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France at Island Speed

"This is the first year i've seen any Americans in Les Portes," Bernadette Frigière remarked as she watched the morning market unfold on the small square in front of her restaurant, Le Chasse-Marée. Frigière was taking a break, having just prepared a huge quantity of her signature dish-- raw sardines marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, onions, and green peppercorns-- to be presented at lunch in deep, help-yourself tureens. At the jam stand of Mme. Knevez, she recognized Michel Guérard's envoy, buying not for the chef's Michelin three-starred restaurant, Les Prés d'Eugénie in Eugénie-les-Bains, but for Guérard's personal pantry in his château there, 200 miles from Île de Ré. In line behind him were a couple of New Yorkers.

"People always talk about the mainlanders' invasion of Île de Ré," Frigière said. "But what does this mean?" she asked, indicating the Americans with a slight dip of her head.

Frigière observed on the recent flutter of non-French interest in the island late last August, just as the hollyhocks roused themselves in a burst of legginess before collapsing until the following spring. Previously, Île de Ré-- only 20 miles long and from three miles to barely 200 feet wide-- belonged almost exclusively to the French.

Make that the French happy few. For Île de Ré has never minced words about the kind of people it wants pedaling around its vineyards and potato fields, oyster parks and salt pans, vegetable plots and bird reserve. A recurring theme in the French press, as dependable as features on which lounge lizard or northern European royal the Grimaldi girls have taken up with, pits Île de Ré against St.-Tropez. Sample headline: snobs vs. show-offs: the battle of vacations ý la mode. Illustrating Ré is a picture of a fresh-faced young woman, dog in bicycle basket, who looks as if she has never had an unvirtuous thought in her life. Her St.-Tropez counterpart, by contrast, will be ready for her close-up the moment Russ Meyer starts making movies again.

As one of the most genteel, discreet, and surprisingly friendly places in France, Île de Ré was bound to attract outside interest. "Nantucket with a French accent," one habitué calls it. "Mykonos with mayonnaise," jokes another. Families are the royalty here-- even the maître d's at the fanciest restaurants don't turn their noses up at children. Kids and cyclists command right-of-way, with plain 10-speeds relegating cars to the back seat. It is possible to spend a week on the island and never hear the grunt-grind of a single Vespa. Ré's 54 miles of impeccably groomed bike trails, flat as a stick of gum, make traveling by bicycle between the 10 principal towns a breeze-- even for people in their forties and up, who haven't ridden since they were teenagers. Bike-rental shops are almost as common as the hollyhocks.

Ré is often defined more by what it doesn't have (a lot of hotels and obvious tourist attractions) than by what it does (charming ports, great seafood, good beaches). Wide and spotless, with silky sand, lovely dune grasses, and a forest backdrop, La Loge Beach is angled toward the mainland on the western end of Ré, where the island hooks back like a crooked finger to enclose the shallow Bay of Ars. There are still women who remember gathering up their skirts when the tide was right and wading across the bay to visit friends.

You don't so much swim at La Loge Beach as let yourself be carried parallel to the shore by a gentle but determined current. Digging for cockles and whelks is another typically Ré do-nothing activity, one of the so-called petits plaisirs indulged in by the French government ministers and captains of industry who come here seeking anonymity and a bite of youth's madeleine. This being the French Atlantic, the water never gets very warm. That's true even in July, the most desirable month on the island, just before France officially goes on summer holiday and the crowds take over. Pretending not to notice how cold the sea is will earn you a badge of belonging.

When is an island no longer an island?For many, Ré tragically stopped being one in 1988 with the construction of a new bridge connecting it to the Continent, depriving day-trippers of the exciting danger of missing the last ferry and having to spend the night. Actually, the bridge is quite beautiful, a swooping arc of steel that is over almost before it begins. But don't try selling that to the environmentalists (Jacques Cousteau, fearing for the ecosystem, was an angry opponent). As for an assenting vote for the bridge-- well, try to find one.

With good reason, locals worry about the wear and tear of increased traffic on their fragile towns and medieval churches-- some, topped with proud spires that stab the sky like bayonets, date to the 11th century. Other vestiges of the Middle Ages are the man-made drystone tide pools known as écluses, intriguing networks of hollows designed to fill up with fish each time the ocean retreats. The towns' narrow, high-walled passages-- streets seems like too grand a word for them-- are the same ones walked by the Cistercian monks who founded the still-vibrant salt industry more than 700 years ago.

While there is no rich tradition of rural architecture on Ré, the modest houses of the countryside have a sweet nothing-to-show, nothing-to-hide charm. Relieving the plainness of these low, trim, whitewashed buildings are ruddy canal-tiled roofs and vivid green brace-and-ledge shutters. There is so little waterfront development on the island that, seen from a boat, it can look completely uninhabited. The back roads, peopled only by the odd watercolorist and edged in feathery pink tamarisks and towering tufts of wild fennel, are so tight that pulling over to let another car pass is a standard courtesy. Kitchen gardeners find no reason to fence in their rows of mojettes, the pedigreed white bean customarily served with garlicky leg of lamb. The first hotel I stayed in was terrible but hard to hate. I mean, how can you hate a hotel that is not only fringed in beach plums but steeped in the deliciously rank odor of an oyster farm?(Some apparently prefer the tonic scent of Ré's pines.)

As in the Hamptons on eastern Long Island, sectarian sentiment runs deep on Ré, with everyone somehow living in "the best" town. Though those on the outside don't like to admit it, the island does have a golden triangle made up of three communities: Ars-en-Ré, St.-Clément-des-Baleines, and Les Portes-en-Ré. Les Portes is Ré's most fashionable, Parisian-- and, yes, snobbish-- enclave. But like Loix, it has neither a port nor a single hotel. Of all the island's settled areas, Loix, isolated on a peninsula, is the least touched by modern times.

Ars-en-Ré is the port town of choice-- not too big, not too small, not too commercial, not too sleepy. It also has the most interesting market, with everything from jars of mojettes to African crafts. On the main square opposite Ars's famous black-and-white bell tower, Le Clocher is the kind of hotel that gets successive generations of the same bonne famille. With 22 simple but comfortable guest rooms, it also has one of the most perfectly situated people-watching terraces on Ré. Outside town in a wooded park by a vast state-owned forest, Le Parasol offers 29 pleasant rooms and cottages.

At mealtime Ars-en-Ré dresses way down at La Cabane du Fier and Aux Frères de la Côte. La Cabane, an irresistible shack of a restaurant with spectacular views of salt marshes fading into the Bay of Ars, farms its own oysters, pulling them up from a holding tank directly in front of the open dining room. It specializes in good but sometimes overcooked wood-grilled fish. Aux Frères is a down and dirty mussel joint that hugs a seawall right on the Atlantic. Begging for a table is part of the fun.

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