After flying from Toronto to Paris, catching the train to La Rochelle and taking the bus over the bridge to Île de Ré, the first thing John Hughes does when he finally arrives at his cottage is stroll down to the sea. Facing southwest, a beautiful sunset settling over the Pertuis d’Antioche strait welcomes John and his wife to this narrow island packed with charm and history off the west coast of France.
Ontario is hardly short of cottage options, so why buy a second home so far away? “My wife is French and her family has been going there for a long time,” explains John, who grew up in London, U.K. “My wife’s family has cottages on the island and we’ve been going since the early 80s. We rented for many years before buying this place in 2001.”
Even though John and his wife might only get to Île de Ré once or twice a year, he easily convinces me that the distance and the journey are worth it. At only 30 km in length and 5 km wide, the island offers over 100 km of dedicated cycle paths, allowing John to bike nearly everywhere he wants to go. And despite its pint size, John never tires of exploring Île de Ré. He can go sailing, play a game of tennis or take in the simple pleasures of his village, Ars-en-Ré. Whitewashed homes line the streets, their green shutters surrounded by hollyhock, while a stroll leads to the square where John will often pick up a newspaper and have a coffee.
“There are a lot of events and activities in the summer, like firework displays, antique markets, circuses and concerts in the church,” John says. “Food is an attractive aspect as well, with some great restaurants.” Oysters are an island specialty, while potatoes, wine, and Pineau des Charentes (an aperitif liqueur blended from wine and cognac) are also locally produced. On the first Sunday of May, market vendors, gardeners and restaurant owners gather to celebrate the harvest of the island’s spring potato—the sweet pomme de terre primeur de l’Ile de Ré. Only available in May and June, the island’s famous potatoes are unique for their subtle salty taste due to sea breezes, and fetch hefty prices in Nice and Paris.
To garnish, islanders sprinkle fleur de sel, the sea salt that has been gathered in the same way and from the same salt pans that were used 800 years ago. The island’s salt marshlands were created by industrious Rétais in the 14th century, forever altering Île de Ré’s landscape. Not only do the marshes produce salt, but they’ve developed into important ecosystems as well. Sitting on one of Europe’s major migration routes, the island attracts an impressive diversity of birdlife, from Eurasian curlews and belted kingfishers to pied avocets and black-winged stilts.
“The island is viewed as having a microclimate,” explains John.” It’s the sunniest closest place to Paris and is very popular with Parisians.” Likening it to the Hamptons and Nantucket Island, John mentions the media types and politicians who have second homes on Île de Ré. “The cost of real estate is ‘infernal’,” he says. “But because the island has camping sites too, it’s a popular vacation place for many.”
John makes special mention of the island’s several villages and markets. His village, Ars-en-Ré, sits at the northwestern end of the island and is one of 10 that stitch together the island’s distinctive charm. Each one has its own market where he can stroll through the bright stalls to pick up shellfish, wine and seasonal fruit and vegetables for dinner, stopping in a café for a drink and soaking up the market’s atmosphere. “We often visit other villages,” John says. “We also like to go further afield as there are many interesting towns in the region. La Rochelle is one of many outstanding places to visit.”
“Our place is within a complex of small houses. There are about 80 cottages in my community, as well as a small spa hotel. We’re only about 100 metres down to the sea.” As a long and narrow island, Île de Ré has a lot of coastline, with large beaches, sand dunes and rocky sections of coast. “In the summer, we head down to the harbor,” John says. “We cycle, dig for clams, eat oysters, visit the beach, swim or enjoy an aperitif at the bar on the beach.”
John’s cottage looks very much like every other home on the island. Strict building codes ensure all homes are whitewashed with terracotta tiled roofs and shutters in every shade of green. John’s cottage packs a kitchen, living/dining room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms into a cozy 500 square feet. “The living/dining room on the ground has French doors opening out to a covered terrace and small garden,” describes John. But his wife was looking for a larger garden, so this summer they bought the roomier house next door and will soon put the smaller property on the market.
Today, 80% of the island is protected from development and most of the island’s natural resources, including vineyards, forests and salt marshes, are protected nature reserves. “There is a limited number of hotels and no building over three stories high,” John informs me. Furthermore, roadside advertising is banned and beaches deliberately make facilities, like parking, scarce. “Anything to do with new development is controversial,” says John. “Another ongoing issue is illegal overnight parking of recreational vehicles.”
Although islanders are largely French, the number of German, Dutch, Belgian and English visitors is growing – the winter population of 18,000 grows to 130,000 in summer months. With direct flights now available from the U.K. to La Rochelle, which is linked to Île de Ré via bridge, those numbers will only continue to rise.
Having just returned from their “little house by the sea,” John looks forward to the next trip over. His children, who have been going to Île de Ré since they were infants, and his daughter-in-law joined them this year. “When we’re there, we almost always have a big family gathering and take a family photograph with all the children and relatives.” It might be a far cry from roasted marshmallows over the open fire pit, but the Hughes family is happy to travel the distance to shuck oysters by the sea.