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  • Writer's pictureEveline Vouillemin

Flight Free Holiday: London to Ile de Ré

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

Come on an adventure as we take you on a journey from London to the picturesque haven of Ile de Ré off the west coast of France.


In 2022, I took the Flight Free pledge after becoming increasingly aware of the impact of aviation emissions on our planet and the aviation industry’s contribution to the climate crisis.


I was hugely inspired by the stories of others who had pledged not to fly, such as sustainable fashion journalist Armelle Ferguson, writer and explorer Emma Lucy and activist Poppy Okotcha.


As well as taking the pledge for environmental reasons, I also wanted to prove that committing to not flying didn’t mean compromising on adventure. So, I pitched a number of flight free holidays to my boyfriend and we settled on a trip to Ile de Ré.


We decided to travel in September to avoid July and August when Ile de Ré is flooded with tourists. It was still beautifully sunny when we were there and we were able to swim, hike and cycle, but without the crowds.

 

Trip Itinerary:

  • 1 September - London → Paris → La Rochelle

  • 3 September - La Rochelle → Ile de Ré

  • 10 September - Ile de Ré → La Rochelle → Paris

  • 12 September - Paris → London

 

Our trip began with the 08:01 Eurostar from London St Pancras International to Paris on 1 September. We arrived at the Gare du Nord at 11:17 and made our way to Gare Montparnasse for our 13:30 train to La Rochelle. Take Metro Line 4 (the pink line) from Gare du Nord and ride 14 stops to Paris Montparnasse.


Armed with sandwiches from Paul and snacks from Monoprix, we were ready for the three hour train trip. After a relaxing journey through gorgeous landscapes, we arrived at La Rochelle train station (16:45) where a taxi was waiting to transfer us to La Grande Terrasse Hôtel et Spa Châtelaillon-Plage for a two night stay.


The hotel, situated in Châtelaillon-Plage, is peaceful, elegantly designed and all the staff are welcoming and friendly. The ‘espace bien-être’ - pool, jacuzzi, hammam and sauna - was excellent, guaranteed to help you relax and unwind. On our first night we ate in the hotel’s bistro restaurant where the food and wine were delicious. If possible, make sure to sit out on the terrace overlooking the ocean for gorgeous views of the sunset.



We spent day two of our trip exploring La Rochelle, a dynamic and bustling port town which was one of France's principal seaports from the 14th to 17th century.


From outside the hotel, you can pick up the Yeló bus line 20 on Avenue de la Falaise and travel directly into the heart of La Rochelle. For more information, view bus times and journeys here.


We had lunch at Les Régates in the heart of the Old Port along the waterfront, with a fantastic view of the docked boats and the historic towers (built in the Middle Ages) which stand at the entrance of the harbour.


After lunch, we paid €9 to visit all three historic towers - the Saint Nicholas Tower, the Chain Tower and the Tower of the Lantern - which reveal the fascinating history of La Rochelle and also provide excellent views across the city and out to sea.



The Lantern Tower is the only medieval lighthouse that is still standing on the Atlantic coast and it contains an extraordinary array of graffiti, carved into the walls by the pirates and prisoners who were held there after it was converted to a prison in the 17th century. The several hundred examples of graffiti was definitely a highlight.


Before catching the bus back to our hotel, we spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around the streets of the old town which you can enter through La Porte de la Grosse Horloge (Big Clock Gate). The old town is full of beautiful Renaissance buildings, charming independent shops in arcaded streets and elegant bars and restaurants.


We also explored the Charruyer Park which was beautiful - tree-lined canal paths which feel far away from the bustle of the city.



The next morning we spent relaxing at the hotel’s spa pools before checking out at midday and being driven back to La Rochelle train station where we could pick up the bus to Ile de Ré.


We had a delicious lunch at Le Chougare before our search for the bus began. It is bus number 3/3E “La Rochelle - Ile de Ré” from La Région Nouvelle-Aquitaine service. Be careful not to get confused by the inner-city bus line 3. We stood at an inner-city bus stop for quite a while with a French couple who were equally confused. Luckily, a very glamorous French woman (who was heading for Ile de Ré) overheard us and pointed us in the right direction!


