France's Ile de Ré: The simple life doesn't come cheap

With its sandy beaches and great seafood, the Ile de Ré is a magnet for the smart set, says Sonia Purnell
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Foreigners have belatedly discovered what the French have secretly known for a long time. The Ile de Ré, a flat Atlantic island of sand-dunes and salt-marshes off the coast of La Rochelle, has quietly become the cult holiday destination for the European smart set.

A greater number of well-heeled Brits chose to stay in the island's burgeoning collection of smart boutique hotels this year than ever before - and a handful are now looking to join the French cognoscenti in looking for a more permanent base on the island before rising prices put it out of reach.

Drawn by its quiet cycle paths linking charming whitewashed villages, sandy beaches washed by Atlantic rollers, and its exquisite seafood plucked straight from the clean waters, the new Ile de Ré crowd are driving up the local market.

Long-time aficionados of the island are seeing holiday rents soar. Visitors must now expect to pay well over £1,000 a week in peak season for even an ordinary three-bedroom house - perhaps twice the price of only a few years ago. A growing number are, therefore, deciding to buy - and let out for the income.

The cost of buying on the 19-mile long island is consequently rising by up to 20 per cent a year, making Ile de Ré property an extremely lucrative investment. The scarcity of building land - exacerbated by regulations banning construction on 80 per cent of the island - is adding fuel to the fire.

Laurent Morgo of Agence Paris, one of the island's major estate agents, says that it is still possible to find a small village house for less than €250,000 (£170,000). But buyers will need to be both determined and brave.

"Occasionally, we still have such a house for sale but often it is sold within 10 minutes," he explains. "Most of our properties are never advertised or put on the website, such is the demand. Increasingly, people are prepared to buy without even seeing the property, otherwise they know that they will never get anything.

"It's a very special market here, with so many buyers looking when there is hardly any property available. Some people are prepared to wait for years, and foreigners should be prepared to wait and then pounce as soon as something becomes available."

Even the tiniest of flats will cost nearly €200,000. Agence Paris, for instance, has a compact two-room apartment in a converted winery in Sainte-Marie-de- Ré on the market for €179,000. Nearby, one of the cheaper houses, a two-bedroom property with a tiny walled garden, is on with the same agent for €292,000.

Competition is particularly intense for the most fashionable villages - notably La Flotte-en-Ré and Saint-Martin-de-Ré, a perfectly preserved fortified town with a pretty harbour.

Most houses on the island range from €300,000 to €1m, but now for the first time there is a new breed of "super luxe" properties in the smartest areas with far larger price tags.

Just five minutes' cycle-ride from Saint-Martin, for example, is a modern house with an acre of cliff-top gardens and commanding panoramic sea views. Although the rooms are spacious, it offers only three bedrooms and two receptions, and has no pool - yet it is on the market for €4m through Latitudes.

At Les-Portes-en-Ré, meanwhile, just a short walk from the fashionable Trousse Chemise beach, there is a pretty single-storey house with six bedrooms and half an acre of land on sale for €1.53m (also with Latitudes).

Latitudes' Penny Zoldan, who has a handful of properties for sale on the island, says: "It's more expensive than the mainland now, and there is very little being sold off more cheaply because it's in need of renovation. There's no such thing as a neglected property here."

"People coming here with limitless budgets is a new phenomenon that started two years ago," says Morgo. "If they want space, they are prepared to pay a lot for it. Until now, the Ile de Ré has always been the antithesis of the Côte d'Azur - we haven't had super-yachts or casinos. People came here for nature and not to show off their money."

That may be about to change as the A-list moves in. But for now, at least, the fashionable mode of transport is not a souped-up convertible, but a distinctly dressed-down bicycle.

Many houses for sale come complete with bike sheds - or "abri vélos". Even former French prime ministers, such as Lionel Jospin, are frequently spotted on two wheels on the island.

But while the bikes may sport some credibility-boosting rust, their owners' houses are becoming ever more luxurious. The Ile de Ré may offer many of the simpler pleasures, but it is no longer cheap.

Fact file

The Ile de Ré is reached by toll bridge (price £11) from the outskirts of La Rochelle.

Ryanair and Flybe fly to La Rochelle, from London, and Southampton and Birmingham respectively.

Agence Paris: 00 33 546 096 785

Latitudes: 020-8951 5155;