Maritime getaway

Take a break from the hustle and bustle and head for the �le de R�. Eve Middleton gets a taste for life in the slow lane

Take a break from the hustle and bustle and head for the �le de R�. Eve Middleton gets a taste for life in the slow lane

 

There’s a lot to be said for island living. While mainland lifestyles can often seem rushed and hurried, away from the hustle and bustle there’s a slower pace to the everyday rhythm. The �le de R� off the Atlantic coast of the western Charente-Maritime d�partement is a case in point; this 30-kilometre-long narrow strip of land sits just three kilometres out to sea from the historic port of La Rochelle. Here, inhabitants and visitors alike defer to a more relaxed tempo, opting to take to their bicycles for leisurely jaunts or trips to collect their morning baguette. Connected to its larger land-bound neighbour by an impressively elegant bridge arching over the grey-green seawater, the completely flat island is home to ten communes strung out from the southernmost Sainte-Marie-de-R� towards Les-Portes-en-R� at the northern tip of the headland.The �le de R� has garnered a strong reputation as a holiday destination – it’s estimated that the 20,000-strong population rises tenfold over the summer months – so you might be forgiven for thinking that its solitary charm could be somewhat diminished. However, the preservation of the island’s natural beauty stands testament to the careful balance and respect paid to its unique environment. Those keen to find out more can explore the island’s pistes cyclables, an extensive network of more than 100 kilometres of cycle paths joining the main villages with smaller, lesser-known corners.

In the northwest of the island, the charming maritime village of Ars-en-R� provides an ideal starting point for novices. With its winding cobbled walkways and tasteful whitewashed houses framed by worn green shutters, it holds a magical appeal that continues to draw visitors to its shores all year round. Leaving the village in a westerly direction on a rented bicycle, the smooth flat surface of the pistes cyclables gently rolled out in front of me as I breathed in the tang of the salty sea air. With large swathes of the pine-filled For�t de la Combe � l’Eau unfurling as a backdrop, a right-hand turn led me directly into the Lilleau des Niges bird sanctuary. It was here that the few people sharing the pistes cyclables all but vanished. As a respite from the relaxed amble along the coastline, the reserve offers stunning views sweeping over this unique natural reserve on the island’s salt flats. Created in 1980, its location on one of the principal migratory axes of Europe welcomes hundreds of thousands of birds every year. Drawn by the multitude of fauna living in the island’s eco-system, more than 300 different species have been noted from as far afield as Africa, Siberia and Canada. Look carefully and you may see curlews and kingfishers in winter, or even avocets and terns in spring. For those who need a little help with bird-spotting, information panels line the walkways alongside observation points where binoculars have been provided. Help is also on hand should the cycling prove challenging, with a bus system to take visitors back to their destination and a series of geographical markers on the pistes cyclables for those in need of help. The salt flats fulfil an important function beyond providing a base for the 40,000 birds that make their home every year in the nature reserve. Located primarily in the north of the �le de R� and covering around 20 per cent of the island’s surface area, they are also the source of one of the main industries in the form of salt-making. Referred to as the marais salants, their geometric forms glint in the sunshine by the side of the pistes cyclables, reflecting shades of slate-grey and muted mauve from the depths of their clay foundations. When the sauniers (salt-makers) have harvested their crop, freshly drawn conical mounds of pristine white salt, known as l’or blanc, sit proudly by the edge of each bassin ready to be collected in baskets and taken to the local markets. Ars-en-R� also provides the perfect setting from which to explore the marais salants further, with a canoe tour in keeping with the island’s relaxed pace. As I slid gently into the water in a plastic-hulled vessel the verges of the waterways loomed above me, soon opening up into a larger network of twists and turns that led through to the charming port village of Loix on the northern coast. Over the course of the island’s turbulent history, the intricate system of moats and gullies was used as a place of refuge. The Duke of Buckingham famously defended the island’s Huguenot residents in 1627 on orders from the King of England when they fell under siege from the Catholic Cardinal de Richelieu. Today the now peaceful waters offer a taste of island living in more ways than one, with the fresh green samphire growing wild on the banks of the waterways also making an appearance in local cuisine.