When you exit La Rochelle station, walk straight ahead across the pedestrianised space at the front of the station until you reach the road and then turn right. Keep walking until you see other people waiting or bus signs for line 3/3E and maps of Ile de Ré along the chain fence by the road.


A single trip costs €2.10 and a return is €4.10. For a single ask for an ‘aller simple’ and for a return ask for an ‘aller retour’ and for both, state what stop you would like to get off at. There is space to store your luggage in the hold of the bus and stop buttons onboard which you need to press before your stop.


Our base for the week was Les Portes-En-Ré, one of ten villages on the island, and it is the final stop on the bus route. From ‘Salle Polyvante’, it was a 5 minute walk to our hotel Le Phare where we were welcomed very warmly by the staff who made check-in a smooth and easy process.

Images via Le Phare


We opted for a two-bed cabin which was modern and light with a well-equipped kitchen and functional bathroom. The bedroom was quite snug and the mattress was basic but comfortable. The best part of the cabin experience is the private terrace and outdoor space. Even though there are other cabins around, the tropical trees and foliage provide ample privacy. We loved eating outside every evening, with a chilled glass of white wine, music playing and the light streaming through the trees.


The grounds are also beautiful and feel very peaceful. We ate at the on-site restaurant Les Demoiselles which had a very laid-back vibe, delicious food and a great atmosphere. We also enjoyed having a drink at the outdoor Bar Airstream which had a lovely view of the sunset.


The best way to travel around the island is by bike. Ile de Ré is famous for its cycle-friendliness, with 100km of extensive bike paths up and down the island whose highest point is only 19 metres high.


All of the villages are connected by bike lanes, as are almost all of the beaches. The cycle paths wind through pine forests, drift in and out of vineyards and glide past nature reserves.


Every village has hire shops where you can find tandems, electric bikes, trailers for children as well as the classic city bike with baskets. We collected our bikes from the hotel on our second day and immediately set off to explore. It was the most peaceful way of seeing the island and a perfect way to experience nature.


The following are just some of our highlights from the island:

  • Phare des Baleines: Late one afternoon we cycled through pine forests to the Phare des Baleines (the Lighthouse of the Whales) which is along the top end of the island. It was built and lit in 1854 and is one of the highest lighthouses in France (57 metres high). We did not climb up the 257 steps of the lighthouse but instead walked along the sea wall which had beautiful views back to the majestic lighthouse and also out to the ocean.


  • Les Portes-en-Ré market: Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday (daily from 1 July through to 31 August), the Portes-en-Ré market is full of stalls selling local food products: fish, oysters, salt, wines, and seasonal fruits and vegetables. There are also stalls and boutique shops which sell jewellery, clothing and homeware. Each village has its own market so you will be able to experience the buzz of the intimate but lively markets wherever you stay on the island.


  • The salt marshes: One of the best things about staying on the north side of the island is that you have immediate access to the cycling and walking paths through the salt marshes. The island is covered by nearly 400 hectares of salt marshes and they are an integral part of the history, traditions and landscapes of the island. The Nature Reserve of Lilleau des Niges, which stretches from Ars-en-Ré to Portes-en-Ré, sits at the centre of the salt marshes and is home to thousands of birds. Cycling through this wild and wonderful territory was a very special experience.



  • Ars-en-Ré: The charming village of Ars-en-Ré is known as one of the most beautiful villages in France and it certainly lives up to its reputation. As we approached the outskirts of the village by bike, we saw the distinctive black-tipped 15th-century church spire which can be seen across the island. It used to act as a landmark for sailors before the lighthouses on the island were constructed. We enjoyed strolling through the square and along flower-filled cobbled streets. Ars-en-Ré also has the largest harbour on the island and we loved sitting out for a drink at the water-side terrace of Le Café du Commerce.


  • Cycling to Saint Martin de Ré: The cycle ride from Portes-en-Ré to Saint-Martin-de-Ré is a 45 km round trip along gorgeous cycle paths which wrap through nature reserves, picturesque vineyards and hug the coastline for the final stretch. We entered Saint-Martin-de-Ré by cycling along a cobbled bridge and passing through impressive wooden doors which make up part of the 17th-century star-shaped walls which enclose the island’s capital. We strolled through the old streets with its narrow alleys, charming buildings, and picturesque lighthouses. We also climbed to the top of the bell tower for panoramic views out across the village, the sea and surrounding nature. Before leaving, we sat by the lively quayside in the late afternoon sun and enjoyed an ice-cream from La Martinière - the best lemon sorbet of my life!



