From car-free calm to unspoilt sandy beaches

Cathy Packe is captivated by the region’s other island idylls


Getting close to nature: Ile d’Oleron


The second-largest French island after Corsica, the Ile d’Oléron is an attractive mixture of unspoilt sandy beaches and bustling harbours, forest and marshland, and a mild climate not unlike that of the Mediterranean.

A main road cuts through the island, from Château in the south to the rocky headland of Saint-Denis and the Chassiron lighthouse in the north. Saint-Pierre is the main town, but La Cotinière, on the west coast, is a livelier centre for visitors, its colourful harbour bustling with fishing boats. Fresh fish is sold from stalls and kiosks, and there are restaurants and cafés overlooking the harbour. From here, too, there are boat trips around the island.

The Ile d’Oléron is a centre for oysters. Much of the industry is focused around the port of Le Château, a collection of colourful huts lined up in the shadow of the citadel that was built in the 16th century to protect the mainland.

Further north, Fort Royer is a typical oyster-growing village: large mud flats enclosed by a sandy coastal strand, dug out to make basins and channels in which to cultivate the shellfish. The village is one of a number of ecology centres on the Ile d’Oléron dedicated to protecting the environment. Among the others are the Port des Salines salt flats near Petit Village, and the Marais aux Oiseaux, an extensive marshland area south of Boyardville. Here visitors can follow a trail through the marshes and observe a large variety of water birds at close quarters.

With some 50 miles of coastline, water-based activities are one of the main reasons for visiting Oléron. Sailing, jet skiing, kayaking, body-boarding and kite surfing are all popular summertime activities, and although there is plenty of choice all over the island, the biggest centres are on the beaches of Saint-Denis and Dolus.

It’s also a holiday island, so there is accommodation to suit all needs, from campsites to a new four-star hotel – the highest classification on the island – which has just opened at La Rémigeasse on the west coast. Located on a long, unspoilt section of sandy beach, the Hôtel Le Grand Large has an indoor swimming pool, fitness room and jacuzzi, and an excellent restaurant overlooking the ocean.

The Ile d’Oléron is connected to mainland France by a two-mile long bridge that starts at Bourcefranc-Le-Chapus.

The Hotel Le Grand Large (00 33 5 46 75 77 77; le-grand-large.fr) has rooms from €135.

Serenity and sunset: Ile d’Aix

The Ile d’Aix, shaped like a croissant, is less than two miles long from one tip to the other. Although it is only a 25-minute boat ride from the mainland, the peace and quiet of the island makes you feel as if you are stepping into another world. Two features stand out as you walk up the jetty: the ranks of bicycles lined up beside the water, and the solid walls of the fortress designed to shield the island – and the mainland beyond – from attack.

No motor vehicles are allowed on Aix, which makes it both quiet and unexpectedly relaxing. Most of the 200 or so permanent residents live close to the jetty in a tiny village still enclosed within the original ramparts. The houses are a mixture of one- and two storey buildings, their red roof tiles and brightly painted shutters providing a splash of colour. Hollyhocks grow wild; in front of one house an old rowing boat has been planted with flowers. The focal point is the Place D’Austerlitz, a grassy space where people meet as they go to and from the ferry, or sit in one of the cafés looking out to the ocean. The island’s only hotel, the Napoléon, is located here. Faded on the outside, its interior is chic and comfortable, a relaxing place for a night or two away from the crowds.

Napoléon made two visits to the island, and his legacy is imprinted on the landscape. He ordered the building of Fort Liedot, still an impressive structure, to protect the north of the island and to complement the earlier fortifications along the north coast. And the Emperor’s final days in France, before going into exile in St Helena, were spent in the house that is now the Napoléon Museum, containing a collection of furniture and artefacts from the time. But the island has plenty of natural attractions, too. There are sandy beaches and dense forests, rock pools and hidden paths to explore. Perhaps best of all – but often missed by those who only visit on a day trip – is the chance to sit by the water at the end of the day and watch the sun setting over the ocean.

n There are several sailings to the Ile d’Aix each day from the Pointe de la Fumée at Fouras. The return fare is €13.20 until the end of September, €8.60 October-March.

Timetables are available at service-maritime-iledaix.com.

Rooms at the Hôtel Napoléon (00 33 5 46 84 00 77; hotel-ileaix.com) are available from €85; breakfast costs €12.

Pebbles and picnics: Ile Madame

As the smallest of the islands of Charente-Maritime, the Ile Madame – linked to the mainland except at high tide – is a pleasant mixture of shingly beaches, salt marshes and farmland. Walk across the Passe aux Boeufs causeway and head north to the Rocher des Palles, an ideal spot for rock-pooling. Then have a seafood snack at the Ferme Auberge Marine, or take a picnic and enjoy the windswept surroundings and the views of the ocean.

The Ile Madame is accessible on foot from Port-des-Barques when the tide is out. Tide tables are available by calling 00 33 5 46 84 87 47, or visit rochefort-ocean.com

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