Think of slipping off to a sandy beach somewhere and the chances are you think you need to fly. But reaching some great coastline in Europe doesn’t always mean you need to shuffle through airport queues.
A geeky peek at the brilliant European Rail Map shed some light on the options. Il de Ré is island located off the west-coast town of La Rochelle. Parisians like to slip off to the island to dose up on sunshine, moules and oysters, but not many Brits have heard of the place. It sounded like it needed exploring.
We slipped out of St Pancras at midday on a Eurostar. The total journey time would be just over seven hours to La Rochelle, which might seem like a lot of time on paper but once you’ve factored in getting to the airport and all the faff, there’s not a huge amount of difference between flying. We cruised to Paris, picnicking on the train – and taking advantage of the fact that there are no restrictions on taking food and bubbles on board. In Paris, we changed station by the Metro and took a 5pm TGV train for the three-hour onward journey.
Gliding through the French countryside at about 300kmh was a joy. Sit back, gaze out, doze off and wake up in a different scene each time: one minute through rolling hills, then past vast expanses of farmland or the back gardens of quaint French villages. Stroll to the café bar, where you can get chatting to other travellers – over some pretty average SNCF coffee. Arriving at La Rochelle, local friends picked us up for the 20-minute drive over to the island – to the little village of La Flotte, which would be our base.
The moment that you arrive at Ile de Re, it becomes clear that this is the spiritual home of the oyster. It seems like every shop and restaurant is vying to offer you the freshest ones and it’s wonderful to find yourself in a place where you can gorge on the things without worring about the cost. That many oysters in London would require a re-mortgage, and guilt-free food decadence always tastes better.
La Flotte is a charming village with restaurants that wrap around a tiny marina. Pink and red hollycocks adorn almost every street and the atmosphere is friendly and unpretentious. On a wall in a street someone had constructed a wooden box and filled it with book for people to borrow, forming perhaps the smallest library in the world.
If you came for a party you might be frustrated, but for food, wine and sea views it’s great. You can hire bikes and explore, too; Ile de Re’s has plenty of cycle paths. Two wheels the de rigueur mode of transport here, and for a higher-daily rate you can even hire an electric bike. Not that you need to: the island is flat.
The traditional market, off Rue de la Marché, is the finest on the island. It had us drooling at the wedges of varieties of cheese, fruits, spices, jars of honey and condiments and pootling from stall to stall as our eyes widened and our bags got heavier
The island’s capital is St Martin de Re. There’s more activity here, even more art galleries, restaurants with wicker chairs and wine drinking – and it’s equally beautiful. Star-shaped fortifications enclose the town, designed by France’s military engineer, Vauban, in the late 17th century. You can go for ice cream at La Martinière, one of the top five homemade ice cream shops in France, which has a whacking 65 flavours to choose from; not a place for the indecisive – especially with the snaking queue that forms. I suspect that it’s the indecision that lengthens the queue.
On our way to the 15-km long sandy beach of Bois Plage we stopped for fresh oysters at Auberg de la Mer, run by Sophie and Jack Sury. Here you can see how the oysters arrive caked in thick mud, and watch them as they are washed in a rotating tube, which looks like the lovechild of a carwash and a cement mixer. They come out glistening, ready to be prised open – an art in itself, which the locals do as if they were simply shelling peas. Other recommended places for oysters include La Cabane du Feneau or Réostréa in St Martin
A lot of the sea salt in posh Parisian restaurants originates from Ile de Re, and along the coast you pass salt farms, where the stuff is curiously harvested from ponds of salt water. At the beach we hired sea kayaks, wading into the Atlantic and then paddled to glide for an hour through the gentle waves. The water is fresh, clean and bracing – when you are waist deep you know that you are definitely not in the Med. But on a hot day – and there are enough of them here – who cares?
There is also an activity called ‘paddle-surf’, run by Supevasion, where you stand up on a surfboard and paddling the salt marshes, ‘Just one Cornetto’ style. It looked like fun, but we didn’t get time to try it. Our jaunt was of course over too soon, but something tells me we’ll be back again – by train.
Travel by train on Eurostar from London to Paris, and then transfer onto a TGV or Thalys to La Rochelle. With a change of trains in Paris travellers can enjoy a high-speed journey all the way to the coast. The best travel time from London to La Rochelle is 7 hours, 9 minutes. Fares start from £111 return, from Eurostar
From La Rochelle it’s a 25-minute bus ride (5€ return – same day) or 20 minutes by taxi (about 50 to 70€)
The new European Rail Map is £10.99 + p&p from www.europeanrailtimetable.eu