The Île de Ré

Bridge to Île de RéThe Île de Ré, sometimes known as L’ île Blanche, is a low narrow island of around 30km in length. The island is around 20 minutes’ drive from La Rochelle and access is via a beautiful, curving bridge. The south west of the island is fringed by sandy beaches and in the north-east are oyster beds and salt marshes. The south-eastern part of the island is the widest and most fertile giving rise to the production of fruit, vegetables and, most importantly, the vines for wine production. The fortified aperitif wine made here is good enough to rival the more celebrated Pineau des Charentes.

La Flotte on Île de Ré Housebuilding on the island has been strictly controlled and so everywhere you will see whitewashed walls, green painted shutters and orange tiled roofs giving all the villages a similar sort of look.

At the height of the season, the Île de Ré is extremely popular and can be very crowded, especially the ports of La Flotte and St Martin de Ré. The main seaside areas that the crowds head for are the southern beaches as the ones  in the north-east tend to be rocky with the sea not deep enough for bathing. The best time of year to visit is out of season when the island has a wonderfully laid back charm.

Photo left: La Flotte


As indicated above, a beautiful curving 3 km Toll bridge (above right) connects the Île de Ré to the mainland at La Pallice, a suburb of la Rochelle and at the time of writing, the cost per car tends to be around €16 in high season and around €9 in the low season.

St Martin de Ré

La Martiniere - Île de Ré Ice Cream ParlorThis is the capital of Île de Ré island and in former times it was a very active port as well as a military stronghold. Today it’s all about tourism with its narrow cobblestoned streets and fascinating little shops. Worth a mention is the wonderful ice cream parlour of La Martinière. Here you will find almost every flavour of ice cream to suit even the most discerning tastes!

The Port
During the 17th century the Port of St Martin town became very prosperous mainly due to trade with Canada. Wine and salt were traded and schooners would also arrive from the Caribbean laden with exotic spices. Today, what was the old sailors district is now a haven to shoppers and the quays are still paved with the ballast from long-gone merchant ships.

To the east of the harbour, you can take a walk along the well preserved fortifications redesigned by Vauban in the late 17th century right up to the citadel which from 1860 until 1938 was a departure point for prisoners sentenced to hard labour in the penal colonies of new Caledonia and French Guiana. Although most were never seen again, one who most certainly was: Henri Charrière who achieved worldwide fame as Papillion and managed to escape from Devil’s Island on a sack of coconuts after nine escape attempts and later went on to write a bestselling book about his adventures. The photo below right was taken from the top of St. Martins church – click to enlarge and you can see on the coast on the left some of Vauban’s fortifications.


Église St-Martin
View from St Martin's churchDating from the 15th century, this old church was nicknamed ‘the big fort’ mainly due to the fortifications which protected it. These can still be clearly seen today from the transept. In the year 1696, the church was sadly all but destroyed by an Anglo Dutch naval bombardment but was fully restored early in the 18th century. Right: view from top of St. Martins church

Ars-en-Ré

Ars-en-Ré lies at the westernmost tip of the island and can be easily be sighted thanks to its church steeple whose 40 m high, black and white spire still serves as a landmark for sailors. The village grew up around the salt marshes in the 11th century and about 60 salt workers still farm the Fier d’Ars salt marshes today.

Originally, this was an independent island known as Ars-St-Clément but over time it merged into a part of the larger single island of Ré. As a port, it was once much frequented by Dutch and Scandinavian vessels loading cargoes of salt. It is said that the lanes and alleys of this small port was so narrow that corners of houses had to be shaved off to allow carriages to turn into them.

Ars-en-Ré - Church of Saint EtienneThe main square was once a cemetery but it is now covered over and planted with trees. Here stands the Église St-Étienne or St Stephen’s Church with its highly characterful needle sharp belfry spire traditionally painted black and white to act as a landmark to sailors. The church has a fine Romanesque entrance leading to a nave thickly enforced with ribs. Of greater length than the nave is the Gothic chancel, flanked by wide aisles to the sides. Here the domed vaulting is of the Angevin style. If you climb to the top of the bell tower, you will be treated to a superb view of the forest of La Combe a l’Eau  – a popular Île de Ré camping site and also the oyster beds at Fiers d’Ars.

Ars-en-Ré is classified as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. (The most beautiful villages in France)

La Pointe des Baleines

Phare des Baleines Lighthouse Île de RéLa Pointe des Baleines is pretty much at the western tip of the island. Its main point of interest is the Phare des Baleines lighthouse which was built in 1855 to replace the 17th century watchtower which had a light that did not carry far enough but which still stands a few yards away.

The lighthouse is 180 feet high offering a wonderful view of the coast of the Vendée, the Breton straits, the Isle D’Oléron and the marshlands with their oyster-beds. The spiral staircase inside has 250 stone steps and looking down from the top you might be excused for thinking that you’re looking at the inside of a snail shell. Both the point and the lighthouse derived their name ‘Baleines’ from the whales that could be seen offshore in former times. Right: The Phare des Baleines lighthouse

Accomodation on the Île-de-Ré

Camping on the Île-de-Ré