The French equivalent of the Hamptons, Île de Ré is all postcard-pretty villages, honeyed beaches and oyster shacks. Just 19 miles by five, the tiny island is best explored by bike or on horse back, while its coastline can be discovered by canoe, kayak or boat. Here’s our roundup of the top 10 things to do in Île de Ré.
Ramble the ramparts
The cobblestoned core of UNESCO-listed Saint-Martin-de-Ré is enclosed by 17th-century ramparts, which can be traced on foot for picturesque views. Louis XIV’s chief military engineer, Vauban, designed the fortifications, which lead to the ancient citadel – an impressive collection of walls, moats and drawbridges. From 1860 to 1938, this was the departure point for bagnards (prisoners) bound for the French penal colonies, including Alfred Dreyfus en route to Devil’s Island. Today, it’s a prison. Visit the Ernest Cognacq Museum to learn more about its history.
Cycle from village to village
Île de Ré was made for cycling: it’s flat, idyllic and crisscrossed with 60-plus miles of marked trails. You’ll find bike-hire shops in most villages; try YooToo in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, and grab a cycle map from the tourist information centre. Tackle the hour-long, impossibly scenic ride to Baleines lighthouse from the capital or, if you’re short on time, follow the 45-minute triangular route between the three main towns – Saint Martin, La Flotte and Le Bois Plage.
Climb the lighthouse
Once you reach the Phare des Baleines by bike, there’s only one thing left to do: climb the lighthouse – one of our favourite things to do in Île de Ré. Named after the many beached whales sadly found nearby, Baleines looms above the northwest tip of the island. Ascend the 257 steps of the spiral stone staircase for spectacular views all the way to mainland France. There’s a French-spoken museum at the foot, surrounded by five acres of parkland.
Take a leisurely hack on horseback
For a break from bikes, try a different sort of saddle: horse riding. It’s incredibly enchanting to canter through fragrant pine forests and along windswept beaches, trot down lanes choked with honeysuckle, and pause by salt marshes dotted with rare birds. Sign up for a hack with Moulin Moreau or Equipassion in La Flotte Île de Ré.
Hop aboard a boat
Take to the water with a tranquil boat trip. There’s a good sailing school at Plage de la Cible, the little beach of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, or a popular centre with outposts in Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré, Couarde-sur-Mer and Loix called Ile De Ré Voile. You can either sign up for sailing lessons or rent a boat for the day to explore on your own.
Bliss out at a thalassotherapy spa
France is famed for its thalassotherapy spas that draw upon the therapeutic properties of seawater, from saltwater pools to algae-based treatments. With its prime Atlantic-coast position, the Isle de Ré is no different. Three of the best include Côté Thalasso at Ars-en-Ré; Centre de Thalasso le Richelieu at La Flotte Île de Ré; and Relais Thalasso at Sainte-Marie-De-Ré.
Explore the coastline by canoe or kayak
Paddle around the coast for a different perspective of Île de Ré. Sign up for a guided tour to explore Fier d’Ars by canoe, a wide bay and vast marshland to the west. Alternatively, rent a kayak to glide across the magnificent salt pans of Loix – the source of the prized sea salt in shops and restaurants across the island. This is a great option for birdwatchers, as the marshland is home to everything from belted kingfishers to black-winged stilts and pied avocets – and even the rare bluethroats.
Go oyster mad
You can’t visit the Isle de Ré without sampling freshly shucked oysters. You can pick them up from cabanes dotted across the island, particularly along the western coast (try the popular Cabanajam or family-run Les Copains Bâbord). If you’re feeling adventurous, try the homemade, oyster-flavoured ice cream from La Martinière’s parlours in Saint-Martin-de-Ré and La Flotte Île de Ré.
This Atlantic-coast island is a watersports hotspot thanks to strong offshore winds. Tackle the swell with a spot of surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing – some of our favourite things to do in Île de Ré. There are plenty of rental outlets across the main beaches, including Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré, Rivedoux-Plage, Pointe du Grouin and Plage de Gros Jonc.
See donkeys in trousers
Yes, you read that right. Poitou donkeys once worked the salt flats wearing pyjama bottoms to keep pesky mosquitoes off their legs. Today, they’re a symbol of Isle de Ré. You can meet these peculiarly dressed creatures at Parc de la Barbette, next to the port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Be sure to pick up a soap made from donkey milk as a souvenir.