Summer Breaks: Ile de Ré

Contributed by Annabelle King:

If you haven’t quite decided where to go on holiday this summer you might want to read on.  Situated off the south west coast of France, an hour and a half flight from London lies an idyllic and still relatively unknown holiday gem.  The French may know all about it, but many of us Brits have only spotted glimpses in Boden catalogues or Sunday colour supplements.

The Ile de Ré has something for everyone; with it’s rich history, miles of unspoilt beaches, fabulous daily markets selling oozy cheeses and fragrant melons and packed with delicious harbour-side seafood restaurants.  It has the style of Saint Tropez without the glitz or the price tag and the charm of Bordeaux, all packaged up into one chic little island where you are never more than ten minutes from a beautiful beach.

A mecca for cyclists (the island’s highest point is 20 metres), this is a place where you can come on holiday, stuff your face and still come home weighing the same if not less.  Cars are allowed but often parked upon arrival from the airport and left to gather dust for the rest of the holiday.  This is probably the biggest appeal for families; children old and young will love being pulled behind Maman or Papa in a ‘remorque’ (carriage) or a ‘suiveur’ (tag bike) which are plentiful on the island.  Older children can hire their own bikes.  Indeed in the one bike shop we hired from alone there were over two thousand shiny brand new bikes to choose from.  Much to my delight they now have bikes with wide ‘comfort’ seats especially for Mamans like me who want to do the work but in comfort.

At 30km long and 5km wide, you can easily cycle “en famille” from one side of the island to the other, or even the length of it if you are feeling brave.  You can spend the morning on one of the numerous expansive beaches such as Gros Jonc or Bois Plage on the south coast of the island, paddling, building sandcastles or watching the awesome kite surfers that flock to the island in summer.   Then cycle back to the capital St Martin or the enchanting La Flotte, voted one of the prettiest towns in France, for a seafood grand ‘bouffe’ on the port.  Nothing on the island is inaccessible.

There are lighthouses to climb in the north, salt marshes to cycle along to the east, oysters to collect and eat when the tide goes out, as well as the famous trouser-wearing donkeys which the children will love to ride.  Every one of the island’s charming towns seems to have an old fashioned carousel situated in the square which the children can ride while you sit and sip a cold local beer, Blanche de Ré (a must) or glass of rosé.  Older boys will love a visit to the fortified town of St Martin with its forts and working prison, which other than the odd guard wandering around, you wouldn’t even know existed.  Once used as a depot for convicts on their way to the penal settlements of French Guiana, there are echoes of Papillon about the place.

The Ile de Ré is set up for families and you can’t help but feel relaxed and full of well-being from all the fresh sea air and beauty that surrounds you.  Strict planning laws on the island mean that there are no ugly developments,  high rises or huge touristy hotels.  Indeed most people rent holiday houses here or camp – hotels are expensive and few and far between.  All doors must be painted in a strict stylish Farrow & Ball-esque pallet of greens, and are surrounded by ‘roses trémières’ (hollyhocks) the local wildflowers that grow here in abandon in an array of pinks and reds.

If you don’t want to fly, you can drive an hour and a half to Portsmouth and hop on a ferry to St Malo.  The kids loved driving onto the ferry in their pyjamas at night.  We enjoyed a delicious three course dinner with a bottle of wine on board before falling into our cabins.  You wake up in France, drive off and you are in La Rochelle in three hours where you take the bridge to the Ile de Ré.  Et voila – you are there.

For a good stopover on the return (the day crossing ferry leaves quite early) check out the fabulous family friendly B & B in St Malo, Villa Athanaze run by a lovely Franco/English couple.  Overnight stops with young children are not always straightforward but Gillian and Christophe are very welcoming.

Brittany Ferries run daily from Portsmouth to St Malo.  Easyjet fly to La Rochelle from Gatwick during the summer.  RyanAir fly from Stansted.  For house rentals try  Homelidays or Gites de France

For more information on the Île de Ré visit www.holidays-iledere.co.uk

Where’s your favourite family holiday destination?  We’re always looking for great recommendations!

This posting was contributed by Annabelle King who lives in Shepherds Bush.  After a crazy ten year career in advertising, she gave it all up to be bossed about by her three little girls. Her blog The Bush Babies was started in 2007, where she writes about the highs and lows of parenthood and raising three little girls in London.