Exploring Hidden French Islands
Published: March 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
In the waters off France, <em>Christopher Petkanas</em> explores four tranquil islands where the coastlines are rugged, the villages are charming, and the subtle pleasures of daily life still matter.
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.
Île de Bendor
Location: 32 miles southeast of Marseilles
Distance from mainland: 656 feet
Surface: 15 acres (number of times Bendor fits into Manhattan: 981)
Year-round population: 4
High-season population (excluding tourists): 200
Hotel beds: 70
The story of Île de Bendor is the story of a man, Paul Ricard; a foggy drink without which the south of France wouldn’t recognize itself; and a 19-room hotel, the curious and rather wacky Delos. With pocket change from the fortune he amassed making and marketing “the real pastis of Marseilles” under his own name, Ricard acquired Bendor in 1950 as a plaything, as a place to schmooze clients and entertain friends like Jacques Cousteau and Dalí. In the image of his populist aperitif, Ricard also conceived the island as a holiday spot for blue-collar Provençaux who felt out of place in the worldly towns of the Côte d’Azur and who, in any case, couldn’t afford them. Even fig farmers deserve a vacation.
“If I’m passionate about [Bendor],” he wrote in his memoirs, “it’s because it was an island. I believed that in building a world in miniature, I could do anything, that the only thing I need take into account was the quantity of land, sea, and sky.”
A seven-minute boat ride delivers guests to Bendor from Bandol, an overstimulated beach town that makes Puerto Vallarta look like Newport, Rhode Island. Le Delos’s only company on Bendor is the hotel’s much less atmospheric annex, Le Palais; eight adorable maisonettes with private gardens that Le Delos manages, but brands separately; a second, defunct hotel that is a terrible eyesore; four restaurants; a diving school; an exhibit of Ricard ephemera that is one big missed opportunity (for that matter, there are no bottles of pastis in the guest rooms, which seems insane); a handful of eccentric shops, one specializing in handblown glass pacifiers; and an extraordinary museum Ricard founded as a “permanent encyclopedia” of wine and spirits. The collection includes 700 related books, 5,000 labels, 8,000 bottles with their contents (obscure Belle Époque liqueurs, a triple-anisette produced by the Vatican pharmacy) and over 1,200 menus from the 1860’s to the 1960’s (coronation dinners at London’s Dorchester hotel, pre–World War I banquets at legendary Paris restaurants). The museum reopens this month with new exhibits on anis and the historic bars of Paris.
As a hotelier and an entrepreneur peddling alcohol, Ricard knew his constituency. He was one of them. They had the same cultural references: Pagnol, Fernandel, Tino Rossi. Le Delos is just the sort of hotel you’d dream up if your grandfather was a boulanger, your father was a wine merchant, you grew up in the Ste.-Marthe suburb of Marseilles, and then you became monstrously rich. “Good taste is my taste,” the saying goes. Ricard was as entitled to it as anyone.
What is it about the Middle Ages (or is it the Renaissance Le Delos fantasizes?) that so appeals to self-made men?It’s a look you don’t have to love to find amusing. Ricard’s great soft spot was for (newly minted) Spanish Baroque furniture, from barley-twist canopy beds to leather-topped tables trimmed with fringe and giant brass nailheads. His florid enthusiasms also ran to cherubs, satyrs, vivaciously colored wall tiles in Moorish motifs, and loopy wrought-iron chandeliers incorporating schooners. Door pulls were cast in the form of sea horses. Naturally. Everything was created on site. Ricard built on the island not just ateliers for his potters, glassblowers, and metalworkers, but also lodgings.
The old man stepped down as head of his company in 1969 and died in 1997, but Bendor never left family hands. For years, relatives would take a momentary interest in the hotel, warehousing Ricard’s beloved frippery, which they didn’t really get, and hiring some designer you never heard of to keep the place “up-to-date.” In this way Le Delos became a total hash. Finally, a real professional, Carolyn Quartermaine, was hired to dig through the layers of decorative intervention and make the hotel coherent. As a Londoner who lives part-time outside Nice, Quartermaine had both the distance and the sympathies to effect something interesting. It was a long slog, but she convinced Danièle Ricard that success lay in reviving, with more affection than irony, her father’s vision.
“Lying on the beach in Bandol twenty years ago, I had no idea there was even an island here,” says Quartermaine. “When I began working on Le Delos, everything had to be beige and brown. But in the end I got Paul Ricard’s crazy colors back, plus all the furniture that had been put in storage.”
