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 mileslong 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
Leaving the island the next morning, I detoured to the ruin of the 12th century Châteliers Abbey, which was abandoned after being pillaged by Protestants during Protestant-Catholic wars on the island in the 16th century and attacked by the Huguenots a century later. Roofless, it stands dramatically in an open field. A gusty wind blew my umbrella inside out as I stood, soaked through, inside the walls, alone and strangely peaceful.
My next destination: Île de Noirmoutier, 114 miles north. I had reserved a room at the 19th century Château du Pélavé, an Internet booking that didn't deliver its promised "Victorian charm." My room, though large with a huge garden-view terrace, must have been last redone in the 12th century. When bad things happen to good châteaux, I thought, eating my overpriced dinner in the near-empty dining room as Lulu, the house dog, begged at my feet.
The next morning, Saturday, I stumbled on a wedding in the capital, Noirmoutier; the bride was chic in a white strapless gown. Later, I was the only visitor at Noirmoutier Castle, where museum exhibits include a tattered red velvet chair with bullet holes, in which Gen. Maurice-Joseph-Louis Gigost d'Elbée, leader of the Vendean (royalist) army, reportedly sat during his execution in 1794 by Republicans in Place d'Armes, the square outside. A climb to the roof rewarded me with a panorama of red-tile roofs and salt pans, the banked earth and channels through which seawater flows and salt is harvested.
At St. Philbert's Church opposite the castle, women at the altar arranged flowers in blue and white boats for a wedding. Flowers abounded in the town; boxes of blooms adorned sidewalks and they spilled over stone walls in the narrow residential streets.
Walking a side street, I came upon the chef at Le Vélo Noir (the Black Bicycle) outside the restaurant, scribbling "ouvert" (open) on a chalkboard. On a whim, I decided to have lunch. Maybe it was the chef, or the black bicycle in front, or just the charm of this little vine-covered place with blue shutters. In a room with stone walls and a handful of tables set with checked cloths, I ate a three-course menu featuring a sort of Salisbury steak. It had been a good whim.
In the off-season, Noirmoutier isn't geared up for tourism. Twice, I boarded the white sightseeing train in the square. The first time, not even a driver showed up. The second time, we were only six and a dog, and the driver said the tour was a no-go. So I walked down the pedestrian street, where shops selling souvenirs sit side by side with family shoe stores and such.
Later that day, driving a back road near the port, I happened upon the delightful Fleur de Sel hotel. This is for me, I thought, mentally packing up and checking out of the chateau. Alas, it was full, understandably. (I did return that night for a very good meal in the marine-themed restaurant.)
At the tourist office in Noirmoutier, a young woman had suggested a "must do": driving the narrow 2 1/2 -mile road linking the island to Le Gois on the mainland. It's a game. You win if you make it across before the tide comes in, submerges the road and floats your car.
She consulted a chart: I had a window of about two hours before and after low tide. Intrigued, I joined the line of cars at the shore at 6 p.m. A sign cautioned that the road would be passable for only one more hour. Two other signs warned that one can drown in transit. Those, together with a large cross nearby, dampened my enthusiasm. Still, I plowed ahead — for about 100 yards — when panic struck. What if I had a breakdown and was stranded with 13 feet of water rising around me? Luckily, there are turnouts for wafflers. I pulled onto one and retreated to terra firma.
Now when I think of Noirmoutier, I remember the lovely intact windmill near the beach at Plage du Moulin de la Bosse (most of the windmills, no longer used to mill wheat, have lost their blades). Most of all, I remember the Bois de la Chaise forest, with grand old manor houses hiding behind high walls and hiking and biking trails cutting through dense woods to the beach.
The roads from Noirmoutier to Quiberon, where I would board the ferry to Belle-Île, took me through 147 miles of largely industrial and uninteresting territory. One exception: A short detour off the N165-E60 onto the D34 to the enchanting town of La Roche-Bernard on the Vilaine River. It would have been a perfect lunch stop, but, eager to reach Quiberon, I ate a Big Mac-to-go at a highway exit. I was now deeper into Brittany and the landscape was changing. The tile-roofed white houses of the south were replaced by pastel homes with steeply pitched slate roofs and dormer windows.
