A discreet townhouse in the cobbled alleys of Île de Ré’s pretty Saint-Martin port, Villa Clarisse is centred around a cloistered courtyard and is as quiet and calming as the island’s remote pine forests, beaches and oyster shacks. White wooden floors and antique furniture add to the stately calm that seems to settle over you at breakfast on the Louis Beneche-designed lawn, around the pool in the afternoon or of an evening with a glass of the owners’ Château Clarisse from the honesty bar in the lounge.
Double rooms from £465.54 (€550), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €2.53 per person per night on check-out.
Rates don’t usually include breakfast, but for €32 each you can start the day with a basket of pastries, artisanal honey, organic jams and yoghurt, fresh coffee and a selection of Mariage Frères teas, served to you in the breakfast room or the garden.
It’s wise to have your wheels organised before arrival, and for this purpose Villa Clarisse has partnered with one of the island’s best rental shops, YooToo. Book through the hotel and get 10 per cent off your bike hire.
The hotel closes each year from November to March.
At the hotel
Pool, garden, breakfast patio, lounge, honesty bar, library. In rooms: Butler service, free WiFi, minibar, air-conditioning, Maison Caulières bath products.
Our favourite rooms
As the tireless, perfectionist general manager of the Four Seasons George V, and having scooped armfuls of awards, owner Didier Le Calvez knows a thing or two about guest rooms. But beyond Villa Clarisse’s seamless, unfussy service, this knight of the realm also has an eye for antiques – all sourced locally of course, either on the island or in and around La Rochelle. Not that the nine rooms here are stuffy, museum pieces. He and his wife Olivia have opted for predominantly white interiors (floors, walls, curtains, wood furniture) dotted with a mahogany wardrobe here, an 18th-century writing bureau there. Our favourite is probably the Premier Suite, for its views of the pretty street to the front as well as the gorgeous courtyard at the townhouse’s centre.
At the far end of the leafy, manicured garden – and unusual for Saint-Martin – is a cute outdoor pool surrounded by loungers.
A spa is currently planned for 2023 including a sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi and two treatment rooms for face and body massage.
Don’t expect many Lycra-clad Tour de France wannabes here – the bikes most people borrow come with low crossbars and baskets, but do bring an outfit that you’ll be comfortable riding in for several hours a day. And dust off your GCSE French (or top up on Duolingo); it’ll be more than welcomed here.
Villa Clarisse is in a historic building with only some rooms at ground level and some slightly-less-than-wheelchair-friendly steps and doorways, plus there are cobbles in the alleyways outside, meaning this isn’t a particularly accessible stay.
The island is geared up for families, with beaches earmarked as child-friendly and lots of French and other European visitors using the island for their summer-holiday break. Villa Clarisse is quite grown-up, however, but there are interconnecting rooms.
There are garden tables tucked up against the trees on the lawn at Villa Clarisse which are perfect for a quiet breakfast.
Blend in with the locals by sporting white jeans, boat shoes and a Breton shirt.
There’s no restaurant at Villa Clarisse, but there is a breakfast room with an honesty bar stocked with a well-curated library and grand piano. However, if it’s sunny you’ll want to sit out on the patio facing the garden. For lunch or dinner, take a three-minute stroll to Clarisse’s sister hotel, Hotel de Toiras, and its quayside George’s restaurant and cocktail bar. Here, chefs can be seen busy at work behind the low partition, but your gaze will likely be drawn towards the huge windows, which provide the town’s finest vantage over the harbour. Here, too, is the terrace that puts you among the gentle hubbub of summer-evening strollers. The menu is modern but with a strong regional focus: half-baked red tuna, macaron vinaigrette and cucumber; exquisite lobster pasta; Atlantic pollock with a saffron-infused marinara sauce; locally reared lamb with spinach and roast potatoes. Leave room for the eye-wateringly alcoholic rum baba or the peach melba served Île-de-Ré style.
The honesty bar in the private lounge invites you to become mixologist for the evening, serving a selection of liqueurs and wines (including the owners’ Château Clarisse, of course). Or, for a more sociable evening, head to the Blue Note bar at nearby Hotel de Toiras where friendly staff will mix you cocktails exactly how you like it.
Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the principal town of L’île de Ré, is a very flat, peaceful, 30-kilometre-long island off La Rochelle on France’s Atlantic Coast.
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. The hotel can arrange airport transfers for €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 (€120 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).
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. Villa Clarisse 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.
A three-minute walk towards the harbour, 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.
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.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this quayside hotel in Saint-Martin-de-Ré and unpacked their pouch of ‘white gold’ (aka salt) and souvenir oyster shell, a full account of their peaceful, Gallic escape will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Villa Clarisse in Île de Ré…
Those who know Île de Ré, know. Most of them are Parisians, brought here as children by their parents, and continuing the annual tradition with their own families. It’s one you’ll just as happily fall in step with, too: each year, making your way over the arcing concrete curve of Île de Ré bridge just outside La Rochelle and onto this blissful isle of windswept saltmarshes, wild beaches and oyster shacks. Villages here all follow the same idyllic pattern: tiny populations living in serenity under terracotta-tiled roofs and behind doors and window shutters that according to conservation rules must be painted one of four subtle shades of ocean green.
That conservation programme was put in place by an island grande dame and current resident whose son, Didier Le Calvez, made that same yearly pilgrimage in adolescence. This ambitious young man grew up to become one of the world’s most acclaimed hotel managers, was duly knighted, and has now returned to own and run Villa Clarisse and its sister property, Hotel de Toiras, on his childhood island. Villa Clarisse is the quieter of the two, a townhouse on one of the cobbled lanes set back from the quayside in Saint Martin, the island’s prettiest town.