Islands of Charente-Maritime

Information on access to - and activities on - the four islands which lie off the coast of Charente-Maritimes: the Ile de Re, Ile d'Oleron, Ile d'Aix and Ile Madame...

There are four islands in the Poitou-Charentes region.

They are: Ile de Ré, Ile d'Oléron, Ile d'Aix and Ile Madame.

Ile de Ré - Charente-Maritime

Location: Just off the coast at La Rochelle, the island is accessed by a 3 Km long bridge. Toll rates vary depending on the season.

Where to go

Les Portes-en-Ré: A village at the far end of the island where narrow, flower decked lanes lead to beaches backed by forests. It's a family-friendly area with the Fier d'Ars wild bird sanctuary.

Ars-en-Ré: Designated one of the most beautiful villages in France, the old port was originally built for the salt trade. Now both modern yachts and old sloops dock here.

St. Martin-de-Ré: This ancient port was the departure point for many convicts who were deported to the penal colonies. The most famous of these convicts was Henri Charriere, better known as "Papillon".

Produce of the island

Ile de Ré produces new potatoes favoured for their early yield and buttery flavour. The island is the perfect environment for the culture and farming of oysters, many of which are grown at sea. They can be bought all over the island at markets and stalls and you can also visit the farms and buy direct from the oyster farmers.

Salt, once the islands most famous produce, lost economic value and the industry suffered a decline. However the flavour and quality are well-respected and more recently sales have been on the increase taking a healthy share of the modern market.

Nature

Much work has been carried out to preserve more than 25 Km of sand dunes exposed to erosion by the sea, wind and visitors. Many hardy grasses have been planted to preserve the coastline of this fragile environment, and visitors are asked to respect the area. The 400 hectares of forests serve an important role limiting soil erosion and forming a protective wind shield for the dunes.

Thalassotherapy

Also known as seawater or spa therapy, there are now three major Thalassotherapy centres on the island offering numerous programmes to assist with all states of health, and offering beauty treatments and massage. You can visit for a day, a weekend or a week. Each centre has a hotel and restaurant.

Further information on the Ile de Ré is available from the tourist office:

Ile d'Oléron - Charente Maritime

Location: Situated just off the coast of the Charente-Maritime, between the coastal towns of La Rochelle and Royan, the island is accessed by the Pont d'Oléron, a bridge of 3,027 meters in length, built in 1966. The island is 30 Kms long and 13 Kms wide with many beaches.

What to see and do

The capital town is Le Château d'Oléron which has 3,700 inhabitants and is found on the south east coast. This historic town has a wealth of interesting places to visit including the citadel built by Richelieu and Vauban in the 11th century. You can tour the ancient ramparts which give good views out across the town to one side and the sea to the other. There are many places of interest including the church, jewellery workshops, art galleries, a working forge and a museum showing the lifestyle of the island's inhabitants in times past.

The island has wooded countryside with many campsites, hotels and restaurants to suit all pockets, many serving the local speciality: oysters!

Guided trips and walks

The tourist office organises guided walks around the island, tailored to various interests and levels of fitness. It also offers an itinerary for bike rides.

One of the tours that can be booked is a guided tour of the oyster beds. Tours by boat leave from various points on the island and lead you through the oyster farming process from oyster raising to  (what is for some the best part) oyster tasting.

The tourist office can supply telephone numbers of campsites, hotels, restaurants, also walks and trips.

Ile d'Aix - Charente-Maritime

Location: Less known and much smaller than Ile d'Oléron and Ile de Ré, this island is no less charming. It is accessed by a tidal road which is 3 kms long and listed as one of the most unusual natural sites of France. Great care must be taken and advice followed with regards to using the road and the times of the tides. For information Tel: 05 46 84 66 01. The island can also be accessed by boat. Information is available by calling the same number.

History

Although occupied since prehistoric times, "modern" history was recorded from 1067 with the building of the Church of St. Martin and the monastery. The fortifications were constructed in 1666, in the manner of the Arsenal de Rochefort, during the years of rivalry between the French and English. They became an important sea defence to repel raiders from the ocean.

Over the years, much work was carried out to strengthen and preserve the fortress and one of the most famous visitors to inspect the works was Napoleon 1. Over the following century battles raged between France and England and the island sustained many raids in its role to protect mainland France.

There are guided walks around the fortifications and fortified villages of Ile d'Aix.

Produce

Oyster farming plays a huge part in the economy of the island. While fishing is a popular sport, and there are numerous fishing locations, the fragile environment must be protected and fishers are asked to avoid the oyster beds.

Nature

The entire island is a bird sanctuary where over 183 species have been recorded in the past 30 years. Visitors are an important part of the economy and are welcomed but urged to respect the coastline.

Note of interest: The Napoleonic fortress, Fort Boyard, lies between this island and the much larger Ile d'Oléron.

Ile Madame - Charente-Maritime

Location: Positioned in the estuary of the river Charente and just off the coast at Royan, this tiny island is 1 km long and linked to the mainland by a track, accessible at low tide. The track, called Passe-aux-Boeufs, can be dangerous if the times of the tides are not strictly observed!

Little has been written about this small place, notorious for an event in 1794 when 700 priests died of starvation. There is no memorial, just a small cross.

What to do

There are few activities on the island and visitors can experience solitude and silence. Visits are possible to the Aquaculture which exhibits all things concerning oyster farming using traditional methods. It is open throughout the year.

Salt production has long been the main economy of the island and there are guided tours following the processes of salt making. Booking is necessary. The Festival of Salt is celebrated annually in August.

The Ferme Auberge, opened in 1996, is a non-smoking restaurant serving cuisine using the produce of the farm and sea. Tel: 05 46 84 12 67

  • Office de Tourisme
    Tel: 05 46 84 12 67

Further Information

Article by Kate Ramsdens of Cross Channel TV