Harnessing the sea For a more genteel expedition, the emphasis on the �le de R�’s symbiotic relationship between man and nature can also be seen in the island’s thalassotherapy treatments. The Thalacap centre in Ars-en-R� draws on the natural benefits of its maritime environment, welcoming visitors for both day treatments and longer stays. By harnessing the natural properties of the sea, the centre offers treatments based around saltwater, seaweed and maritime mud baths. After a medical consultation, visitors are advised which treatments are best suited to their individual needs. Here, any earlier physical exertions from island adventures are easily soothed away. I found the hydromodelage bubbling bath of warm seawater and essential oils a perfect tonic for easing my aching muscles. After a seafood platter lunch at Thalacap’s � La Pointe de Grignon restaurant, I ventured further afield for an exploration of the island’s history. As one of the key lighthouses on the island, the Phare des Baleines on the western tip is among the most visited points of interest on the �le de R�. Built in the mid-19th century following on from a primary lighthouse designed by Vauban in 1682, it looks out to the horizon across the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors can scale the 257 steps to the top of the gleaming red metallic apex housing the impressive halogen lamps which cast their beam 50 kilometres out to sea. If the 57-metre-high viewing platform makes you feel a little uneasy, the lighthouse also has its own museum just a few steps from the visitor centre at the base of the tower.The Duke of Buckingham and the Cardinal de Richelieu’s spectacular standoff is a key aspect of the island’s history that can be seen in a visit to the fortified harbour of Saint-Martin-de-R� in the centre of the island. Listed among Unesco’s World Heritage sites, the harbour-side commune stands proudly at the centre of a star-shaped system of fortifications designed by the renowned 17th-century military architect Vauban. At the request of Louis XIV, more than 14 kilometres of fortified walls were erected from Vauban’s designs, making this small island port one of the estimated 160 fortified locations that the royal architect worked on throughout his 50-year career. A wander through the narrow venelles (cobbled walkways) lining the fortified port gave me the chance to admire the architecture. The local produce is put to good use in the small boutiques on the winding streets offering artisanal products. I stopped to sample the unusual palate-tingling flavours from the harbour-side ice cream shop La Martini�re. The oyster ice cream was particularly good, although those with an aversion to seafood might prefer the potato flavour made from the island’s own AOC variety. My stroll took me past local winemakers offering pineau des charentes – a fortified wine served as an ap�ritif – and artisans displaying their wares in the hollyhock-lined streets. If you’re searching for a unique gift, try a selection of savon d’�nesse; soap products made from local asses’ milk produced by the �le de R�’s charmingly scruffy doe-eyed Poitou-Charentes donkeys are an apt reminder of the island’s natural charms. With memories aplenty, leaving the �le de R� over the same graceful bridge stretching out across to La Rochelle feels like leaving another world behind. The island’s healthy sea air, local produce and opportunities for activities all bind together to make for a truly unique experience. Here a slower pace of life is key to appreciating not just the island environment, but also all the distinctive elements which combine to give the �le de R� its individual character. Petite and compact it might be, but there’s no mistaking the immense restorative powers of this idyllic maritime getaway.FRANCOFILEBy train: Eve travelled from London to La Rochelle via Paris. Return rail fares start at �109 in standard class.Tel: 888 382 RAILwww.raileurope.comBy road: The �le de R� is about seven hours from the northern ferry ports by car. A return crossing for motorists on the Pont de l’�le de R� from La Rochelle costs €9 in low season (12 September – 19 June) and €16.50 in high season (20 June – 11 September). Buses to the �le de R� also run on a regular basis direct from La Rochelle train station, stopping at each of the island’s villages. One-day return tickets are priced at €7.40.Tel: (Fr) 5 46 82 31 30 www.lesmouettes-transport.comBy air: La Rochelle is the nearest airport with flights from the UK.WHERE TO STAYThalacap �le de R�Pointe de Grignon17590 Ars-en-R�Tel: (Fr) 5 46 29 10 00www.thalacap.frA  three-star spa with comfortable rooms and restaurant specialising in healthy cuisine. Thalassotherapy packages for a one-night stay start from €206.

WHERE TO EAT La Martini�re17-19 Quai de la Poithevini�re17410 Saint-Martin-de-R�Tel: (Fr) 5 46 09 20 99www.la-martiniere.frAn inventive artisanal ice-cream maker established by the Cathala family in 1970. To learn more, pay a visit to the atelier at 12 Rue de Sully in Saint-Martin-de-R�.

WHERE TO VISITLa Savonnerie de l’�le de R�24 Rue Jean Jaur�s17410 Saint-Martin-de-R�Tel: (Fr) 5 46 35 01 58www.savonnerie-iledere.comThis family-run artisanal business offers gifts such as asses’ milk soap made from Poitou-Charentes donkeys living on the island.

Le Phare des Baleines155 Route du Phare17590 Saint-Cl�ment-des-BaleinesTel: (Fr) 5 46 29 18 23www.lepharedesbaleines.frLocated on the western point of the island, the lighthouse and accompanying museum are open every day. Combined tickets cost €5.

ACTIVITIESCyclingFor more information on where to hire bikes, as well as maps and routes for the island’s extensive network of cycle paths, visit the �le de R� Tourisme website (see below).  CanoeingGuided tours in the marais salants around Loix and Ars-en-R� are available with Absolument Cano�. Tel: (Fr) 6 08 31 44 01 www.absolumentcanoe.com 

FURTHER INFORMATION�le de R� Tourisme3 Rue P�re Ignace17410 Saint-Martin-de-R�Tel: (Fr) 5 46 09 00 55www.iledere.com

Charente-Maritime Departmental Tourist Board85 Boulevard de la R�publique17000 La RochelleTel: (Fr) 5 46 31 71 71www.en-charente-maritime.com

Poitou-Charentes Regional Tourist BoardTel: (Fr) 5 49 50 10 50 www.poitou-charentes-vacances.com