Richard Peace, author of Cycling Southern France, has this overview of the options for cycling holidays in Poitou-Charentes, a historic region of France blessed with great beaches, pretty islands and Cognac.
From a cycling viewpoint, Poitou-Charentes sometimes seems to be simply showing off, especially along the coast where you have the pick of two well-known islands – Ré and Oléron – both criss-crossed by delightful cycle paths. Inland there are areas totally underrated and undervisited, meaning you'll most likely have bike routes to yourself out of peak season. There is one hinterland tourist hotspot though, the Marais Poitevin, a remarkable area of villages built alongside small rivers and irrigation channels dug to tame this widespread area of marshes. Perhaps Poiou-Charente's best-kept secret is the Charente Valley between lovely Angoulême and historic Saintes.
The usually gentle topography, tempting beaches and dense provision of cycle lanes and quiet backroads of Poitou-Charentes make it an ideal region for gentle cycle touring or fixed base bike rides, especially for families, older cyclists and occasional riders. Lycra-clad speedsters and climbers might feel more at home in the north of Poitou-Charentes in the area around Poitiers.
A grand cycle tour of this part of France might go something like Angoulême to Saintes then Royan and along the pine forests of the Côte Sauvage before a circuit of île d'Oléron.
Heading further up the coast on minor roads and cycle paths brings you to the 17th century naval base of Rochefort. Although the coast between Rochefort and La Rochelle appears, on a road map, to be dominated by autoroutes and railways, cycle paths and minor roads can be linked to arrive at the glorious medieval jewel in Poitou-Charentes crown, the port town of La Rochelle. This is a destination in itself but also the gateway to the tiny colourful villages of île de Ré, accessed by a spectacular bridge linking the French mainland to the island. This is a 250-mileish linear cycle tour packed with delights.
If you really want something a little different, extend the tour inland from La Rochelle to the marshes of Poitou – the Marais Poitevin – an area of remarkable tiny green canals, and simply covered in cycle paths (though note quite a number of the bike paths are of the unsealed, crushed stone variety and the surface varies in quality more than elsewhere). Niort seems a good end point, by which time you'll have cycled almost 300 miles. Niort is known as a classy town with some very high quality restaurants, so it's a fine opportunity to take your feet off the pedals for a bit and indulge the taste buds.
See Richard's suggestions for fixed base cycling and day bike rides in Poitou-Charentes.
Cycling the Atlantic coast
If you are cycling north or south along the coast, it's worth noting that virtually the whole of France's Atlantic coast between the southern border of Brittany and Biarritz in the far south of Aquitaine is designated as a cycle route, in one form or another.
Between Biarritz and Rochefort there are virtually continuous sections of 'voie verte' or off road green way (often well-surfaced, maybe with tarmac), and north of Rochefort, through the Pays-de-la-Loire, there is a mixture of Véloroute and less well-surfaced voies vertes taking you right up to and across the mouth of the Loire as it spills into the Atlantic. See our article on the Atlantic Coast bike route.
When to cycle in Poitou-Charentes
The climate is mild in autumn and winter and generally hot and very sunny in summer. December to February are the coldest months, but even then temperatures tend to hover around 10 degrees, so cycling is reasonably comfortable in this part of France. Occasional storms should be watched out for; November to January and May are the wetter months.
Where to stay
See or 'Where to stay' section.
La Rochelle Youth Hostel has secure bike storage in the open courtyard in the middle of the hostel. It was undergoing restoration during my visit, so things may have changed! It's in a good, central location. Hotel St Jean, 21 Av St. Jean d'Angély, Niort is incredibly friendly and has a big garage for bike storage.
Angoulême Youth Hostel (05 45 92 45 80) is very basic but very friendly and very well-priced, with breakfast included. Good bike storage. Not very central but a lovely setting on an island in the Charente.
Hiring bikes in Poitou-Charentes
For bike rental in Poitou-Charentes, see our bike hire listings.
See Destinations Poitou-Charentes for region-wide cycling info (in French only); there's less extensive cycling information in the English section. The official île de Ré site has English language information, including on cycling. There's more local information (in French) on the La Charente website, including a map of routes. The cycling section at Visit Poitou-Charentes has links to more localised information. See also my Cycling Southern France guidebook, available via Excellent Books.
Richard Peace is founder of Excellent Books, specialists in cycle publishing. He has made several tours of France (including on electric bikes) and is author of Cycling Southern France, Cycling Northern France, and Electric Bicycles: The Complete Guide. He is a regular contributor to bikeradar.com and A to B magazine.