Sounds like vacation heaven, doesn't it?
Regrettably, travel reality is sometimes a different story.
If you find yourself overwrought, facing too many globe-trotting
challenges, oh boy, do I have a holiday spot just for you.
La Rochelle and nearby Ile de Ré are a Goldilocks-feels-just-right way
to spend all day, every day, goofing off like you're 12 years old again.
Happily warm a café chair or mosey around the historic harbor -- any way
you choose, this is the perfect answer to a harried traveler's prayers.
France's Atlantic Coast is breezy, laid back and as un-bothered a
harbor as you'll ever find -- yet it's anything but typical.
Sure, it has the usual seaside checklist: sunny blue sky, perfect views,
brilliant food and wine.... yada-yada-yada... but one thing is in short supply
-- and that's a good thing.
La Rochelle and its nearby islands are completely lacking in
the cookie-cutter, over-hyped, over-done, high-strung beach scene.
Instead, you'll find a town gifted in too many ways to count, a
perfect place to dilly dally over whatever diversion you choose.
Toss all your anxiety into the sea and repeat after me,
"Life is short so today I choose sunshine,
a glass of wine and a healthy dose of joie de vivre."
For once, leave your mission statement behind and just go.
"He who knows that enough is enough
will always have enough."
Parisians flock to the Atlantic Coast to connect with nature and steal a little R&R.
They know where to find the sort of solitude that is never lonely,
a quiet beauty that is rarely gray.
La Rochelle is a great place to start your waterfront non-adventure.
It's just a 3-hour train ride from Paris, smack dab
on the west coast of France between Brittany and Bordeaux.
Ancient twin towers guard the port, the focal point
of any journey to this lovely seaside spot.
La Rochelle's historic harbor has a long and important maritime history.
Today, its role is mostly as defender of trays of succulent oysters,
pitchers of beer, and lazy crazy days of sun-filled pineau* sipping pleasure.
*a delicious cognac-infused white wine)
Tanks of eels, sharks and sea turtles line the gallery, combining
performance art entertainment with real life education.
More than just a venue for the jellyfish ballet, this aquarium serves
as an important research and conservation center.
Oddly, what most caught my attention were the families, especially the
moms & pops toting tiny babies wrapped like baby Jesus, cuddled and
whispered to with utter reverence, a firm belief these tiny human urchins
are able to absorb the maritime lesson as well as the rest of us.
As Mama & Papa patiently explained the mysteries of the sea to these little
bundles of joy, their big eyes seemed to take everything in -- classical
music, dancing seahorses, coastal conservation -- with nary a peep or fuss.
Perhaps the result of DNA from France's sea-champion J. Cousteau family??
It was as fascinating a display as the aquarium itself.
from nautical clothing to characterful tins of sardines.
A few years back, I happened upon a unique shopfront loaded
with collectibles -- including a live cat curled up tightly between the keepsakes.
"Ugmet" even had his own portrait, likely because of nosy customers
(like me) who walked in to inform on his immodest spectacle.
But that's La Rochelle for you -- unhurried, undemanding,
nonchalant -- the capitol of tranquility.
Yet, please don't take the calm for boring.
La Rochelle is anything but that.
There's a buoyant spirit in the quiet calm, a balance between
peace of mind and seaside celebration.
And for heavens sake, don't miss a meal.
The food is amazing -- try local specialty mouclade (mussels in cream)
to get your taste buds up and running for the best of coastal cuisine.
filled to the brim with stall after stall of fresh seafood, beautiful meats,
cheeses and of course, the famous regional sea salt.
It's fun to try a few specialty salts too, combining other herbs and
spices to complement any dish you're making.
Across the street, old men line up at the bar to enjoy their morning glass of red.
You can tour the iconic towers that guard the vieux port, loaded with
medieval personality and fantastic views of the ocean's dramatic theater.
My favorite is the Tour de la Lanterne with its panoramic views
(150+ steps) and graffiti scrawled by prisoners though the centuries.
Built in the mid-1400's, the tower holds many secrets and horrors -- including
the tale of 13 priests once tossed from its summit.
These fortresses served different needs over the century -- whether
lighthouse or prison, the stone towers ably tell the story of La Rochelle.
There's also a slave museum (La Rochelle was once the go-between for captured prisoners forced to travel to slave-holding colonies in America's deep south),
a museum of old automata -- small scale mechanical models and animated
street scenes -- even a site with ruined WWII German bunkers.
Regrettably, we missed some of these opportunities -- but that
just gives us yet another reason to return.
Let's face it, when you're "busy" day and night doing as little as possible,
sometimes you miss out on one or two activities.
And that's ok with me .... savor another oyster, open another bottle of wine.....
luminous island the French know and love well.
Ile de Ré, saltwater superstar of the Charente-Maritime,
drips with island character.
Less than twenty miles long and three miles wide, the small
island boasts nearly 60 miles of cycling lanes.
With a winter population of just 20,000 locals, the island
swells to 220,000 in season.
Sun worshipers covet bikes over cars, striped pullovers over Paris
designs, and kite surfing over disco dancing.
If that's not enough, best dressed honors go to the local donkeys.
Yes, you heard me right -- shaggy-chic donkeys wearing pants.
Striped or gingham, they're both adorable and ridiculous but
you'll fall for them anyway -- blame it on puppy-- er -- donkey love.
The tradition was born in the salt marshes, where fleur-de-sel farmers
needed to protect their 4-legged workers from getting
insect bites during the harvest.
The iconic (but stinging) flower-scented treasure
hurt the donkeys' tender legs and inspired a cullotte revolution,
just another charming aspect of life on Ile de Ré.
willing to pull out all stops to navigate the feast.
Lucky you, this seafood archeological dig may take hours and you'll need
ample local refreshment as you work around your plate.
Ile de Ré boasts its own vintage -- bright and crisp as the morning sunshine.
You'll be glad you have the chance to enjoy its pleasures.
Your only job now is to watch yachts bobbing in the bay and wonder
what French movie star sat in your café chair last week.
There are several towns ripe for a visit so don't hold back from
taking an extended bike ride after lunch.
Saint-Martin-de-Ré is the place to start with its fortifications and elegant port.
La Flotte (fantastic market), La Couarde (golden sand and long beaches) and Ars-en-Ré (salt farms and lighthouse) each have their own special character.
You'll be swept up in white-washed houses with aquamarine shutters,
19th century lighthouses and acres of cyprus, pine trees and wild rosemary.
change the rhythm of your life.
A visit to France's Atlantic Coast is good place to start.
La Rochelle and Ile de Ré are game-changers -- perfect reminders
of the wonder and the possibilities of life on this great planet.
"Life is like a ten speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use."
- Charles M. Schulz