Holding on tightly to the last vestiges of warm, summer like weather throughout France in October, we ventured to the harbor of La Rochelle and Ile de Ré.
We boarded a 7:22 TGV train at Montparnasse station arrived three-hours later at La Rochelle station.
It was a crisp, sunny day as we followed the scent of salty sea air to the old harbor surrounded by yachts and sleek sailboats en route to our hotel, which was a 15-minute walk.
On a calm residential street with row houses, a subtle, stained glass sign marked our hotel, Eden Ouest. Although it’s signified by the city as a B&B, it’s much closer to being a chic, private hotel with individually decorated rooms. The converted early 1800's home has five rooms in total and each room has a theme and color scheme. Ours was the Ochre suite, with subtle shades and patterns of the soothing mustard-like color. Owner Bertrand Patoureau has curated every room with a collection of art and objets, made by friends who are artists or craftsmen. His wife Lise Humeau is a painter and her works are also featured in the rooms. The most pleasant surprise was a knockout bathroom almost the size of the room, with a carved, wood bathtub/hot tub and a separate shower with a bench. While having breakfast on a long, communal table in the spacious dining room, we chatted with Bertrand about how he started the hotel. He bought the run-down building in 2012 and took two painstaking years to complete the renovation.
Eden Ouest is centrally located in the center of the old city and a stone's throw from the enclosed, outdoor city food market. Approaching the market was an art installation of rows of hot pink umbrellas hung high above, brilliantly contrasting the sky. We were immediately drawn to the seafood stands selling fresh oysters and, even though it was still morning, we indulged in a tasting. We asked the genial fishmonger to select his best oysters for us and we each downed them quickly, retaining the salt-water taste in our mouths for a few hours.
La Rochelle was one of the most important maritime and port cities in France from the 1200's to the 1400's, so we spent most of the day strolling the cobblestone streets, with rugged stone and half-timber buildings and ancient passageways, and the vast, old marina. Three medieval towers, the only remnants of the fortifications of La Rochelle, were meant to be lived in but were converted into prisons for Huguenots and foreign sailors and, in the 19th century, imprisoned military criminals.
Since we were still full from our oyster outing, we had a light lunch at Delice Omelette, a café specializing in omelets prepared with farm-raised eggs. After sharing an omelet stuffed with hummus, arugula and coriander, we had to try the unusual desert omelet, prepared with pine nuts and salted butter caramel.
Leaving Eden Ouest the next morning, we took a 25-minute taxi ride over a long suspension bridge to Ile de Ré, a UNESCO Heritage site. Sometimes compared to Nantucket, Ile de Ré is a low-key, seaside enclave for well to do Parisian families.
We arrived in the storybook town square and marina of Saint Martin. Located on a corner of the square is the Relais & Chateau Hotel de Toiras. A former ship owner's house from the 17th century, it was transformed into a luxury hotel in 2005 by Olivia Le Calvez. In addition to hiring top interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon, she also enlisted the best local craftsmen and used the finest French fabrics.
We were given the top suite, Madame Sevigné, named after an important 17th-century French marquise. The elaborate decoration of satin, chintz, and brocade, as well as the canopied bed, made us feel as though we were in an intimate boudoir. A mahogany desk had such lovely illustrated hotel stationery, we were tempted to write a letter back home.
One of the recommended activities in Ile de Ré is bicycling, so we rented electric bicycles at the You Too bicycle shop. It was a sunny day gusting with strong winds, so the electric bicycles powered us through the uphill stretches. We rode for miles on a well-marked bike path along the beach and shore. Much of the coastline had oyster beds and, later on, salt beds. In fact, the hotel gave us a gift of Ile de Ré salt.
In the afternoon, we took a three-hour boat cruise to view Fort Boyard, a fort built in 1661 under the reign of Louis XIV in the middle of the sea. Time and again the fort was resurrected and abandoned. In recent years it has been used for a location for international versions of the TV game show Fort Boyard.
After a long day of bicycling and boating, we relaxed with a glass of Champagne in front of the fireplace in the sumptuous but cozy décor of the hotel lobby. While changing for dinner in our suite, we witnessed a stunning scarlet sunset over the harbor.
Dinner that night was at the hotel restaurant, Le Table d’Olivia, a petite dining room seating only 20 people. From a menu heavy on local seafood specialties by Chef Antonio Sanna, we had a starter of succulent sea scallops with a pumpkin puree and chestnuts, followed by blue lobster cooked in olive oil served with lentils. A steaming Grand Marnier souffle accompanied by cardamom-scented ice cream was the perfect complement for our seafood dinner.
Hotel de Toiras has a sister hotel a few hundred feet away, Villa Clarisse, which has an outdoor swimming pool. A spa is scheduled to open in 2019.
Trains leave Gare Montparnasse/Montparnasse station to La Rochelle almost every hour.
2 Rue des Cloutiers, 17000
Ile de Ré
Hotel de Toiras
1 Quai Job Foran, 17410
5 Rue du Général Lapasset, 17410