Did the French invent shabby chic? The little port of St Martin, on the Ile de Ré, is genteelly dilapidated in that sun-bleached, paint-peeling, battered-green-shuttered way that, in France, somehow manages to look coffee-table-book stylish rather than rundown. With hollyhocks bursting through the cobbles and splashing colour against the crumbling brickwork, it's straight out of The World of Interiors - and Paris Match.
Because this is where Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis holiday, along with those Parisians who feel that St Tropez has become a little vulgar. And the French holidaymakers, of course, look anything but shabby. Their effortless uniform of stripy Breton jumpers, rust-red jeans or shorts and yellow windbreakers is pure sailor chic. Life on the Ile de Ré is an exercise in studied nonchalance and behind the scuffed façades there are gourmet bistros, interiors shops and designer boutiques.
Those who don't stay on their yachts or in their seaside cottages check into the 17th-century Hôtel de Toiras, overlooking the circular harbour. A Relais & Châteaux hotel, this lovely property feels like a wealthy seafaring merchant's home. You check in at a small desk in the Wedgwood-blue panelled reception. The floor is harlequin-tiled, the furniture antique, the paintings moody oils - the ambience pure Agatha Christie house party.
The cast of characters during our stay included an elegant English couple, she looking like an ex-fashion editor with a chic bob and dark glasses, he a charming old boy. Then there was the lonely divorcé latching onto anyone who'd talk to him; the sleep-deprived young couple with the smiling baby; and the family group - a businessman with a deep, Gauloises-smoky voice, his ageless wife and her parents. And there was us: the daughter on holiday with her mother.
Meeting for breakfast in the hotel's charming salon, we would all chat politely and compare notes on the best markets and harbour-side restaurants, and then wave cheerily when we cycled past each other on our way to the beach or neighbouring fishing villages.
Hôtel de Toiras, 1 Quai Job Foran, St-Martin-de-Ré, Ile de Ré, France (00 33 546 35 40 32; www.hotel-de-toiras.com). The Ile de Ré, just off France's south-west Atlantic coast, is a flat, vine-planted island crisscrossed with cycle tracks.
Time to international airport: the road bridge that links the Ile de Ré to the mainland is minutes from La Rochelle airport, which is served by Ryanair, flyBe and easyJet; the journey takes 25 minutes and a taxi costs around €35 (£25).
Each of the hotel's 17 rooms has been styled around a local historical figure and has views of either the fragrant courtyard garden or the bustling harbour. We were in the airy first-floor Maréchal de Toiras suite, on the corner of the hotel's main building, which had four huge windows framed by wooden shutters. The room had broad wooden floorboards and was decked out with antiques and nautical prints. It was decorated in an English-mustard and forget-me-not blue colour scheme. In the bathroom, there was a claw-foot bath and a separate "tropical rain" shower.
Freebies: a plate of berries and a bag of the island's famous salty caramels.
Keeping in touch: direct-dial telephone.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Double rooms start at €175 (£125), including breakfast, in low season (from 1 November). Currently, mid-season doubles cost from €205 (£146), including breakfast.
I'm not paying that: the Hôtel Le Galion (00 33 546 09 03 19; www.hotel-legalion.com) has doubles from €75 (£53.50).
Lucy GillmoreReuse content