Île de Ré (“IDR” going forward) is a popular vacation island just of the coast of La Rochelle. IDR is very popular with the French, especially Parisians, and has been referred to by numerous travel insiders as the Martha’s Vineyard of France. I took a day trip from La Rochelle to the main town on IDR, Saint-Martin-de-Ré (“Saint Martin” for short) in June. Saint Martin is the largest and most popular of 10 communes on IRD. St. Martin is located in the center of IDR on the Atlantic Ocean, although it does not have a beach. For that, you will have to rent a bicycle and travel to a neighboring town. Saint Martin dates back to hundreds of years and is surrounded by a fort constructed by Louis XIV’s engineer, Vauban!
Saint Martin is centers around its picturesque quays (aka its port), which are filled with lovely boats just asking to be taken out for a spin. The quays are surrounded by several restaurants and shops, all geared toward the vacationing tourist (in a good way!).
The weather on the day of our day trip was probably the worst of our trip for a seaside escape – overcast and chilly. As such, we spent most of the day strolling Saint Martin, shopping and eating. The sun finally came out about an hour before we left, which made me want to return in good weather so much more!
In terms of visiting IDR, a day trip from La Rochelle was sufficient for me. I would recommend it as a week-long destination for families familiar with France. There were lots of families with children. There were very few Americans in Saint Martin, and I really liked it that way – very French. However, if you are not familiar with France, it may be a little low-key for a first or second visit. Dan found it a bit boring (perhaps it was all the shopping) and it did have a very similar feel to a Northeast U.S. seaside town.
Île de Ré Touriste
Saint Martin (and IDR in general) is very short on bucket list sites. There is no Eiffel Tower, its not on a famous riveria and it is not the most picturesque town in France (but the competition is SO stiff…). Instead, IDR is an absolutely adorable seaside town and its primary charm is in being just that! For first time visitors to IDR, Saint Martin is a necessary stop, if for nothing else to see the quays and get your bearings.
The Atlantic Ocean is just past the quays, surrounded by the old town walls, which as I mentioned date back to the 1600s. Very pretty for pictures, but you will have to go further than Saint Martin to reach a proper beach.
The streets of Saint Martin, which radiate out from the quays are also quite charming and took up the majority of my day! If you are traveling with a shopper, be sure to leave at least an hour for shopping (if not more). I did my best shopping of the trip in Saint Martin!
Within the old town, and right next to a wine bar, is an old cathedral that is interesting to spend a few minutes. You can also climb to the top for great views of Saint Martin. We did not make it to the top, but we did check out the inside, which was surprisingly colorful (and free)!
IDR is well-known for producing a wide variety of products, including salt (sel), wine and soap made from donkeys. Yes, from donkeys. I spent a lot of my time on IDR shopping since the weather was bad. I had a great time and made some great purchases, and even Dan enjoyed himself (for about an hour). Some of my favorite purchases are a traditional maritime scarf (ubiquitous in IDR), lotion and soaps made from donkey milk and a super cute striped skirt from an “every thing is 25 €” shop! In addition to good shopping, the shops are really pretty and traditionally French!
Île de Ré Foodie
As I mentioned above, IDR is an excellent to pick up culinary gifts for friends and family back home and for yourself! I definitely recommend picking up some goods if you have room in your suitcase.
In terms of restaurants, most of the restaurants focus on serving fresh, delicious seafood. Oysters are particularly popular. Unfortunately on the day we visited, we were a little hungover and unable to stomach fresh seafood. We both decided that pizza was necessary and found a delicious restaurant serving pizza right on the quays called Le Phare.
We went in with low recommendations; however, to our surprise, the pizza was excellent, as was the service. They even cut our shared pizza and served it on two plates!
If you are looking for seafood, there are lots of options around the quays. Bistrot du Marin receives excellent reviews and is just adorable.
In addition, La Martiniere is a well-known and huge ice cream shop right in the middle of town. When the sun finally appeared, we skipped ice cream in favor of a glass of IDR white wine overlooking the quay.
There is also a small market right off of the main quay.
Île de Ré Logistics
Transport to IDR
Île de Ré is only 17 miles from La Rochelle, which includes crossing an almost 2 mile bridge! There is no train between La Rochelle and IDR. You can hire a car or take the bus. I took the bus. The cost is 5 € for a bus day pass. The ticket is a receipt:
Tickets can be purchased on the bus and both of my drivers spoke some English. The bus departs La Rochelle from both the train station (le Gare) and Place de Verdun (in the old town; 10 minute walk from the Vieux Port). I strongly recommend boarding the bus at the train station. Why? You cannot pre-purchase bus tickets and the buses do fill up, especially during peak times. While the buses do allow standing if the seats are full, you do not want to stand for the better part of an hour! Get on at the train station and ensure a seat. I would also note that the bus makes several stops on IDR, and the stops, while announced, are in French and lack clear signage. I recommend picking up a bus schedule (or print one online before you leave home) and following along with the stops to ensure you reach your destination. In addition, be advised that the buses are often delayed by at least a few minutes (if not 30) and can be very hot even on cooler days. Wear layers!
STEAL OUR TRIP
Saint Martin Touriste Office: Useful English website run by the tourist office. The tourist office is located at Quai Nicolas Baudin in Saint Martin.
Les Mouettes (bus): Useful website in English.
Le Phare: 4 quai de Bernonville, 17410 Saint Martin de Re, Ile de Re, France. Reservations not required. Good pizza.
Bistrot du Marin: 10 Quai Nicolas Baudin, 17410 Satin Martin de Re, Ile de Re, France. Tél. : 05 46 68 74 66. Closed Thursday. Open every other day from 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 a.m. I did not eat here, but it receives good reviews.
La Martiniere:17 quai de La Poithevinière, 17410 Saint Martin de Ré. Tél: 05 46 09 20 99. Open 10:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. everyday, until 11:00 p.m. in July and August.