French waters

Pastel buildings add to the ambience of Sauzon’s harbor on Belle-Île off the coast of Brittany. (Pascal Damico)

At 6:30 on a pitch-dark morning early last October, I was backing a French rental car down a ramp from the dock at Le Palais on Belle-Île onto the ferry, my eyes frozen on an attendant who was waving his arms frantically and yelling. "À droit!" (To the right!) Then, "À gauche!" (To the left!)

Another challenge awaited me at the end of the 45-minute crossing of the Bay of Biscay to the mainland: Returning from the lounge, I found that my car had disappeared. I tracked down the attendant, who — giving me a not-this-crazy-woman-again look — explained that the first cars to board would sit on a platform that was raised to create two parking tiers. There my car was, up near the roof.

The beautiful island, aptly named Belle-Île, was my last stop on a six-day isle-hopping trip along the western coast of France, a 600-mile drive that began at Bordeaux and took me to Île de Ré and Île de Noirmoutier as I made my way north along the Bay of Biscay.

I drove long stretches of highways and byways and through a few pretty villages, and I conquered countless roundabouts. On the three islands — whose populations range from 5,000 to 17,000 — I saw windmills and oyster beds and spent hours exploring villages of whitewashed houses with brightly painted shutters.

The islands are known to European tourists, but they attract relatively few Americans and have retained much of their charm. Off-season, they are uncrowded and unhurried.

I reached my first stop, Île de Ré, by a 2-mile-long toll bridge on the D735 from La Rochelle, 125 miles northwest of Bordeaux. Tourism on the island jumped after the bridge linked it to the mainland in 1988. Still, when I heard English spoken, it was often by Brits.

I had booked at Le Richelieu, a 34-room Relais & Châteaux hotel at La Flotte, a harbor town on the north side of the island, three miles from the bridge's end. It was more of a splurge than I'd intended. Upon checking in, I was told that the Internet price I'd secured (about $150) was per person, double occupancy. I protested that I'd never claimed to be two, and the desk clerk and I reached a compromise: free breakfasts. (Total tab for two days, with one dinner, about $575.)

Once I saw my second-floor room, I felt decidedly less miffed. It was Louis XIV-meets-Nautica, in the nicest way, with period furniture, sitting area, luxe bath and French doors opening onto a big terrace with a sliver of sea view.

Because I'd arrived near the end of dinner hour, I hurried to the elegant restaurant, where the staff disregarded the fact that I looked like something the cat dragged in. They urged me to relax and enjoy the rack of lamb. I did, every expensive bite.

The hotel has a state-of-the-art spa, and I saw in the brochure I could have a three-hour spa treatment, with body wrap, for $190. Despite the promise of my emerging with peau de velours (skin of velvet), it seemed pricey.

Île de Ré

Instead, I drove the next day to St.-Martin, the island's picture-postcard capital, whose 17th century wall and fortifications, built to keep out the British, remain largely intact. During the Middle Ages, Île de Ré passed back and forth between England and France; when France finally got it back, King Louis XIV had his famed military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, design the ramparts and an 8-mile wall.

St.-Martin is a harbor town whose considerable charms include a yacht basin rimmed by a broad esplanade dotted with outdoor cafes. I found a table at Le Skipper, where I had a just-OK fish (presented with head and tail) while the Beatles' "Help!" blared from the speaker. Later, strolling the quay, I discovered the inviting Hotel La Jetée, where I would stay another time. The price was right, and the location, central to shops and restaurants, was excellent.

As it drizzled, I explored the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring the half-timbered 17th century houses, peeking into chi-chi boutiques and ducking out of the rain into the 15th century Church of St.-Martin, where music played softly and candles glowed.

Île de Ré is only 18 miles long and at its widest 3 miles, and I drove most of its two-lane roads, past pine-studded sand dunes, crumbling stonewalls and vineyards. Salt, once a major source of income for the island, has been hurt by silting and competition from within France. Today, tourism drives the economy.

I lingered at Loix, a village with streets wide enough for one car and tidy white houses with green shutters. Even prettier is La Couarde sur Mer, with its sweet centre ville and lovely beach. The lighthouse at Des Baleines, at the western tip, was too touristy, with shops selling stuffed donkeys wearing pantaloons. (Donkeys once worked the fields here and were fitted with striped trousers to ward off mosquitoes.)

The island is flat, and from miles away church spires point the way to the villages. None is more distinctive than the black-tipped white Gothic spire of St. Étienne in the lovely village of Ars. St. Étienne's bells were striking 6 in the evening when I arrived, leaving me just enough time to explore the narrow, winding streets before dark.

That night I passed up another whisper-quiet dinner at Le Richelieu and, braving a torrential rain, drove five minutes to La Flotte's harbor, where little boats with colorful sails bobbed madly in the storm. I sloshed into Le Nautic restaurant, a fine refuge, and shared a long wooden table and bench with locals. The ambience was great, the food fine (salad with goat cheese and pasta with poached salmon) and the bill about $14.

Île de Noirmoutier