Ile d’Oléron is France’s second largest island after Corsica, but it’s a lot more accessible for cyclists as it’s linked to the mainland with a bridge which means it’s a great place for a day trip.
We had a day off recently and thought we’d go for a wander to see what the island has to offer. Armed with suggestions from Aurélie, who grew up on the island, and David, who is from La Tremblade nearby, we set off to explore. The weather was overcast and rainy … for pretty pictures of the island at it’s best in the sunshine head here.
The Oléronais are known for being fiercely proud of their island and are very much in favour of introducing a charge to cross the bridge as way to keep down (read: out) the number of visitors that arrive each year so as to protect their island paradise and its quiet way of life.
They also have a rather idiosyncratic take on hospitality so be ready for that.
Don’t let this deter you however, as it’s beautiful!
The best way to see the island is on a bike – you won’t upset the locals by clogging up their island with another car, it’s better for the environment and better for your legs.
It’s about 30km from one end to the other with a main road going up the middle. Consequently, the best thing to do is to stick to the smaller lanes that go around the coastline. You can count on about a 75km round trip from Bourcefranc on the mainland.
Navigation is pretty easy – cross the bridge, turn left or right and keep the sea on the same side until you get back to it!
At the start of your day, be sure to keep an eye out for Fort Louvois, built in the 17th Century by Vauban to defend against the Brits, on the right-hand side as you cross over.
If you’re going anti-clockwise, the first stop is Chateau d’Oléron, originally an old citadel town and small port where the oyster farmers brought their wares to land. Needs must, and it’s now been somewhat rebranded as a little tourist town with lots of colourful oyster huts that sell jewellery and locally made clothing and food.
As you head up the Eastern side of the island from Chateau, the land is flat and marshy which is perfect for oysters to grow. The huts here are still in use and you’ll see lots of small producers turning the mesh bags that the oysters grow in.
One of the ‘nice’ things about visiting the island with someone who knows it is they tell you little anecdotes such as when we past L’Ipermarché which used to be a nightclub and I heard about one of David’s friends being ill in the bushes by the side of the road after a particularly heavy night.
Slightly further north you will find the Foret des Saumonards and its beach, Plage des Saumonards, which, in case you needed to know, is the island’s naturist beach … another ‘useful’ piece of local knowledge!
At La Brée-les-Bains there is a small harbour and a wild beach that is reached by walking through a pine forest. You will also find L’Écluse, now the island’s only nightclub, hidden away behind a creperie which one imagines does a roaring trade as clubbers leave at closing time.
At the northernmost tip of the island is the Phare de Chassiron. If you climb to the top you get a lovely view across to La Rochelle and into the Bay of Biscay on a clear day. It’s surrounded by a frankly hideous 50’s building which has a hotel, bar and shop where you can buy some tourist tat.
Heading back down the west coast, it’s quite wild with long sandy beaches where you can take a well-earned rest and enjoy the great views out to sea and across to the mainland.
After a while you get to La Cotinière, which is the largest fishing port on the island and the 7th largest in France. It’s worth being there when the fishermen land their catch as some of it goes straight to the market stalls over the road.
Depending on your timing, it’s definitely worth stopping at Le Relais de Salines near the very literally named Le Grand-Village-Plage slightly further south. It’s an(other) old oyster hut in the middle of the marshes where the fish is beautifully presented and cooked to perfection.
We had a chat with the owner and he used to run a Michelin starred restaurant in Bourcefranc so knows his stuff but eventually decided to go back across the bridge and open a restaurant as he wanted to run it.
You’re sure of a warm welcome and a great feed – just don’t ask for moules-frites!
If you’ve got an questions about the area please get in touch and I’ll be happy to help out.