  • Wine tour at Le Vignerons de L’Ile de Ré: Across 580 hectares of vineyards, Ile de Ré wine-growers have come together to form a cooperative winery offering a wide range of products. For €9 each we toured the distillery and the cellars and learnt about the production of wines, Cognac and Pineau. The tour ends with a tasting of these products accompanied by saucisson, goat’s cheese and chocolate from the island. We were originally booked for a bike ride tour and tasting through the vineyard but sadly it rained heavily that day so the ride wasn't possible.



  • La Plage de Trousse Chemise: This sheltered beach is located on the western tip of the island near Portes-en-Ré. It is a haven of peace and Charles Aznavour, an iconic French singer, sang of its beauty: "We went swimming at Trousse chemise...". This sandy beach is on the edge of a pine forest and is the perfect place to alternate wandering beneath the pines, swimming in the sea and sunbathing along the sandy banks of le banc du Bûcheron.



We spent seven wonderful days on the island before making our way to Paris for the final few days of our trip. We woke up early to make the 07:40 bus which ran perfectly on time - as had all the bus services the entire week - and we arrived in La Rochelle with plenty of time for a coffee before our train left for Paris.


We departed at 10:44 and arrived at Gare Montparnasse at 13:37. We took the metro line 4 (pink) to Strasbourg Saint-Denis, in the 10th arrondissement, and from there it was a 5 minute walk to Hotel Provinces Opera. The hotel is in a superb location, our room was spacious and clean and the staff were friendly and helpful.


On our first evening in Paris, we visited Montmartre for a pre-meal drink. It was busy and noisy which made it feel a little overwhelming after the peace and quiet of Ile de Ré! Our dinner reservation at Le Moulin de la Galette was a welcome escape as the charming building and location felt calm, intimate, and romantic. There was a real buzz about the place and the food and wine were superb - a perfect way to end our first night in Paris.




On Sunday, we walked along the Coulée verte René-Dumont (Promenade plantée), a 4.5 km elevated walkway which runs through the 12th arrondissement from the Opéra Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes. It was designed on an abandoned 19th-century railway viaduct and consists of a narrow pathway bordered with cherry, lime and maple trees and roses, ivy, bamboo, wisteria and lavender.


Afterwards, we made our way to the famous ice-cream maker Berthillon on the Île Saint-Louis, one of our favourite spots in the city, which you can always recognise from the queues of people outside! There is a plethora of flavours - pear and mirabelle sorbet were our favourites!



Afterwards, we went to Pyrénées to pick up metro line 11 to Hôtel de Ville and from there we walked to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, set in Belleville, which is one of the biggest green spaces in Paris and is magical. On top of the 50-metre-high central hill with cliffs is a small, round belvedere, based on the Roman Temple of Vesta in Italy. From the temple you can see beautiful views of Montmartre and Sacre-Coeur.



We spent our final day visiting the Musée Jacquemart-André, a Belle Époque mansion with a beautiful private art collection, and then went on a leisurely stroll through the Parc Monceau, one of the most elegant parks in Paris, where we enjoyed our final baguette, basking in the sunshine.


After collecting our bags from the hotel, we walked 15 minutes to the Gare du Nord ahead of our 17:13 train which got us back to London at 18:30.

 

I cannot recommend this flight free trip enough. I fell in love with Ile de Ré for its long sandy beaches, fresh ocean breeze, cobbled streets full of whitewashed houses with shutters in every shade of green and blue, charming churches and pretty harbour villages. It is pure enchantment and I hope we will go back one day.


Travelling by train, bus and bike was an absolute joy and added to the experience of this trip by giving us a greater sense of connection to the places we were travelling through and a deeper appreciation for the landscape of western France.


If you want to enjoy the slow way of life and have an opportunity to reconnect with nature, then ‘the jewel of the Atlantic’ is the perfect place for you.


By Eveline Vouillemin ©




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