Quartermaine did not redeploy the furniture as she found it. Of course. Thronelike armchairs are a lot less oppressive covered in vintage monogrammed bedsheets dyed pink. Curtains were sewn in the scribbly fabrics she designs: cottons printed with fragments of 17th-century calligraphy—"Marie D’Orléans, Duchesse De Nemours—chosen purely for their shape, not their meaning or associations. Didier Mahieu’s drawings, sketched directly on the walls of sleeping alcoves, are a dead ringer for those of Marcel Vertés, the Hungarian artist who spiked his fashion illustration with mordant social observation.
The maisonettes are 111 steps and a world away from Le Delos. They’re the work of Herbert Hufnagel, a German decorator in nearby Cassis. Poking around the island, he found some old iron gates with seagulls worked into the design, but except for repurposing the gates as headboards, Hufnagel seems to have done all his shopping at Urban Outfitters.
Both the maisonettes and Le Delos are something less—a lot less, actually—than full-service hotels. Spend too much time, i.e., more than one night, and you begin to notice that Bendor is being relaunched on a wing, a prayer, and not a lot of sous. But people on vacation in the south of France are known for being forgiving, especially those with a weakness for stained glass, allegorical mosaics involving birds and flowers, and epic bronzes of Diana the Huntress. The hotels have finally even welcomed back the iconic yellow ashtrays carrying the logo of a certain pastis. Bottles of Ricard in every room can’t be far off.
Location: 101 miles west of Nantes
Distance from mainland: 9.3 miles
Surface: 32.4 square miles (number of times Belle-Île fits into Manhattan: 0.7)
Year-round population: 5,000
High-season population (excluding tourists): 15,000
Hotel beds: 20,000
The history of Belle-Île is inseparable from the history of water worship in France. The island saw its first real tourists in about 1850. Mystified by the new fashion for bathing in the ocean in Brittany, locals referred to the intruders uncomprehendingly (why would anyone actually choose to get wet?) as “foreigners.” The earliest cabanas were designed to be quickly lifted away in the event of an invasion. The English had seized the island’s citadel, also by Vauban, the century before, and the memory was still fresh.
Belle-Île is for those who find Île de Ré too “Marie-Chantal” (snobby), Bendor too limiting, and Ouessant too wild and isolated (read on). The island is monopolized by normal, regular French people of average means in the normal, regular business of being on holiday: riding bikes, picnicking, swimming (even though the water never averages more than 64 degrees), buying honey at the market, wearing out the plastic café furniture. I’m sure I should have been paying attention to other things, but stepping onto the wharf at the main port of Le Palais, a 20-minute ride on the fast boat from Quiberon on the mainland, I couldn’t help noticing how the island rejects all the usual and corny tools of maritime seduction. With 5,000-year-old Celtic menhirs, a druidical forest, moors knotted with heather, and needlelike rock formations along the coast, Belle-Île is plenty picturesque. But it draws the line at pretty and cute. No gay blue-and-white tearooms with waitresses in sailor tops. You could never get away with marketing a place as sublimely ordinary, in the sense of it being natural, authentic, unselfconscious. But it’s an interesting idea.
The good news is that the citadel, poised on a cliff edge 130 feet above the Atlantic, is now a surprising hotel, the mâchicoulis serving as terraces leading off many of the 65 guest rooms. Water views as promised by websites are almost always deficient; not these. Still, Belle-Île could do with more and better lodgings. The only alternative to La Citadelle Vauban is Château Bordénéo, an inland maison d’hôtes of good intentions and some allure. Among hotels, the big one to avoid is the offensively expensive Castel Clara. It has a huge thalassotherapy center, and you know what that means: taking breakfast with shuffling curists in graying terry bathrobes.
When train service was inaugurated between the Gare Montparnasse in Paris and Quiberon in 1882, the trip took 12 hours (as against 4 1/2 today). Belle-Île was a destination on the verge. Four years later, Flaubert published his bored impressions of the island and Monet arrived to paint. The book, and a joint show with Rodin in Paris of some of Monet’s works, greatly increased awareness of Belle-Île. One or both must have influenced the choice of the island as a place for Colette to convalesce in 1894 after an illness brought on by her marriage to the monstrous Willy. (Sarah Bernhardt, who summered here for three decades, disembarked for the first time the same year.) All of 21, and poised to begin the first volume in the Claudine series, Colette sat on the beach in leg-of-mutton sleeves and a pussycat bow at a telling moment in Belle-Île’s tourism evolution. The first real guide concerned solely with the island had come out three years before; the first postcards were four years off. Butter, the only souvenir, was about to be challenged by vases stuck with colorfast seaweed.
