SWEET AND SIMPLE
Sea, sand and seafood are just some of the things that seduce people to the shores of Charente-Maritime. Catriona Burns discovers its simple delights
Catriona Burns gives the low-down on sunny Charente-Maritime
It’s no secret that we British do ‘like to be beside the seaside’, with many of us dreaming of being somewhere boasting blue skies, fine sandy beaches and aquamarine waters for the summer and beyond. With such idyllic aspirations, it’s no surprise that Charente-Maritime on the western coast of France is a favourite destination when it comes to seeking out shoreside settings, with its stretch of ruggedly beautiful coastline that fringes the wild Atlantic Coast, a mild sunny climate and historic harbour towns living up to our picture-postcard ideal.
The area’s climate is one of the mildest in France, with the coastal areas enjoying the same hours of sunshine as the sizzling south. Although the summer season is the area’s busiest period, when it attracts holidaymakers and day trippers, the department’s string of coastal villages and old port towns quietly bustle all year round with locals enjoying the area’s world-class restaurants, lively markets and sporting activities, meaning the jovial atmosphere can be enjoyed in the off-peak months. So whether you’re a water worshipper, looking to indulge in a spot of sailing or swimming, want to take a hike along one of the many walking routes or want to relax and indulge in the area’s seafood specialities with a glass of local wine or their celebrated cognac, you’ll soon find that in Charente-Maritime, life’s a beach.
ÎLE DE RÉ
As the summertime destination of choice for many prosperous Parisians, the Atlantic Coast island of Île de Ré is said to be the Hamptons of France. But while its stateside equivalent is a magnet for billionaires who have beachfront mansions there, Île de Ré prides itself on being the place to indulge in the sweetest of life’s simple pleasures.
Although a toll bridge links the island to the mainland, costing €16 for a car crossing in the summer season and €8 in winter, the tourist office suggestion to ‘forget the car’ in favour of the bike is sound advice, as travelling on two wheels is undoubtedly the best way to explore this island that, at 19 miles long and three miles wide, is compact enough to cycle round. Pedal along some of the 100km of cycle paths that criss-cross its many vineyards, salt marshes, harbours and white-washed villages, and you will see a picturesque tableau of island life.
There are many routes to choose from, including one lacing La Courade to Loix that rolls past the ocean and marshland before continuing onto Les Portes-en-Ré, taking you through the nature reserve, Lilleau des Niges. The landscape is completely flat, meaning you’ll have enough breath to take in the views without slowing down, although you may want to stop off at the nature reserve to say hello to the hundreds of bird species including grey curlew, wigeon and teal.
If all that cycling makes you peckish, stop en route for some seafood at La Cabane du Feneau, one of the area’s cabanes that are dotted across the island where families cultivate oysters and serve them at picnic tables outside wooden shacks. Knocking back this island speciality complete with a seaside view, a squeeze of lemon and a glass of crisp white wine is as good as it gets.
If you want to buy some of the thousands of tons of shellfish produced each year on the island, daily morning markets at La Flotte, Rive-doux-Plage and Sainte-Marie sell them fresh, along with other shellfish, local wines, the island’s treasured salt dubbed ‘white gold’ and an assortment of in-season fruit and vegetables.
Another back-to-basics thrill of island life is being able to enjoy the wind-whipped setting of the Atlantic Coast by taking to the water. From June through to August, sailing regattas with cruising and race boats take to the seas at La Flotte, St-Martin and Ars-en-Ré with the Blue Wind Cup proving to be a seasonal highlight.
If you’d prefer to sit back and set sail, then hiring a catamaran to sail around the island is an adventurous way to do it, or, if you’d prefer to stay on dry land, be swept away by the kitesurfing craze and sign up to a session along the island’s sandy beaches at kitesurfing schools at Rive-doux-Plage and Les Portes-en-Ré.
The island is dotted with quaintly charming towns and villages including island capital, St-Martin-de-Ré, a fishing town surrounded by 17th-century fortifications and a citadel built by Vauban.
The town’s narrow cobblestone streets, housing traditional white-washed buildings with cheerful green shutters and flower boxes resting on windowsills, epitomise the island’s idyllic charm and are caught on camera by many snap-happy visitors.
Take a trip to the Parc de la Barbette that looks down on the southern coast of the Vendée and stroll past holm oaks, acacias and locust trees that lend this French town a little taste of the Med.
It’s little wonder that laying claim to the capital of the former province of Aunis, La Rochelle was such a bone of contention between English and French forces during the Middle Ages, as it is arguably one of France’s most picturesque seaside towns. Still popular with painters and writers, it is a source of inspiration for many modern creatives as it famously was to writers of the Enlightenment Age such as Voltaire and Laclos, plus many Impressionist painters including Signac who painted the city’s port.
Still the focal point of the town, the entrance to Le Vieux Port is flanked by soaring stone towers, creating a grand gateway to the busy quayside filled with lively cafes, restaurants and bars that loop around the historic harbour. It was shipowners from this famous French seaport that were among the first to set sail for the New World, a humbling thought while you enjoy a drink outside and appreciate the charms retained from this old one.