Quiberon, at the tip of a long peninsula, is a waterfront resort town and departure point for car ferries to Belle-Île. On Belle-IÎe, most dock at Le Palais, which was my destination.
I'd reserved a room across the island at Castel Clara, a Relais & Châteaux hotel near the town of Bangor, where Monet came to paint. The hotel, which sits above a cove on a dramatic shoreline, is quite lovely, although a bit disorganized on my visit. My "sea-view" room had none, the TV with CNN didn't work and, despite assurances that central heat would be turned on momentarily, it never was. But the room was nice and the restaurant superb.
After driving back to Le Palais in the morning, I found it pleasantly quiet postseason. In season, parking must be a nightmare. (Bike rentals are popular.) Strolling the shopping street, Rue de la Citadelle, I fell for a whimsical pottery platter shaped like a manta ray in the window at Un Jour a Belle-Île, but the $165 price and the thought of lugging it home snapped me to my senses.
A road from Le Palais climbs to the 17th century fortress, Citadelle Vauban. I walked through an ancient gate, over moats and through more ancient gates into the old fort. The museum's eclectic mix includes opera glasses, a feather fan and steamer trunk that belonged to 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt. When not touring, she retreated to her two villas on the island.
The citadel has great views and some first-rate dungeons, whose occupants included two men who plotted to kill Napoleon and were executed here.
Two-lane roads cover much of the island and pass through meadows where sheep and cattle graze and past tidy houses with lace curtains and window boxes. At Sauzon, on a photogenic harbor near the western tip, I ate tuna steak at a simple eight-table restaurant, Le Saint-Louis, and watched the fishing boats tying up.
I have fond memories of these islands, whose charm lies in their relative authenticity and lack of hipness. I'd return, but not in summer season, when tourists descend en masse. Fall is the perfect time to visit — but don't forget to pack your umbrella.
French isles of calm
From LAX, Air Tahiti Nui, Air France and KLM offer connecting service (change of planes) to Bordeaux. Air Tahiti Nui and Air France have nonstop service to Paris, and Delta, Northwest, Continental, American, Air Canada, Lufthansa, United, British, KLM and US Airways have connecting service. Restricted round-trip fares to both cities begin at $570 Sept. 13-Oct. 31.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 33 (country code for France) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Le Richelieu, 44 Avenue de la Plage, La Flotte , Île de Ré; 546-096-070, http://www.hotel-le-richelieu.com . Luxurious rooms in Relais & Châteaux hotel three miles from St.-Martin. Pool, bikes. Doubles $165-$366.
Hôtel La Jetée, Quai Georges-Clemenceau 17410, St.-Martin, Île de Ré; 546-093-636. Great location at St.-Martin harbor. Pretty patio, 31 cheerful rooms and suites and sunny breakfast room. Doubles $120-$165, including breakfast.
Fleur de Sel, Rue des Saulniers B.P. 207, Noirmoutier; 251-390-907, http://www.fleurdesel.fr . Delightful family-owned hotel in quiet location near harbor. Marine-themed rooms are best. Pool, tennis, bikes. Doubles $225-$265.
Castel Clara, Goulphar, Bangor, Belle-Île; 297-318-421, http://www.castel-clara.com . Attractive Relais & Châteaux property at cove overlooking dramatic shoreline. Tennis, pool, bikes. Doubles $210-$340.
WHERE TO EAT:
The hotels Le Richelieu, Fleur de Sel and Castel Clara serve meals in attractive, inviting dining rooms. Dinners $40-$80.
Le Vélo Noir, 13 Rue du Vieil Hopital, Noirmoutier; 251-358-529. Intimate ambience, good food. Dinners from $20.
Le Nautic, 2 Rue Henri Lainé, La Flotte, Île de Re; 546-096-050; Big portions of perfectly OK food; lots of local color. Dinners from $15.