The late wintery wet weather made for a rather quiet journey up from the Dordogne to the Ile de Ré but nonetheless a beautiful drive through quiet country towns and weirdly wonderful forests before hitting the autoroute and finally skirting round La Rochelle and over the magnificent Pont de Ré that connects the Ile de Ré with the mainland for an €8 toll. Cheap at the price really.
I can imagine that the island would be frenetic in its own way in the summer holidays. It is to Paris what the Hamptons are to New York. Sophisticated beach chic within weekend range of the biggest city in the country and hence home to a smart collection of cool secondary residences plus a few lovely little hotels. Chief amongst these is Hotel de Toiras in St Martin de Re, the picturesque ‘capital’ of Ile de Re. A picture postcard port with everything teetering round the edges of the harbour. Smart shops, cool cafes, seafood restaurants galore and precious few cars as they all have to park outside the centre of town. Hotel de Toiras overlooks the port graciously and as a member of Relais Chateaux has certain elevated standards of both accommodation and cuisine to live up to. All the more because owner Olivia is on the board of this esteemed global collection of hotels with great restaurants.
Seaside towns are delicious in winter and Hotel de Toiras feels cozy and warm the moment you step inside and smell the log fire burning away in the grate in the hotel lounge. After all this is the former residence of a 17th century shipowner and everything has been so tastefully done to maintain this ambience. My suite was equally warm and cozy and a sea of dark red colours in a strangely workable V shape layout. I don’t think there are any 2 suites or rooms that are vaguely the same in the hotel and this is always a reassuring feeling somehow: the knowledge that this wasn’t built as a hotel but as a home and it feels like this all the way through.
Of course you must eat at the hotel restaurant Table d’Olivia and I was lucky enough to do so with Olivia’s husband and my old friend Didier. A chilled bottle of my favourite white Burgundy, Meursault to accompany a superb dinner that started with scallops, moved onto lobster and delicious sea bass baked in orange – a first for me. Local cheese accompanied by a glass or two of Chateau Clarisse, the wonderful wine estate that Didier and Olivia own in St Emilion before heading back to the fire and a local cognac nightcap. When you think that the cognac comes from just down the road, the red wine 2 hours away and of course the fish which has just jumped out of the harbour and on to the plate then you realise that you don’t need to travel too far to go a long way.
Venture out around the port and take it all in. Stroll along the wall that protects the island from the Atlantic and don’t miss the public toilets (seriously) that show how clean and civilised such facilities can be.Only in France.There are some lovely shops, a delightful covered market and to venture further afield around the island then all you have to do is hire a bike. This is not a place built for 4 wheels – it’s either 2 feet or 2 wheels. And anyway you need to build up an appetite for all that seafood in the evening.
An alternative to Hotel de Toiras is Villa Clarisse – under the same ownership but a private villa a stones throw away from the hotel on the other side of the port and with a pool that is also open to guests at Hotel de Toiras. My advice would be to go before the crowds arrive or after they’ve left. Or as I did go in the quiet of winter when you will have the place to yourself and with luck will enjoy some good weather. If you don’t, well, just head into neighbouring La Rochelle and explore. This is a remarkable part of France, especially if you like seafood, brisk coastal walks and an altogether different, quieter vibe than the busier south of France. Plus of course you have Cognac and St Emilion to visit as well!