The city’s luminous limestone façades may have earned it the title of La Ville Blanche, but its eco-friendly transport system has secured a green reputation with electric cars, bikes, buses and boats all featuring in the city’s innovative transport network. If you want to be both environmentally and economically conscious, hire one of the Yélo bikes available at 25 portal points including Quai Valin and Place de Verdun that are free to use for the first two hours and €1 thereafter.
Another bargain is to be had when visiting some of the city’s historical sites, including the trio of medieval towers. Climbing the Tour de la Chaîne, Tour St-Nicolas and Tour de la Lanterne will offer sweeping views of the city and historical snippets of La Rochelle’s storied past, such as the graffiti scratched by soldiers in Tour St-Nicolas, for a combined ticket price of €6.90.
If you like your culture with cake and coffee, stop off at Café de la Paix, and marvel at the opulent architecture and flamboyant décor as you join the locals’ routine of reading the paper or playing a game of chess beneath its vaulted arches and gold-gilded ceilings. Carry on the well-heeled path to the Rue du Palais where covered arcades means you can stroll through the string of boutique shops whatever the weather. If you still don’t fancy finding your way by foot, take one of the boats that depart from Cours des Dames and explore the islands that stretch beyond the port including Île d ’Aix and the famous Fort Boyard.
When you’re back on dry land, dip out of the bustling streets and into the aquarium where you can walk beneath transparent glass tunnels swimming with colourful sealife. One of Europe’s biggest aquariums, it provides a vast sweep of life under the sea with its 65 tanks housing 12,000 marine animals and rooms devoted to specific oceans or species. End the trip in the second-floor restaurant overlooking the tropical garden, with panoramic views of La Rochelle from its dining room and terrace.
Formed from the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, just downstream from Bordeaux, the Gironde Estuary is the largest estuary in western Europe, measuring approximately 50 miles wide and seven miles long, and is bordered by a selection of quaint seaside villages and holiday resorts.
Nestled on the eastern shore of the estuary, Royan is a busy family resort with sandy beaches and lively bars behind the town’s port making for a cheerful holiday atmosphere. Excursions to surrounding attractions, including boat trips to France’s oldest lighthouse, the Phare de Cordouan are ideal opportunities to find your sea legs, while walking the Corniche de Pontaillac lets you stretch your legs, with a backdrop of views of the Gironde and the Côte de Beauté. Bring your swimming gear and a picnic and reap the awards of your hard work when the walk ends rather blissfully on a small sandy beach said to be one of Royan’s best.
The smaller resort of St-Palais-sur-Mer exudes a stylish elegance, with its quiet bay dotted with Belle Époque villas and tree-covered headlands while the pine-covered La Coubre forest is an idyllic spot for walkers and cyclists.
On the northern side of the estuary, Talmontsur-Gironde is a sweet town modelled on the bastides of Aquitaine with narrow streets lined with cute craft shops. Venture up to the Romanesque church of Ste-Radegonde sitting on the tip of a cliff dropping down to the Gironde to watch the sunset in style.
With its wide boulevards and grid-patterned streets, the 18th-century seaside town of Rochefort has a ‘new town’ feel about it. Not surprising since its very creation only came about to defend and supply the French Navy, with Louis XIV instructing the town architect, “Make it big. Make it beautiful and make it fast.”
Its military beginnings can still be felt, albeit with a few tweaks, including the restored 17th-century rope factory, Corderie Royale, now surrounded by elegant gardens and home to the museum, Centre International de la Mer, showcasing a collection of memorabilia dedicated to the town’s seafaring past. If you want to delve in further to the maritime monuments, hop on board the L’Hermione outside the museum, the replica of the ship with the same name used by a French military officer to resume his role in the American Revolution against British rule.
If you’re looking for a rainy-day activity, a trip to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire housed in L’Hôtel Hèbre de Saint-Clément is an ideal way to while away an afternoon. Wander around its large picture gallery and exhibit room to see 17th-century flower paintings and series of landscapes before entering the Camille Meriot Room, reserved for the sweetest seaside souvenir, the museum’s shell collection.
The location for many scenes from the French film, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, Place Colbert is a large square bordered by elegant facades including Hôtel d’Amblimont, and is an ideal meeting place to soak up some café culture before heading off to the shops in the surrounding streets, or the daily market on Avenue Charles de Gaulle.
Place Colbert is bordered by elegant facades and is an ideal place to soak up café culture
Facing page: Charente-Maritime is home to many sun-soaked sandy beaches like this one on Île-d’Aix This page: Cycling across the scenic countryside tracks is an idyllic way to explore the area; green-shuttered windows are a common feature on Île de Ré
From above: The historic harbour at La Rochelle; the town is known for its eco-friendly transport system; sunset over the town’s port
This page: The Phare de Cordouan is France’s oldest lighthouse; traditional fisherman huts on the Gironde Estuary
Above: Place Colbert in the18thcentury seaside town of Rochefort