Sep 1, 2015

Tropical Island Style, Up North: Fleur de Ré


About the only island off the coast of France most people have ever heard of is Corsica. And a good number don't even know it's officially French, and no longer Italian. It turns out there are tons of tiny islands scattered just off the coast. Of these, the most famous and popular destination for French (and sometimes British) tourists is Ile de Ré just off of La Rochelle. Because it's so famous, it gets super crowded during every break, especially summer, and we've never been able to a) get around to making reservations on time and b) bring ourselves to face the crazy crowds.

On the non-holiday day in May we cross to Ile d'Oléron, to the south of Ile de Ré off closer to Rochefort, we easily drive over the bridge connecting it to the mainland. But we are told that in the summer, it might take an hour just to cross the bridge (ditto for Il de Ré's bridge), and then you're still stuck in the same traffic on the other side to get to your destination. That's what makes bikes so appealing. Once you're on the island, you can ride bikes through the salt marshes, to the beaches, around the port towns. But it's a big enough island, and easy enough to access if you time it right, that you might prefer a car.

Not so on Ile d'Yeu, where you can't ferry your car over, and wouldn't want to anyway, since the island is so small you can bike around it comfortably in a day, even with multiple, long stops. Off the coast of the Vendée, it feels like a real escape: the French word for it is "dépaysement" which I see translated as "disorienting" and "scenery", though it translates more literally as "change of country". In any event, all seem correct, as the scenery and feel are so different from mainland France, it actually feels disorienting, like you've literally changed countries. And latitudes. Except for the temperature of the water, I would swear I was in the tropics.

It's the kind of place where you don't even feel guilty that you're not having your kids wear bike helmets.

Even if you rent bikes for just one day and you want to bike around the whole island you've still got plenty of time for the beach, to visit the 16th century castle (cleverly called "Le Vieux Château", or "The Old Castle").

It's a pretty laid-back place, and we try (but fail) to imagine what it would be like to live out here. All year round.

Biking on Ile d'Yeu is a wonderful, perfect day, right up until the part where Pippa puts her rental bike key down on a towel in the sand without telling anybody, where it gets promptly and hopelessly lost. After much fruitless searching, Gigi races back to the ferry with our friends, and I wait with Pippa for the rental agency to send out a van. When it arrives, the driver has a new bike with him for Pippa, but I tell him we'll miss the ferry if we try to bike back, so he squishes both our bikes and us in the van, and we arrive at the rental return at the same time as the rest of our crew. With no time to spare, we run to the ferry and make it back to the mainland, and reality.

Other small islands in the area, off the western coast of the Vendée and Bretagne, in the Atlantic Ocean, include a bunch even the French have never heard of: Ile d'Aix, Ile de Noirmoutier, Hoedic, Ile d'Houat, Belle-Ile-en-Mer, Groix, Ile St.-Nicolas, and Ile-de-Sein (literally, Island-of-Breast) which, coincidentally not too far off the coast of Brest. At the northwestern tip of France, there's Ile de Béniguet, Ile de Morgol, Ile de Litiri (and the neighboring Petit Litiri), Ile de Quéménès, Lédénez Quéménès, Les Guiniman, Ile aux Chrétiens (Island of the Christians), Ile de Triélen, Ile Molène, Lédénez Vraz and Vihan, Iroise, Ouessant (which is big enough to have an airport), and as you round the corner, there are at least a hundred more just off the northern coast of Bretagne in the Channel.

Which brings me to Sark (called Sercq in French), not just a little island off the coast of France that you can bike around, but also a little country off the coast of France that you can only bike around. The whole nation is car-free, with horse-drawn carriages and just a few farm tractors to help tourists get their luggage uphill. Unless you like doing things the hard way, as we do, and you carry it uphill yourself. Or, more accurately, you have your daddy carry it up himself (I do, indeed, carry my own).

Sark, a country you've never heard of, has several claims to fame: It's the world's newest democracy, having changed over from a fiefdom -- think feudal system of Lords and serfs -- in 2008. (Just in case you're wondering, democracy is not necessarily all it's cracked up to be: they don't have enough money to offer free education, or in fact any education, to children past the 8th grade, around 13 years old. Those who can afford it go off to boarding school in England. Those who can't, and yes, there are some who can't, start working, with no high school education. In 2015. On a tiny island between England and France. Mind-boggling, isn't it?!).

It's also the world's first (and only, I believe) dark sky island nation -- meaning the entire nation has been certified as having so little light pollution at night, you can do astronomy with the naked eye. We go glamping (glamorous camping: it costs us a ridiculous 150€ to stay one night, with the tent and sleeping bags provided and set up for us) and get lucky with a clear night, so we are able to see an incredible amount of stars and even the Milky Way. Toto, we're not in Paris, anymore.

Since there are no cars on the island, the bike is king.

You can even bike to your own bachelorette party.

It's one of the only countries in the world where there are no cars allowed and where they still use horse-drawn carts. Needless to say this is one of the most charming aspects of being here.
The only place you can't bike is along the grève, the riverbank (from which comes the French word for a "strike", because it was the stevedores along the riverbank that went on strike). You have to either park (no locking necessary) or walk your bike across to the other tiny section of the figure-8 shaped island.

Sark has a population of just under 500 people, and there is only one bank in the nation, with the ATM locked inside it. Luckily, everybody on the island takes credit cards, because we are completely out of cash and here on a weekend.

You can ride around the entire country -- every bikeable road there is -- in just a couple hours at a leisurely pace, stopping for many photos. Though it's only a couple hour ferry ride from France, it's a world apart; in this case literally a dépaysement, change of country, as you need to cross national borders.

THE CHEESE: Fleur de Ré

Fleur de Ré is a raw goats' milk cheese made with salt gathered on Ile de Ré. The cheese comes from just across the bridge, on the mainland, in Deux-Sèvres.

The company that makes it, La Case Bleue, was founded in 1995, so it's a relatively recent cheese. However, the company founder Brigitte Viollet purposely based her creations on classic, high-quality local cheeses, made in the greatest of all goat cheese regions, Poitou-Charentes. Fleur de Ré, in the best local tradition, is a very mild, soft, and silky cheese with just a hint of salt, despite being named for salt.  


Named after France's most famous little north coast, pseudo-tropical, island, this is a heavenly little drop of a cheese.

These, on the other hand, are actually the fleurs (flowers) de Sark, but I'm sure Ile de Ré has similar botanical species.



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