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France at Island Speed

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Tiny St.-Clément-des-Baleines is adorable, although it has no port. Of all the hotels on Ré, St.-Clément's Le Chat Botté is most often recommended by locals because they feel it represents their island so well. Bright and fresh, the 19 rooms are appointed with rustic woven-chestnut chairs, pretty fabrics, coco matting, and the pine paneling that has always been used on Ré to fight humidity. Guests eat breakfast in a sunny courtyard surrounded by potted lilacs and oleander, or in a conservatory decorated like a beach house and overlooking a well-tended English-style garden. Le Chat Botté's restaurant, across the street, serves perhaps the most sophisticated food on the island.

Another town worth considering as a base is Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré. Last year, it earned a bigger place on the map with the opening of Ré's most stylish and charming hotel, L'Océan, converted from a number of traditional village houses just 500 yards from the sea. The 24 rooms have armoires fashioned after seaside changing cabanas, sailcloth-draped ceilings, Lloyd Loom chairs, embroidered bed linens, sea-grass carpets, and antique boat models. In the large courtyard a 100-plus-year-old parasol pine opens its umbrella above striped deck chairs arrayed on a low platform.

L'Océan also has an excellent restaurant, with a tank full of lobsters from which guests can choose. Making nonsense of always-prepare-it-plain rhetoric, chef Alain Dugue pan-cooks the lobster in olive oil, then grills it with thyme butter. La Bouvette, a Bois-Plage neighbor, is one of the few places on the island that offer éclade, a gutsy, poor man's dish of mussels that are opened and perfumed by the heat of flaming pine needles.

With its sprawling quays and slightly jumped-up ice-cream-and-video-games atmosphere, St.-Martin-de-Ré, the island's capital, is a good spot for families. Ramparts and an imposing citadel are the legacy of Vauban, Louis XIV's celebrated military engineer, who built them circa 1680, some 50 years after England's energetic but failed attempt to take the town. Bourgeois cut-stone town houses make you think of Paris. Located directly on the port, the Hôtel de la Jetée has 31 shipshape rooms from which you can practically reach out and touch the town's many distractions, including numerous shops. Savory and sweet crÍpes at La Sarrasine, on the Quai de Nicolas Baudin, make a satisfying, inexpensive meal.

While La Flotte's position near the island's eastern end can make you feel as though you're missing the party, it combines a good-size town with a handsome port and Ré's best and best-looking restaurant, L'Écailler. Chef Marie-José Lagord's star, if meager, dish-- sautéed carpet-shell clams in a thin butter, cream, and thyme sauce-- is posted on a blackboard menu and served in a ruggedly elegant dining room with stripped boiserie and a planked floor. It's not cheap here, but then, unlike the large waterfront restaurants offering budget seafood menus, L'Écailler does have fresh fish and shellfish.

Île de Ré's cover was blown a couple of years ago when Johnny Halliday, the aging French rock star and St.-Tropez fixture, bought a house here. Locals imagined the worst-- a noisy entourage, paparazzi, wet T-shirt contests! But reportedly bored to death with life on the island, Halliday quickly sold his house and beat a retreat to St.-Trop. Since then, Ré has become more vigilant. For the moment, at least, it is still safe for innocent kisses stolen in the dunes.

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