Saint-Martin-de-Ré is the principal town of Île de Ré, a very flat, peaceful, 30-kilometre-long island off La Rochelle on France’s Atlantic Coast, reachable by crossing the impressive concrete curve of Île de Ré bridge.
La Rochelle Airport is just across the water, with flights arriving from major cities throughout Europe. The relatively new bridge means you can be on the island in around 15 minutes by taxi. Or, the hotel can arrange a transfer (€60 one way).
It’s roughly three hours by train from Paris Gare du Nord to La Rochelle railway station. From there, the hotel can arrange a transfer (€75 one way), or you can take a cab or bus, although beware that the bus stops at every village on the island and doesn’t actually enter the ancient walls of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, instead stopping near a car park just outside.
There are vehicles on the island but the preferred mode of transport by virtually everyone is bicycle (even dogs are towed in little carriages by their cyclist owners). If you do bring your own car, you can use the hotel's secure parking for €30 a day.
The arrival of the bridge in 1988 effectively ended the need for a ferry to the island from La Rochelle, but you can take a boat trip to hop between other Atlantic isles and the nearby Fort Boyard, the 19th-century fortification made famous by the eponymous game show.
Worth getting out of bed for
A well-marked lattice of cycle paths through salt marshes (the un-manned salt wagons at their perimeter work on an honesty-bar basis), vineyards and pine forest link the popular (as well as less visited) beaches with the handful-or-so sleepy villages on this entirely level, 30-kilometre-long island, and every few miles you’ll be tempted to dismount at the copious little oyster shacks lining the routes. In fact, few places are more geared up for the dual pleasures of cycling and oyster-quaffing than Île de Ré. Hotel de Toiras has partnered with YooToo, an excellent rental cabin (where you’ll get 10 per cent off), from which you can choose push bike or e-bike, with or without baskets.
The hotel is set in the island’s principal town, Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the entrance into which is through the ornate Portes des Campani and whose sea-lapped 17th-century ramparts were designed by Vauban and make for a pleasant after-dinner stroll. Pay a visit to the Ernest Cognacq Museum at the far end of town for more local-history tidbits. Grab a packed lunch of warm baguettes, local cheese, lamb stew or garlicky herring salad from the town’s covered market. Or, for an eye-popping prototype of the mediaeval marché of your dreams, head to the neighbouring port town of La Flotte. We could spend an entire day at bountiful La Flotte market sampling the suckling pig, salted fish, potato salad and other treats entirely unique to this corner of France. Expect queues at the shops around its perimeter, too, such as for bread and pastries at Boulangerie Feuillette.
With your bike basket bursting with cheese and baguettes, you’re ready to pedal proudly to the beach. To the south, beyond the village of Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré, lies the lengthy, fairly popular Plage des Gollandières. To the west, through the cheerful labyrinth of salt marshes, is the quiet village of Loix and its wind-sheltered Plage du Grouin. As is often the case with beaches, you’ll be rewarded the further you go. It’s a day’s very pleasant cycling to and from the island’s north-east peninsula where you’ll find some of Île de Ré’s finest, and most desolate: Plage de Trousse-Chemise and Plage de la Patache being the most appealing – as well as Le Phare de Ré, a historic lighthouse and by far the island’s tallest viewing platform (very little else reaches higher than two storeys).
If you fancy a break from the isle’s quietude, you can always hop over the bridge for lunch or dinner in La Rochelle, whose quaint, restaurant-and-bar-lined harbour has the feel of a metropolis compared to the willful sleepiness of Île de Ré.
Around the corner from Hotel de Toiras, in a courtyard opposite a cinema (which itself looks like the set in a film from la nouvelle vague), is Le Tout de Cru, which is what heaven surely looks like if you prefer your fish fishy and your crustaceans piled high on silver platters lined with seaweed. Across the quay is Bistrot du Marin, serving entrecôte and filet de boeuf with cured sausage, tuna rillettes, tomate burratina and oysters (natch). It’s loved by locals for its friendly staff and comprehensive drinks menu.
Bring the kids to get their fingers messy at Ben-Hur for simple dishes such as crevettes and grilled sardines served to you under an awning at unfussy plastic tables. Cycle out of town along the sea wall and the first oyster shack you’ll find is the sea-facing Ré Ostréa, whose easygoing atmosphere and plate after plate of crustaceous goodies might force you to re-think your plans for the day. Inland, another fine oyster layover is La Cabane du Feneau, which opens for lunch only, serves its fruits de mer in wicker baskets, and is worth booking in advance.
If you are heading to the island’s north-west, make a pit stop in the agreeable port town of Ars-en-Ré, with its fine church tower, Clocher d'Ars-en-Ré, and a cobbled square on which you’ll find Crêperie L'Océane. You won’t be disappointed by its chantilly cream and Grand Marnier masterpiece.