From Surrey to Ile de Ré: What it's like to stay on the French island
PUBLISHED: 12:11 25 February 2019
Idyllic Ile de Ré, off the west coast of France, ticks all the boxes for a romantic getaway minus the crowds
Think of the most romantic destinations in the world and Paris would probably top most lists. Hundreds of thousands of couples flock there each year, particularly around Valentine’s Day, consequently it can feel a bit like holidaying with the masses rather than a quiet getaway for two.
However, look a little outside the box (and only three hours from Paris by train) and you can enjoy plenty of the romantic clichés Paris is renowned for, minus the crowds and gaudy tourist tat.
Ile de Ré, sits off the west coast of France, just 20-25 minutes’ drive from La Rochelle Airport, and is accessed via an arched causeway that links the bite-sized island with the mainland.
Just 33 square miles, Ile de Ré is where the well-heeled Parisians choose to spend their holidays; it’s low key and tranquil yet wonderfully chic. It can get a little crowded in summer but travel out of season – as we did – and you’ll find plenty of quiet spots to spend some quality time with your loved one.
The epicentre of island life is Saint Martin, a small fortified harbour town with cobbled streets lined with stone properties featuring pretty pastel-coloured wooden shutters. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the town is protected by various laws, one of which limits residents to a palette of just 16 colours (eight blue and eight green) in which they may paint their doors and shutters.
Old school romantics will love the renowned L’hotel de Toiras, a 17th century former shipbuilder’s residence situated right on the harbour front that oozes traditional, five-star hospitality. Each of the 20 chinoiserie-decorated rooms and suites is dedicated to one of the great historical personalities of the region. Even George Washington has a room (the Presidential Suite, of course) as his earliest emigrant ancestor, Nicolas Martiau, was born on the island at the end of the 16th century. Some rooms are positioned in the main building, with views across the harbour, while others sit around a pretty little courtyard garden in a riad-style setting.
The hotel’s owners, Olivia and Didier Le Calvez, also have another property just around the corner offering similar top-notch hospitality but with a more laid-back vibe. Villa Clarisse – our base for the weekend – is a real home-from-home and guests are encouraged to treat it so. There are nine large, light and airy, bedrooms set across two buildings, connected by tranquil walled gardens. There’s a heated pool, sumptuous living room with open fire and a vintage croquet set to use on the lawn.
Staff can be as attentive as required. Laëtitia, who was looking after us during our stay, seemed to appear exactly when we needed her – nothing more and nothing less.
Villa Clarrisse – named after Olivia and Didier’s daughter – is run as a bed and breakfast so for us it was back to L’hotel de Toiras for dinner. The hotel’s restaurant, La Table d’Olivia, makes a point of serving only the freshest local produce, accompanied by wine from Le Calvez’s vineyards in Saint Emilion.
One of the best things about France is the markets and Ile de Ré is no exception. La Table d’Olivia takes inspiration from Saint Martin’s daily offering for its ‘basket to table’ concept, which enables guests to visit the market with head chef Antonio Sanna and choose ingredients for a meal at the restaurant. We chose from a vast selection of fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, nuts and cheeses, which resulted in a gastronomic meal starting with oysters (of course) and ending with a delightfully light mandarin soufflé, with monk fish and venison dishes in-between.
There are plenty of other restaurants lining the harbour; La Baleine Bleue offers a great set menu and serves wine – and local tipple pineau – from the local vineyard; while Madame Sardine is a quirky, casual eatery with fantastic sea food platters you can sit and eat while watching island life go by.
By far the best means of getting around is by bike. The 100km network of interconnecting cycle paths make it easy to explore the entire island on two wheels, although it might be worth considering an electric bike for lengthy trips. There are a number of bike rental shops in Saint Martin offering hourly and daily rentals – you can even hire a tandem if you so wish!
Head north from Saint Martin, along the coast towards Loix, and you’ll follow cycle paths past oyster farms and salt marshes. Many of the farms are open to visitors so make sure you stop off at one and sample the freshest of oysters washed down with a glass of the local wine. Or pedal out through the fortifications and head south towards Le Bois Plage, a cheerful town with an excellent morning market, selling everything from beach bags and espadrilles to frying pans, cheese, baguettes and spices.
There’s also a vast sandy beach – the perfect setting for a romantic barefoot stroll – or toe-dip in the sea, if you feel up to braving the chilly Atlantic waters.
Don’t forget to check out Saint Martin’s own beach, just a short cycle from the harbour. Here, you’ll find La Cible – a beach bar serving fresh fish and giant burgers alongside bottles of white and rosé wine, brought to the table in trendy coolers. Bag a seat facing out to sea and you’ll have found the perfect romantic spot to watch the sun go down over your stay in Ile de Ré.
Where to stay
• Nightly rates at L’Hotel de Toiras start from £225 per night (excluding breakfast, in a Superior Room). For further information and reservations visit: hotel-de-toiras.com or call +33 546 35 5032
• Nightly rates at Villa Clarisse start from £225 per night (excluding breakfast, in a Superior Room). For further information and reservations visit: villa-clarisse.com or call +33 5 46 68 43 00
Where to eat
• Madame Sardine, 49 Quai de la Poithevinière, 17410 Saint-Martin-de-Ré, France
• La Table d’Olivia, L’Hotel de Toiras, 1 Quai Job Foran, 17410 Saint-Martin-de-Ré
• La Baleine Bleue, 4 Quai Launay Razilly, 17410 Saint-Martin-de-Ré
• La Cible, Avenue de la plage 17410, Saint Martin de Ré
Things to do
• Bike hire: cycles-yootoo.com
• Museum: musee-ernest-cognacq.fr
• From Surrey to Saint-Gervais: What it’s like to stay in the French village - When a Farnham couple embarked on a building project in the Alps, they turned what was once a 17th century farmhouse into a luxury ski chalet right below Mont Blanc. We paid a visit