With misty beaches, green-shuttered cottages and lonely coves, Île de Ré is one of the loveliest places in western France. Out of season the economy rests on oysters and mussels, while in high season 400,000 visitors pass through, many of them rich Parisians, and the island is a little less tranquil. The Île de Ré is a rung higher on the French resort prestige ladder than Noirmoutier, and three rungs above Oléron, so designer boutiques, high-class restaurants, luxury hotels and white-trim Aigle wellies are the norm.
The island’s capital, St-Martin, is the centre of tourist life. At its heart is a harbour, filled with a democratic mix of flat-bottomed oyster boats and gleaming yachts. Around the water are less democratic shops, bars and cafés. This is the main tourist drag, to be avoided at all cost on hot August afternoons. To the east of the harbour you can walk along the fortifications – redesigned by Vauban in the seventeenth century – to the citadelle. From 1860 to 1938, this was the departure point for the bagnards – prisoners sentenced to hard labour in French Guiana and New Caledonia.