Ile de Ré : An Enchanting French Atlantic Island
A PARISIAN FRIEND ONCE DESCRIBED ILE DE RE as being very "Marie-Chantal" (a French equivalent to "preppy", because the name is popular in well-bred circles), but from an American perspective, we beg to disagree. A sandy, pine-forested island just off the Atlantic coast near La Rochelle, it seems to us more like a Gallic version of Nantucket. Not dramatically rugged like Brittany, it is peaceful, pretty and civilized. Perfect for a relaxing summer vacation, Ile de Ré also provides a year-round weekend escape from Paris.
Connected to the mainland by a two-mile bridge, the island is 30 minutes from the train station in La Rochelle, which is just under three hours from Paris by the high speed TGV Atlantique. Most hotels arrange transfers from the station, so you don't need a car to enjoy the place's charms, and locals and visitors alike mostly get around by bicycle. (Many hotels provide them, and the 20-mile-long island has 62 milesof bike paths.)
Each of the Ile de Ré's 10 villages has charm, but the one we like best is the delightful port, Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Surrounded by star-shaped stone remparts constructed by the famous French military architect Vauban, it is a cluster of low, whitewashed houses surrounding a small harbor filled with sailboats. Happily, there are no serious sightseeing duties here at all. To be sure, you can visit the salt pans where the delicious sea salt used by most of the island's restaurants is produced, but otherwise, you are here to relax.
The 20-room HOTEL DE TOIRAS is one of the most delightful seaside properties anywhere in France. Run by the charming Olivia Le Calvez, who met her husband, Didier, while they were both working at the Four Seasons George V in Paris, this place gets virtually everything right. Built during the 16th century of creamy limestone, it was completely renovated by Le Calvez, who also individually decorated each room in gentle colors such as powder blue and celadon, complemented by antique furniture and 18th century-style wallpaper.
Upgraded to the "George Washington Suite" - which owes its name to local son Nicolas Martiau, an early immigrant to Virginia and a distant ancestor of Washington - we loved its space, light and startling beauty. A leather armchair in a round sitting room created from an old watchtower provided an ideal perch from which to observe the leisurely traffic of the harbour.