Find your way to the Ile de Ré for autumnal loveliness

Les vacances are over – time for a holiday on the beautiful Ile de Ré, says Simon Calder

Pity the French holidaymaker. Last weekend, the government's traffic management HQ outside Paris had a stern message for anyone returning by car from vacances venues. "In the direction of departure," it warned, "everywhere in France, circulation will be difficult."

Envy the British visitor travelling off-season. In July and August, the crowds and prices at France's coastal gems prove equally off-putting. Now, assuming that the "difficult circulation" has untangled itself, for the rest of the autumn you can freely meander through France all the way to the Impasse du Paradis. That optimistic cul-de‑sac is a modest lane in Les-Portes-en-Ré. That village lies at the distant end of the Ile de Ré. And that island, shaped like a fish-hook, juts into the Atlantic halfway down the west coast of France.

There is much to enjoy along the way. The port of La Rochelle guards the approach to the Ile de Ré. It is a grand French gateway to the world, decorated with medieval marvels and infused with 21st-century energy. The road from here to the isle takes you past gigantic naval installations – huge concrete quays that are relics of Second World War misadventure. Yet beating them for boldness is the bridge that, in 1988, replaced the historic ferry link.

Time and energy permitting, walk or cycle across this concrete confection. From a distance – and even more so, when you are on the pont – it is strong and graceful. But it also has a kink in the middle. No doubt there are solid engineering reasons, to do with approach roads and the like, to explain the swerve. Yet it gives the impression that the builders started from the mainland, got part-way across and – like a dancer caught off-balance – realised they would have to change direction as elegantly as they could in order to make land.

As you make land, the Ile de Ré starts to bask in its own loveliness. The first image is a silver strand of broad beach: Rivedoux-Plage, still warm and welcoming but almost deserted. A short way beyond stands the ghostly silhouette of the ruined Cistercian Abbaye des Châtelliers.

Follow the line of the north shore and the gentle curl is interrupted by St-Martin-de-Ré – part wistful trading port with Caribbean connections, part formidable enclave whose mighty walls put the fort in fort. As capital of the island, this is the place to seek an ambitious menu and a comfortable hotel. But don't plan to spend much time there; the remaining dozen miles are too enticing.

Those few people out and about off-season are usually on two wheels, since this island impasse is a paradis for cyclists, and an excellent place to improve your circulation in far from difficult circumstances. Even though the road traffic dwindles to a trickle, the island has over 60 miles of well-maintained bike paths.

Cyclists are outnumbered by horses, whose coats shine like polished mahogany. Where the pastures run too thin, industrious islanders have carved out salt pans to extract the essence of the ocean.

The orderly vineyards, too, start to yield to wild salt marsh. The marais exudes an autumnal haze through which the sky merges with the water – and acts as a saline magnet to bird life.

Plump Brent geese, delicate lapwings and great cormorants stand out through the massed squadrons of gulls. Best of all, in elaborate French at least, the chevalier gambette – redshank to you and me.

As you pedal west, the villages get rarefied and more of the pastel-painted cottages retreat behind their neat green shutters – their owners gone away, presumably, to winter in Paris. They leave behind pretty churches – such as the 15th-century St-Etienne in the village of Ars-en-Ré, its steeple painted half white as an aid to navigation.

The sense of liberation intensifies as you wander through the pines that jostle for the sky towards the end of the island. The terrain where the hook turns in on itself is punctuated by a lofty lighthouse, the Phare des Baleines. The baleines (whales) after it was named may no longer frolic in the ocean just offshore, but the view from the top remains one of the finest in France – from which you can fully appreciate the Ile de Ré in all its glorious isolation.

Paradis found. One more reason to sympathise with the French juilletistes and aoûtiens. The people confined to holidays in July and August pay twice as much for the privilege of access to the Ile de Ré: when hiver officially begins on Tuesday 11 September, the €16 (£12.60) toll is halved. One more reason for a winter of content.

Travel essentials

Getting there

La Rochelle airport – served from Bristol and Gatwick by easyJet, East Midlands and Stansted by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), from Edinburgh and Leeds/Bradford by Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), and from a range of airports including Birmingham and Southampton with Flybe (0871 700 0123; flybe.com) – is three miles from the bridge to the Ile de Ré.

Buses to the island run from near the airport (though not close enough for those with heavy luggage). A taxi can get you to the first couple of villages in 10 minutes flat, but fares rise steeply – assume at least €80 (£63) to the far end of the island.

Getting around

The bus network is operated by Les Mouettes (lesmouettes-transports.com). Bike rental is available through the nine branches of the Cycland organisation (cycland.fr).

Staying there

Simon Calder stayed at the Hotel du Port in St Martin (00 33 5 46 09 21 21; iledere-hot-port.com), where a double room in September costs €112.20 (£88); breakfast is an extra €9.80 per person.

More information

Go to holidays-iledere.co.uk: despite appearances, the official English-language tourism website.

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