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Throughout Charente-Maritime, where the land is generally flat, biking is a popular mode of transportation. Bike paths are common—the government maintains about 1,500 miles (2,500 km) for cyclists alone. There are routes for long-distance bikers, for those who just want to amble through town, and for everyone in between.
In La Rochelle proper, rent a bike at the Yélo station facing the tourism office (2 Quai Georges Simenon, map). Yélo bikes (free for the first half hour; €1 per half hour after that, till 2 hours; and €3 per half hour from 2 to 24 hours) are easy to spot, as they are all painted bright yellow. You can return your bike at any of the Yélo bike racks scattered throughout the city.
Biking outside La Rochelle is a great way to survey the region. We like to ride south out of the city, to La Plage des Minimes (Minimes Beach). Pick up the coastal bike trail at the southern end of the beach, and continue south. Pedal along the ocean through the village of Angoulins-sur-mer, where you’ll see traditional wooden fishermen’s housing jutting out into the water, as well as mussel and oyster refineries. Continue along the coast until you arrive at Châtelaillon-Plage. Here, set up camp on the sandy beach and take a swim, if the tide is in. (Afterward, you might stop into family-owned crêperie Café Bains des Fleurs (76 Blvd de la Mer, map) for sweet and savory crepes, ice cream, or a drink on the terrace.)
Another option is to bike across the suspension bridge connecting La Rochelle to Île de Ré. There are plenty of bike routes on Île de Ré to facilitate exploration. Follow the eastern edge of the island to the impossibly charming harbor town, Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Don’t miss ice cream at the very popular La Martinière (19 Quai Poithevinière, map), where you can sample unique local flavors such as pomme de terre de l’ile glace caramel (Île de Ré potato caramel ice cream), caramel fleur de sel (caramel with delicate, Île de Ré-harvested salt), and l’huître-caviar (oyster caviar) on a homemade waffle cone.
Additional bike rental shops are easy to find on both Île de Ré and Île d'Oléron. Stop into a tourism office, or ask your hotel, for details.
WALK AND SWIM
Walking is an ideal way to see Charente-Maritime at a leisurely pace. La Rochelle is a small city, happily managed on foot. In the scenic seaside villages, it’s easy to get lost down narrow, winding streets lined with multicolored hollyhocks. On Île de Ré and Île d’Oléron, nature trails are abundant and well maintained.
In La Rochelle, start your stroll at the waterfront, in front of the Tour de la Lanterne (Lantern Tower). Step onto the ancient city walls and continue east, until you reach the Tour de la Chaîne (Chain Tower). The Tour Saint-Nicolas (St. Nicolas Tower) sits just across the water. These three towers are important symbols of the city, dating back to the Middle Ages. Step off the ramparts and follow the curve of the port all the way around to La Rochelle’s aquarium, one of the best in Europe and certainly worth a visit. When you’ve seen all the fish there are to see, make your way across the pedestrian bridge at the back of the aquarium. Finish your walk at Bar du France 1 (Musée Maritime, map), a bar and restaurant on a boat. Enjoy garlicky grilled squid or a glass of pineau while taking in views of the port’s many sailboats.
On Île de Ré, couple a walk with a bracing swim. Begin in the town of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Make your way eastward and out of town, passing through Parc de la Barbette. Continue along the sea wall, with the ocean to your left. After about an hour, you’ll arrive in the village of La Flotte. The path will lead you directly to a beach, where you can swim out to a floating dock when the tide is high. (Make sure to check the day’s tides online or in the newspaper before you set off!)
Île d’Oléron is less developed than Île de Ré, and thus even better suited for nature walks. In the south of the island, head to Le Marais des Bris (map), where you’ll find 90 acres of marshland to discover. Stop into the tourist office of Saint-Trojan-les-Bains (map) to learn about themed and guided tours. Another option here is to head to the far end of the island, to the Phare de Chassiron (the Chassiron Lighthouse; map). The imposing black-and-white construction is impressive from the ground, but the views from the top are stunning. The climb is 224 steps, so brace yourself! Back on land, take a tour around the base of the lighthouse; the Jardins du Phare (Lighthouse Garden) shows off plants, flowers, fruits, and vegetables native to Île d’Oléron.
SAIL, SURF, KAYAK
Île de Ré and Île d’Oléron provide plenty of opportunities for water sports: Outfitters abound for sailing, surfing, kayaking, windsurfing, canoeing, paddle boarding, and kite surfing. In La Rochelle, sailing is particularly popular—try a day with Ecole de Voile Rochelaise (Avenue de la Capitainerie, map).
On Île d’Oléron, Saint Denis-based company Sur Une Ile (17 Rue Marc Robert, map) provides rentals for sea kayaking, windsurfing, sailing, marsh kayaking, and paddle boarding. Prices vary, depending on the activity and the number in your group. For rate inquiries, email [email protected]
For alternative options, stop into any tourism office or inquire at your hotel.
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