Having never laid eyes on the sea before, and impassioned as she was by the natural world, Colette was helped in her recovery by the thrilling discovery of new flora and fauna (“I’m swimming in waves of joy.”) Belle-Île’s sardine industry was at full throttle, and it is impossible that she, a future famous gourmande, left without sampling a dozen or three. Among today’s tourists the most popular souvenir is a half-dozen cans of prized millimisée sardines (they’re dated, like wine) from La Belle-Îloise boutique, on the Place de la République. Despite its name, the company is in Quiberon, the last fish cannery on the island having closed in 1975. The sardines are so good you can almost forgive the deception.
Location: 174 miles west of Mont-St.-Michel
Distance from mainland: 12.5 miles
Surface: 6 square miles (number of times Ouessant fits into Manhattan: 3.8)
Year-round population: 852
High-season population (excluding tourists): 3,000
Hotel beds: 950
Eighteen years isn’t a lifetime, but they can seem like one when they’re the pause between trips to a place as far-flung and mythical as Île d’Ouessant, the farthest from the continent of all the Breton islands. On my first, 1988 visit I was on a food odyssey in search of a homely stew of mutton, potatoes, and no wine. It was said to be cooked out-of-doors in a cast-iron pot by the heat of smoldering taouarc’h, Celtic for clods of dried heather or grass. After dozens, maybe hundreds, of faxes and phone calls, I found someone who knew someone who knocked on the door of someone who agreed to make me un ragoût dans le taouarc’h. Young food writers who have only ever known e-mail have no idea what a cakewalk they have.
I was writing a book about the domestic art of entertaining as practiced by French people of all stripes (chatelaines, paysans...). Ouessant, the unfrivolous president of its coopérative agricole, and his stout, wind-rocked house weren’t the most obvious subject to build a chapter around, but what do you do when a stew gets under your skin?
So imagine my surprise when last August I saw taped to a window on the island a flier advertising the services of Mary Jo Dugal. For $18 a head, Mary Jo will prepare a ragoût, simmered untouched for four hours in clods, and deliver it to your hotel or the beach for a picnic supper.
Ouessant was learning to sell itself. With my dish. Tourism had obviously grown. But Ouessant has very little to sell beyond its dolorous beauty. Because there are so few trees, its residents once prayed to the Virgin Mary for shipwrecks, literally. Salvaging wood to make furniture, they ignored the murderous consequences of their prayers. This tradition of invention and recycling is enshrined in the stew, but also in the very idea of flogging it to vacationers. Islanders have a long history of looking around, identifying what little they see, and trying to make something out of it. Seaweed, another traditional fuel, is today commercialized as a comestible condiment and for use in beauty products. Seaweed is Ouessant’s one, tiny industry.
To the modern visitor, the island offers a small but exquisite menu of simple pleasures: walking, cycling, birding, glancing over garden walls to dote on the hydrangeas, eating. If these don’t excite, the loss is yours, and you’ll be happier on Belle-Île or Île de Ré. Personally, I found the smallness of the menu liberating. How luxurious to take a holiday and barely have anything to decide. If you cannot secure a reservation at Ti Jan Ar C’hafe, change your dates. It’s the only hotel worth anything, though hotel is a big word for what is really just an eight-room guesthouse. Some French guidebook calls Ti Jan’s decor Almodóvaresque. While that may be going a little far, it does have a few charismatic moments.
There are two categories of restaurants on Ouessant: Ti a Dreuz and Ty Korn, and Everything Else. The buckwheat crêpes at Ti a Dreuz attain a rare level of delicacy and refinement. Ty Korn serves the mother of all seafood platters. At Madame Orlac’h’s nameless salon de thé you can have a cream tea as good as any in Wiltshire while listening to Schubert and reading ancient copies of Paris Match. Silk-shaded lamps and Staffordshire spaniels garnish the mantelpiece. And you thought Ouessant was uncivilized.
It’s difficult to talk about Ouessant as an island of merchant seamen, which is how it was always described up to the middle of the last century, because the men’s work often had them living and dying on the other side of the globe. The stable population was made up of their heroically capable wives and mothers, who hauled the granite to build houses, shoveled earth for mortar, laid roads, and collected taouarc’h. Mutton cooked in clods—which smoke but do not flame and lend the stew a funky animal dimension—was hit upon by women with no time for standing over the pot. In 1988, the 40-minute boat ride to Ouessant from Le Conquet was so violent I fell to my knees on arrival and was demonstrably sick before a welcoming committee of people I’d never met and who were waiting to take me to lunch. While my hosts tucked into ragoût, I lay prone in an unfamiliar guest room, the smell of burning taouarc’h outside the window making me yet sicker. Ouessantins insist their island is the beginning of the world, not the end. Either way, the dish fits.
Christopher Petkanas is a Travel + Leisure special correspondent.