It wasn’t until I moved to the east coast of the US that I heard ‘summer’ used as a verb. Wealthy New Yorkers summered in the Hamptons, Bostonians on Cape Cod. I had always summered right at home in California, and thought them all suckers for having to relocate just to go to the beach. They were smug; I was lucky. But now that I’m in Europe I understand their challenge, and this week I’ve discovered how to summer like a Parisian on a secret little island called the Ile de Re.
The Hamptons of Paris, this picture-pretty isle off the Atlantic coast of France is where well-heeled Parisians escape city life in July and August. A 5-minute drive from La Rochelle airport, it’s also a place that savvy Londoners can decamp to when we’re in need of sun, sand, and beaucoup de island charm.
I learned about the Ile de Re from a Parisian friend years ago, and have wanted to travel there ever since. In the dead of January I got so desperate for summer that I booked a flight to La Rochelle and started dreaming of island life. And now I’m here.
As soon as I land my dreams come true. Long sandy beaches, storybook towns, and bright spring flowers welcome me to the Atlantic isle, a fresh ocean breeze blowing away all of my urban cares.
My base for three days is Sainte Marie de Re, one of ten villages on the island. The tourism board has arranged my stay at Hotel Atalante, where my spacious suite overlooks the grassy dunes along the coast. I have my breakfasts and dinners here and spend the rest of my time exploring the island.
And the best way to do so is by bike. The Ile de Re is famous for its cycle-friendliness, with extensive bike paths all up and down the 30-kilometer (19-mile) long island. I pick up a bike from the hotel on my first day and set off to explore.
What I find awes me. The island has an amazing mix of coastal beauty, inland forests with waist-high ferns, fields full of orange and scarlet poppies, and lovely seafront towns. There are also adorable donkeys—historically they sported striped trousers!—an acceptable replacement for sheep, my normal farm animal obsession.
I cycle down tiny cobbled streets full of whitewashed houses with shutters in every shade of green, along salt flats where the famous fleur de sel is produced, through vineyards—like everywhere else in France, there’s a lot of wine produced on this island—and beside oyster beds. As I take it all in, I start to fall in love with the Ile de Re.
The feeling grows as I explore the village markets. Each town has its own, from a little one in Sainte Marie de Re to a gorgeous one in La Flotte and a big one in Le Bois Plage en Re. Food stalls and covered halls offer everything from fresh cheese to spicy salami, larger-than-life seafood, and briny green olives, all of it tempting my taste buds with tantalizing aromas and bright colors.
Bigger villages like Saint Martin de Re—the unofficial island capital—also have lots of cafes and historic fortresses lining the marinas. So do impossibly quaint little ones like La Flotte, which deservedly won a place among the most beautiful villages in France. And each one has a charming carousel and little streets just off the waterfront that offer an abundance of shops and cafes, perfect for browsing or buying.
The side streets reveal even more beauty, as rose bushes burst with color and fill the air with the sweet scent of spring. Irises range in color from linen white to sunshine yellow and midnight purple, competing with their floral cousins for attention. It’s hard not to photograph every street I venture down.
The stretches between the villages are filled with beaches. At low tide many of them are punctuated with locals prying shellfish out of the sand, a long tradition here. Others are famous for surfing, sailing, and kite surfing, and still more for their dunes and views.
On my first day I cycle over 40 kilometers (25 miles), determined to see the remote village of Loix and its famous salt marshes. The next day I make it 25 kilometers (16 miles) before my legs give out. I don’t even make it up to the northern end of the island, where there are more landscapes and villages to see. This island is much bigger than I anticipated.
I do, however, make it to the spa. My hotel adjoins the Relais Thalasso, a spa with saltwater pools and a sauna and steam room, the perfect antidotes to my aching muscles and exhausted eyes. It’s a great way to relax after a long day on the cycle paths and village cobblestones.
When my three days on the Ile de Re are over, I’m sadder to leave than I’ve been in a long time. This island has completely won me over, its pretty landscapes and peaceful villages showing me why Parisians are eager to return every summer. I could do the same.
But first I want to do as the Americans do and travel to the Hamptons. I’m heading there for a wedding next month, and I’m excited to see how New York’s version of the Ile de Re compares to Paris’. Maybe this will finally convince my inner Californian that ‘summer’ can actually be taken seriously as a verb. I certainly hope so.