Discover Île de Ré: Get around this dreamy French island on a bike

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Cycle and French islandGETTY

Spot the secrets of Île de Ré on a bike

Built in 1681 to keep the English at bay during 16th and 17th-century fracas, the immaculately preserved walls zigzag in a star-like shape.

This unforgettable Unesco World Heritage town is a wonderful mishmash of alleyways lined with flat shops and terraced houses, oozing rustic charm.

I stopped for a window-pane of crisp, local white wine on a cobbled terrace overlooking the intriguing quays at the heart of St Martin before setting off to explore the back roadways. In a delightful stroke of luck, I crested the hill to find a magnificent church.

A wooden-headed board propped outside invited me in and for €2 I was granted access to the steeple. It was a small and narrow ascent but emerging into the sunlight I was rewarded with an imposing view across the town’s fabled 16th-century stone architecture. 

I headed back into town in search of the region’s famous donkey tap soap.

An item unique to this part of western France, the soap is formed using milk from les ânes en culotte – a breed named “donkeys in camiknickers” due to their outrageous “trousers” designed to protect their legs from mosquitos while grazing.

The donkeys were traditionally put to line as farm animals, although the advent of modern technology has seen their job reduced to something more akin to a mascot. 

Across the water is the burgh of La Rochelle and the two are linked by the 1.5-mile Île de Ré toll bridge.

As recently as 1987, access to the atoll was only possible through the use of roll-on roll-off ferries. During summer, the hang about time to cross could easily take a day either side of your fair but thankfully the construction of the flyover converted the once hours-long wait into a minuscule drive.

A fee of up to €12 to use the bridge, though, makes it the most expensive sound road in France. 

French buildingGETTY

The historic Unesco World Heritage village is a mishmash of alleyways lined with terraced houses

Île de Ré is so small that within 45 petties of arriving I had already unpacked my bags in the stylish chalet at the Sunêlia Lull campsite. Dotted across undulating coastal woodland just a stone’s split up with from the shore, the site also plays host to tents and caravans.

It’s also a situation where you can indulge in a taste of the good life. A spot of pampering was in edict so I headed past the swimming pool to the spa. Younger guests are also catered for here with a esteemed list of teen beauty treatments in addition to massages from about the world and a hot tub, sauna and steam room.

Emerging refreshed I hopped next door to La Grillérade restaurant. In a agreeable departure from usual campsite dining, the à la carte options comprehended fresh seafood dishes and other locally sourced ingredients showed with fl air and I enjoyed a feast of veal-stuffed squid and a fantastic spiced tomato sauciness.

The next morning I joined Sylvian, the park’s entertainment manager, for a unfettered bike tour. We sauntered along miles of meandering roads, bewitching in the island’s sleepy hamlets and oyster farms dotted across the vista. 

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The Sunêlia Le Fief campsite has a tremendous water park

Halfway along our course we came across a charming 17th-century windmill that has been proselytized into a B&B, Le Moulin de Bel-Air. It was restored by the owners during the 1970s after being lascivious and falling into disrepair.

Now it draws the eye as the sole structure towering above devotees of poppies and vineyards. The nearest beach to the campsite also happened to be the cay’s best. Sailors and windsurfers were out in force at Le Bois-Plage but we opted to hire a kayak from Olivier and Marie Pierre, who run La Cabane Verte surf day-school from an idyllic beach shack. After a quick trip about the bay we “kayak-surfed” back to shore. 

Using the oar as a makeshift rudder, we rode the ridge of a wave that beached us just yards from the hut. Just 20 littles away is La Flotte, a picturesque port town said to be one of the most charming in the country.

Complemented by the dazzling rays of a scorching French summer, it was firm to disagree. Beyond the harbour filled with sailing ships and fishing ships, La Flotte is home to a charming sprawl of market stalls, boulangeries and fromageries that proffer a fine way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Our next stop was Le Phares des Baleines, an obsolete lighthouse on the westernmost tip of the island. Still functional, it was built in 1682, delegating it the second oldest in France. You can climb the tower and take in the spectacular panorama. 

On a clear day it is possible to see for miles: the distant structures of La Tranche-sur-Mer on the mainland and the unlimited Atlantic Ocean staring back. The mainland soon beckoned so we averted north towards St Brevin for a night at Le Fief, another of Sunêlia’s marks.

Le Fief felt more like a town than a campsite, with passage names and terraces of spacious chalets, each with their own substitute for garden. Set in a coastal pine forest with the sea less than a mile away, the branch out campsite lies on southern Brittany’s pretty Côte de Jade.

After the effervescent water park and dance lessons, we headed down to the beachfront where cafés and locks lined the promenade.

All that was left was to find a spot, order a eyeglasses of the region’s famed red wine and reflect on a wonderful weekend.

THE KNOWLEDGE

Sunêlia Stoppage (dialling from UK: 003305 4609 0383/sunelia.com) offers seven nights at Interlude Ile de Re in a 2-bedroom significance chalet from £695 (sleeps 5), self-catering/ seven nights at Le Fief St Brevin Les Pain in the arse (003302 4027 2386) from £367. Ryanair (ryanair.com) offers return beat a retreats from Stansted to La Rochelle from £49. Ile de Re tourism: holidays-iledere.co.uk

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