Words by Nicola Ferlei Brown
Ile de Ré is a relaxing haven on the west coast of France, only a few hours from London. A flight from London to La Rochelle and a short drive over the connecting bridge, Ponte de Ré, will have you ordering fresh oysters and sipping local white wine in no time, as well as discovering many hidden luxuries. It’s the St Tropez of the west, so a rich niche in the Charente Maritime department.
An escape from the hustle and bustle of city life, it feels like a land far, far away. Local families are out and about on bicycles, no rush or fast cars, it’s a slow pace, and apart from two wheels, walking is the preferred mode of transport where possible. At St Martin de Ré, the island’s capital city port, and most popular place on the Ré, your car will not be allowed into the port without a pre-designated code to get you past barriers. Although parking at this point is free for an hour or so for tourists and locals living on or near the port have access codes.
It’s no surprise that it’s a hot spot for sophisticated off-duty Parisians relaxing at their second homes, as here you’ll get approximately the same number of hours of sunshine as the Côte d’Azur, the French Riviera. Along the quayside, stylish locals sip coffee and cocktails, soaking up the rays, and a handful of Anglaise are strolling around, and it’s not overrun or touristy as the majority of visitors are French.
Idyllic and unspoiled, the island is steeped in history and full of ancient alleyways. In fact, England and this island go way back. English nobleman George Villiers, otherwise known as The Duke of Buckingham, attempted to capture the fortress of Saint-Martin-de-Ré in 1627, opening the conflict of the Anglo-French War. A Royal French force of 1,200 infantry and 200 horsemen under the Marquis de Toiras, the island’s governor, resisted the landing. After three months of combat, Toiras managed to repel the Duke of Buckingham, who was forced to withdraw in defeat.
It wasn’t his first victory, Toiras had fought against Soubise in the capture of the Ré island in 1625. For this he received the title of Count and became governor of the Il de Ré, awarded the highest military distinction of Marshal of France.
There is a five-star luxury hotel on the island named after the heroic Count, The Hotel Toiras. Ideally located overlooking the port, near the fortress (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) it was once owned by the historical Gabaret family and has its very own 17th century Rapunzel style turret.
Owner Olivia le Calvez prides herself on the ‘art of hospitality’ and invites you to experience her ‘art of living’. It’s always a good sign when you stay in a hotel and see the fleur-de-lis symbol, a significant seal of approval from the Relais and Châteaux hotel association, assigned to hotels that not only excel in luxurious hospitality, but also have an emphasis on local roots and history, focusing on the sustainable Slow Food movement.
Interior style here is historical lux. Le Calvez immerses her guests in the revival of leading historical figures, artists and explorers through fabrics, colours, antique furniture and regional artisans, so it feels as though one is on a grand tour of sorts. If you fancy a good read, relax in the lounge with the log fire burning, a Cognac in hand, and flick through the Ile de Ré history and art books on offer.
Their sister hotel also offers a spa with luxury beauty treatments, Hammam steam rooms, a Norwegian bath, and a counter flow heated swimming pool (open April-September).
The interior layout of the ‘maison du port’ is designed by renowned architect Pierre-Yves Rochon, and suites and deluxe bedrooms are all curated with great attention to detail. Each room has its own unique book hand illustrated by the owner herself, offering a little local history. For example, the Louis Suire Room is named after Louis Suire, a local painter of the ‘Rochelaise School’, who resided in the nearby hamlet of La Rivière, in Portes en Ré.
Interconnecting rooms and suites, ideal for families, have good size bathtubs, walk in rain showers, Clarins products and comfortable beds with Ralph Lauren fabrics. Suite Aziyadé overlooks the harbour and can be interconnected with the Loti Apartment offering a generous overall 110 sqm. The Duke of Buckingham is an opulent red 85 sqm deluxe suite.
Breakfast is a relaxing affair with soothing classical background music, serving international culinary options of a continental or American breakfast. There is also a garden area for the summer months. Ingredients haven’t fallen far from the tree, with Bellevaire butter made from locally harvested Atlantic Ocean salt, organic honey made from busy local Ile de Ré bees and freshly squeezed breakfast juices made with oranges grown on the island.
A welcoming ambience throughout, the ‘made to feel at home’ details are extended to the kitchen – the Basket Market – whereby you take a wicker basket from the hotel to the port’s fish market and upon your return the chef will cook up your ingredients of choice. Another sweet idea is Luncheon on the Grass, where, from April to October, the hotel serve snacks in the nearby gardens of sister hotel Villa Clarisse, such as seafood platters or a selection of fresh local Ile de Ré goats’ cheeses.
La Table d’Olivia is the hotel’s onsite restaurant, with chef Thibaut Peyroche d’Arnaud, who loves the ocean, celebrates locally sourced ingredients and campaigns for ‘one chef one ingredient’ and ‘slow food for change’ in an effort to combat climate change. Wines and champagnes are from the owner’s own organic vineyard at Chateau Clarisse, specialising in herbicide free grapes. 70% Merlots, 27% Cabernet Franc and 3% Carménère, Petit Verdot and Malbec, all grown in the prestigious Saint-Émilion region.
All in all, this hotel offers a generous slice of luxurious island life in a great location, with quaint artisanal shops selling local specialities, and a choice of great wine bars on your doorstep. The icing on the cake is the late check out.
In a nutshell
If you are looking for fantastic French cuisine in a historical setting, among friendly locals, Ile de Ré has it all. The island is surrounded by sandy beaches and offers horse riding, sailing, surfing, golfing, great boutiques, and for the cyclists out there, a network of cycle tracks (Yélo Bike hire or take your own). An ideal option for a spring/summer 2021 holiday. And if you love fresh oysters, look no further than the Ile de Ré!
Rooms can be booked from £250 pppn.
Address: 1, quai Job Foran 17410 Saint Martin de Ré, Ile de Ré, France
Phone: +33 5 46 35 40 32