Saint-Martin-de-Ré, bright, hot sun. Warm whites, pastel shutters. Solitary hollyhocks. Salty, sweaty, slow. Oyster shells in crates and bins. Boats sitting on the sand, stuck in the harbor, and fishermen selling the fresh catch. Wild, raw. Real.
My birthday trip to the French coast, but this time, instead of the south, to the west – to a new, quieter place on the Atlantic Coast. Île de Ré is hardly known to the non-French save for a handful of English holiday-makers. Those who do know it often refer to it as the “Martha’s Vineyard of France” (or Cape Cod or the Hamptons). That’s exactly how it felt.
A slower pace. Low tide, salty blue sea, sun-scorched grass giving way to tall, green trees. One long continuous bike path through the marshes. Ice cream souvenir stands, families slowly making their way to the beaches. White-walled villages speckled in between. The markets, bustling in the morning. Circular time. There is nowhere to be except outside, face warmed by the sun.
Day 1, Île de Ré
Bastille Day, la Fête nationale, my birthday eve, and the day we arrived at La Rochelle airport on mainland France just after 5:30 in the evening. We retrieved our hands-free baggage from the belt and, shortly after that, boarded the bus over the bridge to the island. It took us about forty minutes with stops to get to Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the harbor town where we would base ourselves for the next two nights. The bus, while longer than a taxi, was easy. There’s absolutely no reason to have a car on Île de Ré; plus, the fees to take a car over the bridge, I read, are high. After getting off at our stop, it took us about another ten minutes to walk down the sidewalks into the center of town and to our Airbnb. Everything, instantly, was perfect. After putting our bags inside, we immediately went to the harbor to explore it and it’s îlot.
We weren’t planning on an early dinner, but by chance, we passed by a small restaurant off the water that we had read about before arriving – a 2019 Michelin watch list restaurant with no star yet, since it had just been discovered (feasible to think it will have one soon). When we were told there was one table left for the early service at 7:15 pm, we signed up for the reservation. That gave us twenty-five minutes to wander around the harbor cobblestones in the meantime, past solitary flower stocks and discarded oyster shell buckets. The chatter of French in the breeze, the bistros and their colored umbrellas and colored chairs. Instantly, a place I felt I knew and loved.
Dinner was amazing. We each ordered from the set menu. For me, the first course was an unreal salmon coated egg on a nest and salad with caviar, all fresh, local, and so good. Main course was sea bream with squid ink and veggies, and dessert was apricot tiramisu. We loved all of it. The setting, the laid back atmosphere, the handwritten menu, the casualness of it all. It’s one of my favorite places that I have ever eaten, anywhere in the world.
The plan had been to get ice cream from the obviously popular local shop on the harbor after dinner, but we were both so satisfied that we decided to just walk and take in the town. The sun stayed in the sky until 9:54 pm, the whole town bathed in the richest, warm orange-blue. The day-before-the-full-moon hung overhead. We sat on the seawall and watched the orange-ball-sun drop below the horizon. Even then, it seemed light and still warm.
As we wandered back to our Airbnb, the town was even more alive. Around 11:00 pm, we joined the masses on the waterfront for the fireworks and sat on the grass watching the explosions in the sky. Full, to be there. And when it ended, we walked home to go to sleep for an early start the next day.
The music played and the people sang loudly in the streets until nearly 2:00 am. I couldn’t sleep, but I loved to hear it. It was the happiest way to realized that, suddenly, I was 29.
Saint-Martin-de-Ré, Île de Ré, France
When: July 2019
How long: 2 nights
Via: Direct flight from London Stansted Airport to La Rochelle Airport; then, a bus from the airport over the bridge to Saint-Martin-de-Ré (turn right when you exit the airport, and the bus stop is on the sidewalk nearby).
Stayed: Appartement de charme Saint Martin de Ré Île de ré, Saint-Martin-de-Ré
Ate: Les Embruns (dinner)