Joined by a vast bridge to the mainland, the Ile de Ré is only a hop, skip and a jump from La Rochelle, but it feels a million miles away from bustling city life. This is one of the favourite holiday retreats for wealthy Parisians who want to escape to the beach en famille or à deux, for anything from a weekend to a fortnight. And little wonder. There's exquisite seafood, stunning beaches, gorgeous stone cottages, isolated salt marshes and dunes for bird watching - and, throughout it all, that handsome, laid-back charm that the French do so well.
The island is a hub for oyster and salt production and is also famous for its wines and tasty potatoes. A local government order banning all development over two storeys and insisting on all new builds being in the same style as the remainder of the island means it still feels quaint and unspoilt. Houses are white, with shutters of duck egg blue or sea green. But the real joy of Ré is the fact that it is laced with over 100km of well-signed cycle paths, and with the highest point of the island being only 19m above sea level, it is perfect for easy-going bike rides from beach to beach, or to the colourful local markets that run throughout the summer. French celebrities love the gentle pace of life, and many have been spotted in its clutch of unexpectedly boutique hotels.
There are 10 villages on the island, each with its own unique character. The capital, Saint Martin, is a small port with oodles of glamorous boutiques and antique shops hidden in its tiny lanes, alongside fabulous restaurants and bistros. La Flotte is well known for its vibrant outdoor market; sleepy Ars-en-Ré for its black steeple standing out against the perfect blue sky. You could visit most of the villages in a couple of days, or take a day to explore each one if you have the time and energy. The beaches are also stunning, the longest of them stretching for 3km. The Retais (islanders) claim that Ré has as many days of sunshine as the Cote d'Azur - and if you don't need jet-skis and jewels, this would make a lovely alternative to the more famous south coast.
The Ile de Ré has a population of around 18,000 people. However, during the months of July and August this swells to a staggering 400,000. The island is barely large enough to survive this onslaught of holidaymakers (largely French) and if you do go at this time, you should make hotel and restaurant reservations months in advance - and be prepared to sit cheek by jowl with hundreds of other families on the beach. May, June and September are far less crowded - a perfect time to visit, if you can.