At 85 sq km, Ile de Ré is a shade bigger than Manhattan and can be reached by air to La Rochelle or by train from any city in France and Europe. I chose the latter – less stressful and with the chance of capturing some pretty countryside views along the way. While most holidaymakers come to sun bake on the island beaches in the summer, they are missing out if they don’t explore beyond the beach.
From its fortified capital Saint-Martin de Ré, salt marshes of Loix and sleepy villages, to spectacular beaches that range from lush pine-covered slopes to rolling sand dunes, this island off the west coast of France near La Rochelle has so much to offer it can capture any sporty heart that has endured a grey winter.
Spring certainly sees the island at its prettiest as the lush vegetation bursts into blossom. The island wakes up, edged with beaches of fine sand and punctuated by dunes, wild marshes and picturesque pretty towns producing stunning shades of green and distinctive scents of mimosas, laurels and fig trees in bloom.
Monks and Winemakers in Ile de Ré
For a real understanding of what makes the place tick, imagine 2600 hours of sunshine per year on the island versus 1662 in Paris, the French capital. This French island benefits from a wonderful warm climate extending from March right through to October thanks to the effect of the Gulf Stream – it is the second sunniest place in France after Corsica.
This is something the Cisterian Monks quickly understood back in the Middle Ages when they settled on the island, built the Abbaye des Chateliers, and planted the first vines. It was a forward-thinking initiative when they realised that the exceptional microclimate and sandy soil is ideal for vine growing across some 650 hectares of the island. Fine wine is produced here today, as well as cognac and pineau des Charentes, an aperitif liqueur blended from white wine and cognac.
Still, this haven of tranquillity and natural beauty hasn’t owed its prosperity solely to wine and spirits. The island’s prized ‘”Fleur the sel”– sea-salt naturally harvested by hand – is still extracted from the marshes using the age-old art of evaporating seawater in open pans with traditional methods dating back to the 13th century. Ile de Ré’s salt workers harvest the salt by raking the purest, whitest layer off the top to make what many consider to be the finest salt in the world.
It is perhaps on the way to the small village of Loix-en-Ré that the salt marshes are most noticeable, with the last of six tide mills still standing amongst the salt pans. The mills were used to clean the salt, set in motion by the movement of the water. The beautifully preserved landscapes trapped between the ocean and salt flats are a real delight here, home to an exceptionally rich biodiversity of protected fauna and flora.
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