France's Île de Ré is an unspoiled paradise

Let the party people keep the Riviera. Just a few hundred miles to the west sits the alluring little island of Île de Ré, and its unspoiled pastures and vineyards, writes Alexandra Marshall.   
France's Île de Ré is an unspoiled paradise

Ever since the international playboy billionaire class decided to park their yachts in the Côte d’Azur, well-to-do French vacationers, desperate to look away from the vulgarity, have turned their gaze westward.

On the Atlantic Coast, the water is choppier than the Med, the air sometimes more bracing, but the company is a lot more familiar, favouring sailor shirts and espadrilles over sequins and Versace.

Among these Atlantic idylls, Île de Ré, a skinny, 19-mile-long island off the coast of the bourgeois town of La Rochelle, has the most allure. Unlike the neighboring Île d’Oléron to the south, which suffered a disorganised property boom in the 1960s, Île de Ré wasn’t joined to the mainland until 1988, after France’s ecological and architectural preservation instincts were well formed.

So its pastures and vineyards, criss-crossed with well-worn bike paths, have remained unspoiled, its real estate development controlled and its crowds almost manageable, even during the high season of July and August. Here are some of the best places to visit.

La Baronnie Hôtel & Spa

Once inside the peaceful walled gardens of this conjoined pair of 18th-century townhouses, you’d never know you were just steps from the most jostling part of Saint-Martin, the island’s central port. The 22 rooms — several with multiple beds for families — are spacious and quaint, decorated with an eclectic selection of antiques (a delicate 18th-century secretaire here; a rustic 19th-century armoire there) and just enough toile de Jouy so you know where you are. There are also three detached cabins opening out onto the main garden, which is lushly planted.

Hôtel de Toiras

With its precious fabric wall coverings, bushy, vine-draped garden and high-tea-ready lobby (swagged chintz curtains, overstuffed furniture, old oil portraits), the 20-room Hôtel de Toiras feels like it’s belonged to the local bourgeoisie forever, as opposed to the 11 years it’s actually been around.

The in-house restaurant, La Table d’Olivia, is formal and fancy, with white tablecloths, riotously flowered fabric-upholstered walls, bowing waiters and lovingly executed cream sauces. There’s a nearby sister hotel, the Villa Clarisse, with contemporary décor (bright-white rooms with touches of chrome) and a lovely heated pool; its spa opens next year.

Hôtel Le Sénéchal

Local architect Christophe Ducharme and his wife, Marina, prove themselves aptly named: The mood is warm at their cozy 22-room inn near the Gothic Saint-Étienne church in the western port village of Ars-en-Ré. (The church’s striking black-and-white-painted steeple has functioned for centuries as a navigational aid for local mariners.)

The hotel has united a cluster of early 20th-century fisherman’s cottages, along with a few rooms above a post office, and juxtaposed thick cotton bedsheets and vintage industrial furniture against exposed rustic stone walls and weathered hardwood floors. Room 25 is the standout, with a working fireplace, high ceilings and views of both the church and village rooftops. The couple has also refurbished a series of free-standing cottages and lofts in the village, along with an impressive millhouse in a neighbouring pasture.

La Baleine Bleue

On a discreet end of a tiny islet surrounded by the port of Saint-Martin, just far away enough from the touristy dockside restaurants, La Baleine Bleue’s weathered wood decking and cobblestoned entryway give it a casual, ramshackle air, but its seafood-heavy fare is expertly prepared and beautifully presented.

Le Chat Botté

The indoor dining room of one of the island’s best-loved upscale restaurants, in tiny Saint-Clément-des-Baleines, suffers from a 1980s predilection for peach. But in high season, when the patio is filled to capacity with women swaddled in cashmere throws and men in deck shoes, it feels like Claude Chabrol washed ashore.

Recently, the restaurant passed from its third-generation family proprietors to Thomas Decock, who has worked in the kitchens of the three-Michelin-starred Le Bristol in Paris and Grégory Coutanceau’s Les Flots in La Rochelle.

His seafood, in particular the sole meunière, is as perfect as you’d expect, but don’t overlook his veal sweetbreads with lemongrass and langoustine tails. Save room for a well-edited cheese cart and the Saint Honoré, a cluster of caramel cream puffs atop a flaky butter wafer with caramel sauce.

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