Island in the sun

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Following in the footsteps of the stars, Paul Hudson takes a short break on the beautiful Île de Ré, which provides the backdrop for new feature film The Time of Their Lives...

 

Historically, the shimmering, sun-washed island of Île de Ré has been much coveted by the English. Indeed, 5,000 troops perished on its golden beaches during the Duke of Buckingham's failed, three-month siege in 1627.

In the modern day, however, most Brits have eschewed this hidden gem off France's Atlantic coast, in favour of the country's better-known destinations.

But things may be about to change once again - thanks in part to Dame Joan Collins.

In the footsteps of a Dame...

In The Time of Their Lives, which premieres in UK cinemas on 10th March, Joan plays a former Hollywood siren who escapes her London retirement home to gatecrash the funeral of her ex-lover on this glamorous hideaway.

If you follow in her well-heeled footsteps, you'll be guaranteed a more hospitable welcome than the Duke of Buckingham. The island's relaxed, smiling locals make it the perfect destination for a short break or even a day trip.

Enjoy the peace of the outdoors

The Île de Ré is reached by a soaring 1.8-mile toll bridge from La Rochelle and is best explored by rental bike. Its highest point is just 62 feet above sea level so you don't have to be Sir Bradley Wiggins. In fact, you'll see more linen than Lycra as you bowl through warm, pine-scented air along the 60 miles of car-free bicycle lanes that wend their way through the dunes.

Catch tantalising glimpses of the vineyards, oyster farms and salt pans cultivated for sea salt - otherwise known as the island's l'or blanc.

Charmingly, descendants of the Poitou donkeys that used to work the salt marshes remain on the island and are used for children's rides. Some still sport the extraordinary striped leggings, or culottes, said to protect against bug bites. Catch Eeyore in his pyjama trousers at the Parc de la Barbette in capital Saint-Martin-de-Ré.

White-washed villages and untamed landscapes

Part of the secret of this island's unspoilt beauty is its low-lying buildings. Typically white-washed with terracotta-tiled roofs, pastel-coloured shutters and gardens of dancing hollyhocks, they are a welcome antidote to the high-rise developments that so often blight holiday destinations. The tallest point anywhere is usually the church steeple, thanks, in part, to UNESCO protection.

Venture out of the villages and you are soon among unkempt fields bristling with wild shrubs. It's more Mediterranean than mid-France. But do start at Saint-Martin.

A harbour surrounded by bars, cafés, craft shops, galleries and luxury boutiques, the town is the centre of tourist life and can get busy in high season. If you don't want to splash out, settle for a homemade ice cream at La Martinière.

Walk to the citadel along the fortifications renovated by Vauban, Louis XIV's favourite engineer, in the 17th century. Until 1938 this was the last glimpse of France for the bagnards - prisoners shipped to French Guiana or New Caledonia for hard labour.

There are 10 beautiful villages on Île de Ré - most reached down narrow, winding lanes. Saint-Clément-des-Baleines, named after the whales that beached themselves here until the 16th century, is known for its two  lighthouses.

The original, built in 1682, is still standing and is the second oldest in France. Loix was a separate island until it was artificially connected. It remains one of the wildest spots, fringed by marshes peppered with piles of dazzling white salt, which give the island its nickname, Ré de Blanche (White Ré).

Tickle your taste buds

The sandy soil and sunny climate are perfect for growing potatoes. Producers' strict guidelines have resulted in the local variety being the only potato given an AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée). Many of these prized root vegetables find their way onto the tables of the island's restaurants, where seafood and the local fortified wine aperitif Pineau des Charentes are specialities. You can also find them - and other local  delicacies - at the daily food market in La Flotte-en-Ré.

Off-season is equally romantic, when the sun sits low in the sky and sea mists roll in to give the island an ethereal quality. It's an atmosphere where half-remembered dreams can be realised.

Just ask Joan...

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