About Ile de Ré beaches
Famed for its long beaches, sand dunes and unique sunlight (not to mention its oysters), the 30km-long (19 miles) Ile de Ré, known as the St Tropez of the Atlantic, is a popular holiday destination. The bridge that links it to the mainland, completed in 1988, opened up the island to tourism as never before, but strict controls on building and development have helped preserve its character and charm. Cycling is a great way to discover Ré, with some 100km (62 miles) of cycle paths winding through fields, salt pans and oyster farms to the northeast, beaches in the south and small villages and colourful harbours all over the island.
The long sandy beaches of the Ile de Ré offer safe, shallow waters much prized by families with young children. The best beaches can be found on the southern side of the island, with Le-Bois-Plage-en-Ré one of the most popular and picturesque. The ones close to the Phare des Baleines on the southwest coast are more secluded.
Beyond the beach:
The Phare des Baleines (literally ‘Whales Lighthouse’), at the westernmost point on the island, is thus called because numerous whales used to come ashore here. The 57m-high (187ft) lighthouse was built in 1854 to replace one dating back to 1682. Its light can be seen from as far as 45km (28 miles) away. Once a thriving international port, St Martin de Ré in the north is the capital of the island. Today it is a small fishing harbour surrounded by whitewashed houses and boasts typical Vauban architecture, including stone gates, 17th-century fortifications and a citadel, long used as a prison, which was originally built to fend off the English and the Dutch. Also in the north are the salt pans and the oyster beds that made the island famous.
Donkey rides on donkeys wearing trousers (yes!) are a long tradition in St Martin (the donkeys used to don the clothes to protect them against mosquitoes) and never fail to delight children. Parc Amazonia (route du Phare, St Clement des Baleines), an Inca-themed park, is another good place to take the kids.
Explore the nearby islands of Aix and Oleron on a cruise, and take in famous Fort Boyard too. On the mainland, check out the beautiful city of La Rochelle, with its three impressive towers and its aquarium (quai Louis Prunier) and Royan, home to the Jardins du Monde, amongst other attractions.
Get pampered for the day at Thalasso Ste Marie de Ré, Port Notre Dame (www.thalasso.net) or Thalacap, two of a small number of thalassotherapy centres on the island. Most boast saltwater swimming pools, hydromassages and seaweed wraps. Treat yourself to a stay at the lovely Hotel de Toiras (1 quai Job Foran, St Martin de Ré) (www.hotel-de-toiras.com). The hotel is a member of Relais & Chateaux and the rooms are exquisite, particularly the suites, which are all individually decorated and exceedingly comfortable.