Imagine an island with charming villages every five miles or so, excellent restaurants, fine weather, no hills, a network of dedicated cycling trails, bike hire shops galore and plenty to see and do. Such an island would be an ideal place for someone who hasn't been on a bike since childhood to undertake their first cycling holiday. But this is no fantasy, the island exists and is only a short flight from the UK. It's the Ile de Re. Never heard of it? You won't be alone, but look on a map of France and you'll see it just off the west coast, near the ancient city of La Rochelle. Several budget airlines fly to La Rochelle's small airport in the summer, or it's an easy drive from the western channel ports of St Malo or Cherbourg.
Mention the Ile de Re to a French person and you'll be told that it is an expensive place where chic Parisians spend their summers. It's certainly smart, but it needn't be expensive if you avoid the peak season of July and August. Go in the middle of September for considerably lower prices and weather that is warm and usually fine - ideal cycling weather in fact. You will still need to book ahead as the island is quite small, only about 20 miles long, and there isn't the vast choice of accommodation that you would find in larger resorts. Fortunately, hotels, guesthouses and cottages can all be booked easily on the official Ile de Re website.
The island's buildings are all low-rise and painted in a limited palette of blues and greens. Each of the villages and small towns has its own charm, from fashionable Saint-Martin-de-Re with its UNESCO World Heritage Site citadel to sleepy Les Portes-en-Re at the far end. All are linked by bicycle routes that are almost entirely off road, making the Ile de Re a family-friendly destination for an active holiday. It is equally suitable for less confident middle-aged or elderly holidaymakers who perhaps haven't cycled for years.
As the island is so small and all its settlements well linked by buses as well as cycle paths, it is very easy to arrange a week's trip without having to carry any luggage on your bike. You could stay at each of three places for a couple of nights, exploring the surrounding area from your base before moving on. On departure day, either drive to the next base with your luggage before coming back on the bus, or do both legs of the journey by bus. Then you can cycle off unencumbered.
For example, if you were to stay in the harbour town of La Flotte for the first two nights, you could explore the whole of the eastern end of the island from there. Then move your luggage to the bustling port of St-Martin-de-Re, which is all of 10 minutes away by bus. You can spend the rest of the day cycling in a leisurely manner through the south coast villages of Le-Bois-Plage-en-Re and La Couarde-sur-Mer before returning to St-Martin, perhaps spending the following day there enjoying its cafes and shops.
Ars-en-Re could be the next base. From there all of the west of the island is within easy reach, including the famous lighthouse at St-Clement-des-Baleines and an interesting landscape of salt pans and marshes. Ars is just a 25 minute bus ride from St-Martin, so the luggage transfer will not take up too much of your day. For your final night you could again stay at one of the villages part way along the island, to be within easy reach of the bridge when it's time to go home. Just remember to make the mental re-adjustment as you leave the island, the pace of life there is definitely more suited to cycling than driving.
If this article has interested you then you may like to look at our Ile de Re Guide .