Lesley Williamson discovers a small island off the Atlantic coast of France that is a surfers’ paradise from early spring.
With its perfect climate all year round tempered by the Gulf Stream, Ile de Ré is best enjoyed outside the busy summer months, away from the crowds.
At 85 sq km, Ile de Ré is a shade smaller than Brussels city centre, and while most holidaymakers come to sun bake on the island beaches in the summer, they are missing a trick. From its fortified capital Saint-Martin de Ré, salt marshes of Loix and sleepy villages, to spectacular beaches that range from lush pine-covered slopes to rolling sand dunes, Ile de Ré has so much to offer to capture any sporty heart that has endured a grey Belgian winter.
Spring certainly sees the island at its prettiest as the lush vegetation bursts into blossom. The island wakes up, edged with beaches of fine sand and punctuated by dunes, wild marshes and picturesque pretty towns producing stunning shades of green and distinctive scents of mimosas, laurels and fig trees in bloom.
Monks and winemakers
For a real understanding of what makes the place tick, imagine 2,600 hours of sunshine per year on the island versus our mean average of 1,504 hours in Brussels. This French island benefits from a wonderful warm climate extending from March right through to October thanks to the effect of the Gulf Stream – in fact it is the second sunniest place in France after Corsica.
Something the Cisterian Monks quickly understood back in the Middle Ages when they settled on the island, built the Abbaye des Chateliers and planted the first vines. A forward-thinking initiative when they realized that the exceptional microclimate and sandy soil is ideal for vine growing across some 650 hectares of the island. Fine wine is produced here today, as well as cognac and pineau des Charentes, an aperitif liqueur blended from white wine and cognac.
Still, this haven of tranquillity and natural beauty hasn’t owed its prosperity solely to wine and spirits. The island’s prized Fleur de sel – sea-salt naturally harvested by hand – is still extracted from the marshes using the age-old art of evaporating seawater in open pans with traditional methods dating back to the 13th century. Ile de Ré’s salt workers harvest the salt by raking the purest, whitest layer off the top to make what many consider to be the finest salt in the world.
It is perhaps on the way to the small village of Loix-en-Ré that the salt marshes are most noticeable with the last of six tide mills still standing amongst the salt pans. The mills were used to clean the salt, set in motion by the movement of the water. The beautifully preserved landscapes trapped between the ocean and salt flats are a real delight here, home to an exceptionally rich biodiversity of protected fauna and flora.
A surfer’s paradise
But I haven’t travelled to Ile de Ré for the luxury of indulging in fine wine, enjoying spectacular bird-watching or treating myself to delicious local seafood and oysters. My priority? Fresh air, exercise and surfing. It’s the beautiful turquoise waters and water-sports that draw me to Ile de Ré, actually no longer an island as such since a 3 km bridge has linked it to the neighbouring town of La Rochelle since 1988.
Ile de Ré offers just about every water-sport imaginable and you can surf to your heart’s content, try kite-surfing and wind-surfing or the newest rage, stand-up paddle surfing. The ideal position of Ile de Ré, with its southern coast turned towards the west, welcomes swells from the Atlantic’s open sea. The best surfing spots are mainly located on the southern beaches, namely from east to west the beaches of Rivedoux, Les Grenettes in Sainte-Marie-de-Ré, Gouillaud in Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré , La Pergola in La Couarde-sur-Mer, Grignon in Ars-en-Ré .
On the northern coast, the best spots are found in la Conche des Baleines, Le Lizay, Le petit Bec in Les Portes-en-Ré, and Diamond Head in Saint-Clément-des-Baleines. If you are unsure where to find these waves of pleasure, ask – or follow the local surfers or rely on the many professional surfing schools of the island.
With this in mind, Ile de Ré seems an obvious destination for a spring adrenalin kick and a good dose of sunshine. Just 20 minutes by car from La Rochelle airport, which has direct flights from Brussels-Charleroi from April, the island claims excellent surfing spots, a wealth of ‘action holiday’ escapades and more than 100 km of scenic cycling paths. Keen surfing enthusiast, the opportunity to get my wetsuit damp in the spring has dwindled significantly since I moved to Belgium. Two hours away from Brussels, I found a surfer’s heaven and a friendly surfing community of locals. A place where the great wind blows.
How to get there: Direct flight from Brussels -Charleroi Airport to La Rochelle in 1h25 minutes from April from €33 return.
More on www.iledere.com
Surf school: www.re-surf.com
Stand-up paddle across the salt pans: www.supevasion.com
Text and photography by Lesley Williamson