I discovered Ile-de-Ré several years ago, after my partner Christophe Michel and I sold our holiday house in Brittany –where he grew up – because we wanted the freedom to discover new places with our son Henri, now 12. The first time we went was out of season; we spent days picnicking on the beaches with no one else around. It’s a very simple way of life there – the air is so clean, the scent of the pine forests is amazing, and the light that bounces off the salt marshes is magical. It’s not as perfect as the south of France; it feels much more wild and alive, with locals going about their daily business.
We stay further north, in Ars-en-Ré, which, with its whitewashed, light stone buildings and green shutters, is apparently considered one of France’s most beautiful villages. We book a self-catering loft apartment in Le Sénéchal, a beautiful hotel owned by the architect Christophe Ducharme; it has a fireplace that’s perfect after a day pottering around in the sea with our nets, returning all cold and the air at night a little bit damp. The hotel has a lovely feel, with the façade of being quite traditional and old-fashioned, but inside it is stripped back and simple. It’s like a home from home. There’s a great deli and café, La Tour de Sénéchal, underneath the hotel, which sells beautiful things, and sometimes they cook and let you take it up to your room.
We hire bikes and cycle around the island – at just over 18 miles long and very flat, it’s easy to cover much of it in a day. We’ll go around Ars-en-Ré’s port, past the three traditional windmills, the Moulins de la Boire, and down to the barrenness of Le Bois-Plage, where beautiful forests and windswept dunes surround the fine-sand beach. The island is packed with amazing food and restaurants – we head north to Le Phare des Baleines, known locally as the Lighthouse of the Whales, for Le Café du Phare underneath it. It’s been there for years, just like one you’d find in Paris, yet it’s in the middle of nowhere. Oyster shacks line all the cycle paths on the island. The fruits de mer platters are out of this world at La Cabane du Fier; it’s rustic and very French. Or we might go for a drink somewhere in town, taking in a spectacular sunset. I also like to rummage around Marie et Angele, an army surplus meets vintage store; I’m drawn to its chic utilitarianism.
Ile-de-Ré is not just for tourists. It refreshes me subconsciously – sometimes the island’s scents will inspire me, and I’ll get out my pen and paper; but other times, I just want to sit there and absorb it all. Back in London, I’ll look at things differently, and the ideas will flow. But when I’m there, I want to enjoy myself, being with my family – it’s always a very precious time together. I find it easy there to switch off.