June flew by in a haze of white wedding gowns (not mine), book shoots (also not mine), glasses of Chapel Down at various airport Wetherspoons and culminated in a quiet, blissful holiday on the Île de Ré. No complaints there of course, other than getting incredibly behind on emails, entirely neglecting this marginal space of the Internet and feeling a little unprepared for the onslaught of summer book shoots.
But back to that holiday…
When I was living in Paris some 8 years ago now, I dog-eared a page in an interiors magazine about a boutique hotel on a quaint little island on France’s Atlantic coast called Le Sénéchal. Completely unable to afford to actually stay there on my staff writer salary at the time, I signed up to the mailing list as a reminder to eventually fulfil the dream and go. Then late May their newsletter pinged into my inbox and I booked.
This strip of island, 30 kms skinny and poking out into the Atlantic next to La Rochelle, is a popular bolt hole for Parisians, but seems to be fairly off-the-radar to us Brits. My extremely high expectations were met immediately with its deserted beaches, sun-drenched patios serving crisp white wines and weather-beaten oyster shacks. It then exceeded them with riding on the beach, perfect sunsets and not a cloud in the sky for 5 days solid. I felt liked I had died and gone to heaven when a flea market came to town on the Sunday morning and I could invest in a hundred more plates I don’t need, and then have to pay a surcharge on the Ryanair return flight. Bliss!
We stayed in the Northern part of the island, in Ars-en-Ré, which was one of the quaintest and most picturesque of the villages. There’s a main square with cafes spilling out onto the cobbles, flowers blooming all along the streets and doors exclusively in a maritime palate of blues of greens. All the local lot were beautifully tanned, donning the obligatory maritime stripes, Bensimon shoes and never spotted without their fluffy canine companions.
There’s a daily food market on right near the harbour, selling plenty of local produce, shellfish, rotisserie chickens and tinned sardines (they are big on quality tinned fish here). It made me wish we had a self-catered house so I could get stuck into some cooking, but as l intend to spend every summer holidaying on the island, there’s plenty of time for that in the future.
These were some of the best places we ate and things we got up to. We relied heavily on Le Fooding for our eating choices, as well as trusting enticing-sounding specials boards.
Hiring a bike is an absolute must to get around. We didn’t bother with a car at all and took advantage of the brilliant network of cycle paths that take you through the vineyards, alongside the beaches and between the oyster farms. We hired ours from Cycles N.
2 Place de la Chapelle, Ars-en-Ré
I hadn’t ridden a horse for a good couple of years, but spotted a solitary rider at sunset on one of the beaches on the second night so signed up for a ride with Teddy and his dog at Les Petites Ecuries des Marais. It was glorious galloping along the beach.
Phare des Baleines
On the most northerly tip of the island lies this impressive lighthouse. You can climb the 257 steps to the top and take in the view of the beaches. It also has a really cool stairwell.
Marie et Benoit
There are heaps of cool shops dotted about selling nautical lifestyle gear. This was one of them in the centre of Ars-en-Ré, which doesn’t have a website it seems, but specialises in cool clothes, industrial bits and bobs and sturdy french linens.
Restaurant La Tour du Sénéchal 7 Place Carnot, Ars-en-Re
With ludicrously chaotic service, this place on the main square in Ars is the gallic equivalent of Fawlty Towers, but you are on holiday so who cares right?! The menu changes daily but you can expect a good tartare and a nice version of le grand aioli with fresh fish. There’s a deli section with a good selection of local produce to buy for a picnic and an excellent choice of wines to drink in or take away.
A l’ouest 6 Rue du Clocher, Saint-Clément-des-Baleines
This was my first lunch of the holiday, they are always the best aren’t they? When you can finally switch off and feel zero guilt about getting drunk at lunch. It’s also where I had one of my favourite meals perched on an old barrel in the sunshine feasting on langoustines with mayonnaise off the specials board. Well worth the bleeding hands. Needless to say, the oysters were spectacular too and the local ‘Royal’ wine was highly quaffable in the context.
La Part des Anges 42 Grande Rue, La Couarde-sur-Mer
Coup de coeur for me and this little wine bar in La Couarde. This little town is virtually bustling compared to sleepy St Clement and Ars, with a little market at the foot of the church and a string of shopping streets. Popped in her for some Eric Bordelet cider, and of course more oysters. The prices were pretty frigging incredible, so our cider and oyster elevenses quickly turned into lunch and a lazy stroll down to the beach for a swim.
Ré Ostrea, Le Vert Clos Saint-Martin-de-Ré
So the island is of course famous for its incredible quantity of oyster shacks, which you will find dotted along stretches of cycle paths and waterfronts. This particular gem made a bold choice on its seating colours, but that was quickly forgotten once you are perched on the offending stools and staring out over the open water eating raw clams and more oysters. Each plate of shellfish comes with its glass of muscadet bien sûr and some tasty rye bread.
Le Café du Commerce, 6 Route de la Prée, Ars-en-Ré
My other half doesn’t quite share my stamina for raw shellfish consumption, so we took a breather from the oysters and headed to this fun port-side brasserie one night. This is one of those quintessential French establishments that manages to service every food and drink need throughout the day and be as appealing to occupy at 7am with a coffee as it is over a cognac at 11pm. They have an alarmingly vast selection of food on the menu, and there was no way I was willing to test their Tex Mex abilities, so we stuck to what they were clearly doing exceedingly well, bucket loads of moules frites. The interior is all ornate and art deco, so you’ll be as content cosying up in the salle as you will on their pretty terrace watching the boats go by.