Joined to the mainland by a bridge just north of Marennes, the Île d’Oléron is France’s largest island after Corsica, a laidback, unaffected fishing island and coastal resort. Outside the tourist season, the island is a peaceful retreat: a patchwork of little villages, pine forests and gleaming muddy tributaries lined with fishing boats. Taken over by holiday-makers in July and August, it loses much of its tranquillity.
The main town in the south of the island, Le Château, is named after the citadelle that still stands, along with some seventeenth-century fortifications. The town thrives on its traditional oyster farming and boat building, and there’s a lively market in place de la République every morning. The chief town in the north – and most picturesque of the island’s settlements – is St-Pierre, whose market square has an unusual thirteenth-century monument, La Lanterne des Morts. The best beach is at La Brée les Bains, in the northeast. Activities abound, from cycling to surfing, and a great aqua park opens between June and September in the village of Dolus d’Oléron in the centre of the island.