, two local specialities – oyster and caviar and potato and caramel but these I have to admit are an acquired taste so I go instead for a scoop of kirsch and fruit and a scoop of crème brûlée.
Afterwards we cycle on to where the donkeys are grazing to meet them and 80 year-old Yvette who helps look after them – and obviously adores them. It is not hard with their big sweet faces and shaggy coats to see why – and that’s even without their trousers. Nowadays they only wear them for special days but originally when they worked in the fields and saltmarshes the pants were introduced to protect their legs against fiendish insect bites. They are the rare breed Baudet du Poitou- there are only 450 in the world and 88 of them are here.
In the shops you can buy a gentle soap made from their milk as well as donkey soft toys and ornaments. There are lots of other nice things to buy – I took home salt and local wine and a selection pack of different flavoured sardines – and plenty of smart craft and clothes shops. This, after all, is where well-heeled Parisians come for a holiday.
Its summer popularity – the year-round population of 18,000 swells to 139,000 in high season – means June and September can be a better bet: plenty of sunshine still and all the same attractions without the crowds. These months also mean you can combine a couple of nights at Interlude and a couple of nights at another Sunelia resort. We flew to La Rochelle but back from Nantes, stopping for a night at Le Fief in the lively resort of Saint-Brévin-les-Pins. The company has 31 other holiday parks in France, Spain and Italy in mountains and countryside as well as at the seaside.
A week’s holiday at Sunêlia Interlude for four sharing ranges from £412 for a two bedroom chalet or £167 for a pitch (including electricity and water) in low season to £750 and £272 respectively in high season.
A week’s holiday at Sunêlia Le Fief for four sharing ranges from £289 for a two bedroom chalet or £145 for a pitch (again inclusive of electricity and water) in low season to £818 and £245 respectively in high season.
Dogs are welcome at both subject to certain conditions.
Bike rental is around £8 a day or £35 for the week
More information (www.sunelia.com)