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Île de Ré
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St Martin en Ré - le port    : Click to enlarge picture
Panorama of St Martin
A half-hour drive west from La Rochelle, the Île de Ré is a low, narrow island some 30km long, fringed by sandy beaches to the southwest and salt marshes and oyster beds to the northeast, with the interior a motley mix of small-scale vine, asparagus and wheat cultivation. All the buildings on Ré are restricted to two storeys and are required to incorporate the typical local features of whitewashed walls, curly orange tiles and green-painted shutters, which give the island villages a southern holiday atmosphere.

Out of season the island has a slow, misty charm, and life in its little ports revolves exclusively around the cultivation of Oysters and mussels. In season, though, it's extraordinarily crowded, with upwards of 400,000 visitors passing through. The crowds mainly head for the southern beaches; those to the northeast are covered in rocks and seaweed, and the sea is too shallow for bathing.

The island is connected to the mainland at LA PALLICE, a suburb of La Rochelle, by a three-kilometre-long toll bridge constructed in 1988 (€16.77 round trip per car). La Pallice was once a big commercial port with important shipyards, and although it still serves as a naval base, times have changed. As you drive past, you'll notice some colossal weather-stained concrete sheds, submarine pens built by the Germans to service their Atlantic U-boat fleet during World War II. Too difficult to demolish, they are still in use. As an alternative to the toll-bridge connection, Interîles, 14 cours des Dames, La Rochelle, also runs a bus and boat service to Sablonceaux on Ré (€16.77 return with a car), and combined trips to the Îles de Ré and Oléron.

ST-MARTIN, the island's capital, is an atmospheric north coast fishing port with whitewashed houses clustered around the stone quays of a well-protected harbour, from where trawlers and flat-bottomed oyster boats, piled high with cage-like devices used for "growing" Oysters, slip out every morning on the muddy tide.

The quayside Café Boucquingam recalls the military adventures of the Duke of Buckingham, who attacked the island unsuccessfully in 1627. To the east of the harbour, you can walk along the almost perfectly preserved fortifications – redesigned by Vauban in the late seventeenth century after Buckingham's attentions – to the Citadel, long used as a prison. From 1860 until 1938, it served as departure point for the bagnards – prisoners sentenced to hard labour in the penal colonies of French Guiana and New Caledonia. Most were headed for swift death and oblivion; one who wasn't was Henri Charrière, aka "Papillon", who floated away from Devil's Island on a sack of coconuts after nine escape attempts and 13 years in the colonies, and went on to write a bestseller about it.

Pages in section ‘Ile de Re’: Practicalities.

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