Bikes, Beaches And Oysters on France’s Secret Island

France has no shortage of elegant beach towns, but none transports you to a more graceful time and place than the island of Île de Ré.

Floating in an ocean of clear blue-green water on France’s southwestern coast, this little-known island is a world of scrubby pine trees and golden shores. Small stone villages dot the landscape, with green-shuttered whitewashed houses and cobblestone lanes lined with pink hollyhocks.

Residents go to the market with wicker baskets swinging from their arms…sip glasses of rosé at lunch…bike everywhere…and wear espadrilles. Simply put, Île de Ré is about living the beautiful life in impeccably understated French style. And when you’re on the island, you live it too.

As you ride, keep an eye out for elongated tin huts (cabanes) along the route that offer huîtres dégustation (oyster tastings). Fresh and delicious raw oysters are sold for about $12 a dozen. If you’re not into oysters, most cabanes also offer seafood of every stripe, straight from the Atlantic.

Naturally, the island’s wide sandy beaches are a main attraction, particularly Le-Bois-Plage-en-Ré on the island’s southern coast and the more isolated western beaches near the Phare des Baleines (Lighthouse of Whales). But even if you never set foot on sand here, you’ll still be plenty engaged by the island’s villages.

My favourite is Ars-en-Ré, officially one of the 151 “most beautiful villages in France” according to Les Plus Beaux Villages de France association. This village, with its tiny harbour and unique 12th-century church with a black-tipped bell tower, encapsulates all the island’s grace and beauty.

For the full “beautiful life” effect in Île de Ré, I’d recommend renting a house. Check My Home in Île de Ré, where rates for a one-or two-bedroom place start at $490 per week in off-season.

Alternatively, consider staying at the Le Hotel Galion, a pretty port-side hotel in the island’s stunning capital, St. Martin-en-Ré ($121 a night, off-season). Île de Ré is a three-hour train ride from Paris, plus a 30-minute taxi ride from the closest mainland town, La Rochelle.

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