ILE DE RE
WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
We don't do hills. As a family of highly amateurish and raggedy cyclists – who wouldn't know Lance Armstrong if he hurtled straight into us – we are used to the subtle undulations of the Norfolk landscape. So for us the prospect of the Ile de Ré, with its network of dedicated cycle paths and flat earth policy throughout, offered the perfect ideal of a low level activity holiday, a neat step up from the cycle track lifestyle of Centre Parcs with wine, oysters and beaches all thrown in.
The allure of the Ile de Ré, sitting just off the coast of Poitou-Charentes in sight of La Rochelle, had already been proved to us. We had spent a long day trip on the island the year before, instantly seduced by the beaches, the sunshine and the unspoilt feel of the place. The French apparently see the Ile de Re as their very own version of the Hamptons, with Parisians fond of buying up increasingly expensive second homes. But actually the feeling is completely different to the Hamptons, being far more democratic, less elitist, more affordable and down to earth.
Which is what we were looking forward to as we undertook the epic drive from Norfolk to La Rochelle, taking the fast crossing from Portsmouth to Caen and down, with three small children in the back – ranging in ages from 20 months to five – throwing toy dinosaurs at our heads and shouting 'The Wheels on The Bus' and 'Are We There Yet?' for hundreds of kilometres at a time. As we finally swept past La Rochelle airport – noting its convenient proximity to the Ile de Ré and kicking one another – the soaring road bridge connecting the mainland to the island was a heavenly gift as welcome as a wholesale parting of the sea. Paying the steep £10 toll we swept across and went in search of our villa in the picturesque village of Le-Bois-Plage.
The bridge, opened in 1988, opened up the island to tourism as never before. But strict controls on building and development have helped preserve the character and charm of the island in a way that should be recorded in planners' textbooks. New houses must adopt the local character of the houses, generally white-washed low slung buildings with shutters all painted in aquamarine tones ranging from greys through to turquoise. Our own home for the week, although modern, fitted into the pattern with a pool thrown in.
My wife, Faith, had found the house floating on the internet. We hoped it would also exist in reality and it lived up to its billing. It sat on the edge of the village in one of the quiet cul de sacs in which the village specialises. This is a place of secret alleyways and pathways, a modest maze of routes which next day – dumping the car – we began to explore by bike, enjoying back street rides past hollyhock gardens and vegetable patches. We soon discovered the covered market, stacked with fruit, fish and every class of oyster, as well as essentials such as the bakers, jam shop and play park. The beach also presented itself as a perfect expanse of sand peopled with French playpals; the best of the beaches are on this, the southern side of the island, with Le-Bois-Plage one of the most popular and picturesque.
We also found that the island is totally geared up for the bicycle. Every village, park and beach has neat banks of bike racks. Cycle shops are two a penny, for repairs, accessories (a new cycle helmet for Florence) or rentals. We had bought our own equipment, along with bags of toys which remained unopened and packs of risotto rice, kitchen towels and baby wipes. Faith's bike was attached to a neat, folding Shetland trailer which carries our two youngest smalls, Cecily and Noah, with room for a beach bag and a baguette. Attached to my bicycle was the ever intrepid Florence, sitting on a neat tag along bike which turned us into a tandem, cutting a wobbly dash across the countryside.
The island is only 30 kilometres long by five kilometres wide, but has 100 kilometres of cycle paths. Most are dedicated tracks, no cars allowed, making them safe for family biking or arriviste Armstrongs, occasional joggers and the odd roller blader. They link the villages and beaches and take you along routes more picturesque than any of the main roads, winding through fields, salt pans and oyster farms. There are no hills and much of the island is not just flat but sometimes below sea level. All of this sometimes makes the island vulnerable to the sea that feeds it, but a perfect breeding ground for the bicycle.
It also clears the island of a lot of the kind of traffic that chokes places like the Hamptons to the point of ridicule. Here the car comes to seem like an unnecessary affectation or inconvenience, something to forget about. We soon find that the harbour village of La Flotte is an easy cycle ride away, as is the capital of Saint Martin, where the cycle path takes you right through the old stone gates of the fortified town.
Being an island sitting out on the Atlantic coast, Ile-de-Ré has always been vulnerable to invasion, especially by the British, but has done well to remain so decidely French in every way. Back in the 14th century Charles V gave the people of the island special rights of trade and royal privileges in return for keeping guard over their stretch of coastline and helping repel invasion. Such privileges and tax breaks helped St Martin become a thriving international port, with the existing fortifications surrounding this elegant town and harbour plus the citadel dating back to the 17th century. The English and Dutch had a go Saint-Martin a few year later and failed miserably to take it.
Later, the citadel became a prison and the harbour a staging post for prison ships taking Communards and common criminals away to French penal colonies around the world, while the Revolution also cost the islands its Royal privileges. Later the island grew fat on wine, salt, oysters, fishing and agriculture, all of which thrived in the unique geography and healthy micro climate of the island; they say they get as much sun here as Nice.
Now places like Saint Martin and La Flotte thrive on tourism, the harbours surrounded by restaurants and elegant stores. But they do it very well. There are few big chain shops, everything is well looked after, prices high but nothing exorbitant. Every village has a good park, which became invaluable on our slow days of cycling, exploration and beach combing. Every market tour or brocante stop had to be traded for a park visit or another go on the children's fair at Le-Bois-Plage, where Florence displayed a worrying lack of understanding of the highway code on the dodgems and Cecily became fond of a yellow train called Antonin. There were also rides on the famous 'donkeys in pants' of Saint Martin, elegantly clad in gingham pantaloons – a tradition dating back to when the animals in the fields were given Cath Kidson-esque protection from the mosquitoes which favoured their succulent limbs.
Occasionally, I admit, we cheated. 'Oh, not that smelly car again, Daddy!' We loaded the bikes into the car and set off for the far end of the island to explore the Phare des Baleines, an Edward Hopper-esque lighthouse built in the mid-19th century. Many ships – and whales – used to come ashore at the eastern most point of the island. The beaches here are quieter, seductive for the more reclusive soul.
On our way home we stopped at Thalacap, one of a small number of thallasotherapy centres on the island. While I floated in the saltwater swimming pool with the children, Faith was treated to hydro-massage and seaweed wraps. The French have a particular love of such sea water treatments, used for combating stress, cellulite and all sorts of circulatory and respiratory problems. Thalacap has a rather serious, medicinal aspect but reinvigorates all comers and has its own bicycle rack. The tired legs that come of the cycle paths can be sorted in moments.
At the end of the week, it's with real reluctance that we pack up and load the car. The Ile de Ré is, in itself, we realise, a deeply therapeutic place to be. The pace of life slows, the world is outdoors never in, and the tyranny of the car becomes – at least for a week or two – something you can just reject. As we head back over the bridge, heading for the Loire in hunt of new cycle paths, we are already planning our return trip. 'The wheels on the bus goi round and round, round and round....'