Hôtel de Toiras - Relais & Châteaux Île de Ré

A French affair

A French affairThe Guardian - 2008 / 01
Alastair Sawday
We have been married for 33 years and are, Em particularly, recovering from the final emptying of the nest. We needed a break, from too quiet house and our everyday lives. I normally wear a light hair shirt and am nervous around the word “romantic”, but an intriguing invitation came from a hotel on France’s Ile de Ré. We had visions of pedalling along behind the dunes, dipping toes in the winter surf and feasting on oysters. We needed time together and a long train journey through France seemed romantic intiself. So off we went.
A Great Western train whisked us to London and the Eurostar glided us under the Channel and to Paris? Effortless, Champagne on a train – well it jsut seemed right, even for an old hair shirt like me. A night in Paris rarely fails and we spent it in luxury zt the Hotel Lancaster just off the Champ-Elysées. It is pure Right Bank, but fautlessly beautiful and with food to remember – a place for a once-in-a-decade blow-out. We strolled down the Champ-Elysées, its trees festooned with silver lights.
The next day the TGV took us to La Rochelle, and a taxi over the bridge to the island. It is 30 minutes tot eh little harbour of St Martin, the capital.
The cobbles and harbour walls of St Martin glisten in harmony. Fairy lights traced the parapet-line of the houses round the harbour, giving it a gentle yellow glow. In summer there is an invasion of visitors, but now it was mouse-quiet. We wandered through drizzle-emptied streets aglow with that light. A motley gang of middle-aged musicians oompahed their windy way through familiar tunes, more for the music. We felt plunged straight into France: unpredictable, colourful and still nurturing a sense of community. An old-fashioned children’s carousel spun slowly on the harbourside. To connect with such simple pleasures was doing us good.
Biking is both sensible and “chic” on the island, which has 100km of bike routes. Cycling, however, can strain the best relationship; advice is unwelcome, speeds differ and so do styles. But we were epitome of togetherness, idling along from village to village enjjoying the freedom of it all. One chilly ride dropped us into Ars en Ré and the Café de Commerce, a cold cheeked entry into a warm, eccentric and cheerful restaurant filled with the clamour of waiters and contented eaters.
Even on a cold day the island’s beaches are magnificent – long stretches of sand, dunes and groynes and little knots of well-protected walkers, heads bent into the drifting breeze. The East Anglian in me relished the light ans space; the Cornish bit of Em was nourished by the water. Beach walking quickly clears heads and hearts; we cycled baxk with renewed ease.
But it was the Hotel de Toiras – and owner Olivia – that finally seduced us. This charming young woman has created a deep nest of comfort, romance and elegance in a couple of old building on the harbour. Our suite was a romantic nest for a pair of mid-winter city escapers. The staff hover but are charming. The food, the colours, the setting are sublime – with not even a nod towards the over done hotel styles of our age (eg minimalism). Expensive, but once in a while you can forgive yourself this sort of indulgence, especially a deep muscle massage by Craig, the hotel’s Americain masseur. Em invited him back for another session; not even that could cool the rekindled warmth between us.

Rail Europe (08448484070, raileurope.co.uk) has London-La Rochelle fares from £99pp return. Doubles at L’Hotel de Toiras (0033546354032, hotel-de-toiras.com) from 165Euros B&B. The Hotel Lancaster, Paris, is bookable through Hotelpodia (08717200696 , hotelopia.co.uk) for £308 per night B&B. Other hotels available fro £64.