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Exploring Hidden French Islands

When the French talk about the sea, it’s usually as a melodramatic need—“J’ai besoin de la mer,” “I need the sea”—never simply, “I like the beach.” Normal levels of fetishization do not apply. You think the Italians like the water?Have you met my friend Françoise?

What exactly French people get from seaside destinations has less to do with lying dumbly under the sun and emptying their minds than it does with adopting a different way of being, insinuating themselves into the life of the locale and learning its habits. Not everyone refuses the torpid routine associated with greasy bronzing lotion, sandy sandwiches, and lighter-fluid rosé, but more do than the postcard suggests. In an ideal world, every person in France would have a bolt-hole in Paris, a pied-à-terre in a provincial capital like Lyon or Strasbourg, a chalet in the mountains, a mas in the Midi.... That’s a lot of real estate, but think of the returns: Try on a different setting and you try on a different identity. More than any other European people, the French believe in the power of place—of topography, climate, and folkways—to reinvent and discover themselves.

France is rich in coastline, but not so rich in islands. Which is fine. Because they aren’t famous (there’s nothing that even comes close to Capri), French islands are relatively untouristed, guaranteeing a local experience. As a traveler you’re inducted into the highly codified French way of life on the shore. Usually you have to do handstands for this kind of access. Cities and mountains and farm country are fine as far as they go. But none are as transformative as the sea. At least according to Françoise.

Île de Ré

Location: 115 miles north of Bordeaux
Distance from mainland: 1.9 miles
Surface: 33 square miles (number of times Île de Ré fits into Manhattan: 0.7)
Year-round population: 18,000
High-season population (excluding tourists): 38,000
Hotel beds: 41,395

Île de Ré is the only place I know in France where everything works, nothing tacky offends the eye, no one serving you is in a bad mood, and you can have a good meal without doing six months of research just by passing in front of a restaurant and walking in. (This is how I discovered the classy new L’Avant Port and a local shellfish, vanet, which is like a scallop only 10 times sweeter and 20 times smaller.) Île de Ré is the way you always dream France will be but never is. As a vacation experience it’s completely undisappointing and entirely fulfilling. How many places can you say that about, in France or anywhere else?

On August 15, the busiest day of the summer and maybe the year, there’s no trouble finding a parking place. Bicycles are the main means of locomotion, but rental shops never seem to run out of them. Clogging is a nonissue on the 62 miles of paved bike paths that wind through the oyster parks, potato fields, bird reserve, and salt pans where fleur de sel is harvested. Locals are nicer and more engaging than they have a right to be, given the strain put on their island by a toll bridge connecting it to the continent and a national press that every season dusts off the same hoary headlines: Ré: L’Anti-St.-Tropez, or the ridiculous linguistic mash Ré: Le Plus Fashion De Nos Îles Françaises.

The island’s 10 low, whitewashed towns are handsomely groomed, but not too groomed, with hollyhocks pushing through the cobblestones. The only thing I would suggest is a warning label alerting people to the strong English presence (in high season there are four flights daily between Stansted and La Rochelle, on the mainland) and, in case they’re allergic, to the strong preppy culture. That said, the island gets a very high quality of French preppy. Except for the men playing out some embarrassing sailor fantasy in striped Saint James tops and coordinating mandiggers, they’re hardly annoying at all, as preppies go.

Without, I swear, even trying, I found myself on Ré last summer almost 10 years to the day since my first visit. (Where were you when Diana died?) Having romanticized the island past all recognition, I obviously could have had a disastrous trip. I know it’s unreasonable, but whenever I return to a place I love and find it reduced, I take it personally. I go looking for the old hardware store that sold the diable potato cookers and collapse on the pavement in front of the sandwicherie that pushed it out. I want to see the same lace curtains in the same windows.

But my first thought on Ré this time was not how much less like itself it had become but how much more. The hardware store, Au Paradis du Bricoleur, was right where it had been, its vitrine filled with diables. The lodging situation, not wonderful in 1997, had also hugely improved. Le Corps de Garde/La Maison du Port (interconnecting parts of the same seven-room maison d’hôtes) and Hotel de Toiras now sit directly on the port in St.-Martin-de-Ré, the island’s unofficial capital. Built as part of a shipyard in the 16th century, the Toiras is the kind of property that gives Relais & Châteaux a good name. It has the most polished service on Ré, plus 20 guest rooms that enshrine all my favorite Grand Siècle decorating values: boiseries, blue-and-white Chinese export porcelain, toile de Jouy.... The look is straight-up French bourgeois, which some people are crazy about. Of course, others find the lack of irony and visual punning strangling.

The atmosphere at Le Corps/La Maison is beachy, not buttoned, and beyond charming, with antique tea gowns draped here and there, the glassy-crunchy feel of sea grass underfoot, organdy bed hangings, and swoon-making views of the harbor, sea, or both. A former watchhouse, it dates from the late 1600’s, when the great military engineer Vauban wrapped St.-Martin in a beautiful starlike configuration of stone ramparts designed to accommodate and protect every man (of which there were 16,000 in 1685) and animal on the island. For years Vauban’s walls kept the English out; he didn’t forecast Ryanair.

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