It may not be as famous as its next-door neighbour Île de Ré, but Karin Badt found Île d'Oléron just as rewarding. She sent this report from her cycling trip to France's island of oysters.
Huitres. Île d'Oléron, an island off the French Atlantic coast, is all about oysters. The number one producer of oysters in the country, the island boasts visits to oyster farms, paths along the sea called "routes des huitres" and even an oyster exhibit. The best, however, is to eat them: fresh or, a local delicacy, cooked with garlic, and swallowed with a glass of crisp Oleron white wine. What distinguishes these Île d'Oléron oysters from other oysters: a rich nutty taste (since they are "washed" in fresh-water and sea).
What distinguishes the island for cyclists is its relatively low-key ambiance, and the variety of bike paths, through forests and along the coast. Unlike its ritzier neighbour, the famed Île de Ré, where rich Parisians (including a number of high-end politicians) maintain their country homes, this island caters to the more middle-brow French. This translates into humble villages made of stone with quiet restaurants serving ... oysters.
Getting to Oleron
But how do you even get to Île d'Oléron by bike? No website I found gives this information, and it took two travel agencies, five train conductors and an elderly man sitting next to me to figure it out.
The answer: two choices.
One is to take a train to La Rochelle, reserving the one bike space on the TGV way in advance (€10 supplement), and then biking down the coast: about 80km.
The second is to take a local train from La Rochelle to Rochefort, and then bike 40km towards the island via local roads.
Directions from Rochefort
First, you have to get out of Rochefort, taking the famous Transbourdeur bridge, a moveable "boat-bridge" over the Charenton river, constructed in 1900 by engineer Ferdinand Arnodin, and today the only bridge like it still in existence. Cinephiles will appreciate that the bridge featured in the opening scene of Jacques Demy's Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.
The hour I came, unfortunately that amazing bridge had just closed, as a theatre troupe was using it do a circus show. Despite a local barman's eager insistence to the actors that they open the bridge just for me, the actors, dressed like 18th century captains, shook their heads and I was forced to detour over a 3km modern mega-bridge, where the trucks zoomed by so close that I was pushed into the railing; I eventually walked.
From the bridge, one heads towards Brouage, a delight of a town, surrounded by a stone fortress, with several "creperies" and one quaint hotel, which one reaches by a series of country roads, including one that's trafficked by cars, with just a thin bike-lane alongside.
Note that guidebooks tell you that there is a famous Charenton bike path that leads from Rochefort to Oléron. Not true. Only occasionally en route does one find anything resembling a bike path. Happily, one long stretch, right before Brouage, takes you past fields and canals, with ducks and egrets floating on the water.
After Brouage, it's a good idea to wave down local cyclists so as to find the inland roads that go to the bridge to Île d'Oléron (not marked on the map), so as to avoid the major thoroughfare that begins about 10km before the bridge. By chance, I found one such cyclist who indicated a country road that cut through a stretch of fields, although I soon (because of his bad directions) found myself back on that car-busy strip.
The bridge to Île d'Oléron is gorgeous when you see it – and hell to cross: the winds made the 3km longer to cross than the entire distance from Rochefort. Still it is breathtaking to be over so much water at sunset.
Once over the bridge, you can go either east or west around the island.
Biking Île d'Oléron
I biked east and stopped at the closest town, Chateau d'Oleron, a small village with a sizeable tourist agency, an old fort bombed to ruins during World War 2, and a strip of low-key restaurants, all serving oysters. The food at these local joints is exceptional: for a €17 menu, one gets nine #3 oysters, broiled local fish (bar) with delicate herbs, and a forest fruit dessert, all prepared with a finesse that rivals that of doubly-priced restaurants in Paris.
As for lodging on Oleron: I lucked out by finding, for my first night, the best deal on the island: a newly started bed and breakfast (Le Clos du Pré), run by two warm-hearted transplanted Parisians who have turned their parents' former retirement cottage into a charming home, originally decorated with fake stucco white-stone walls, raised wooden beams, and knickknacks ranging from hanging rope anchors and throw pillows with hearts.
Both husband and wife are eager to help with any needs, including – if you get stuck later on your travels – picking you and your bike up and "bringing you back home." The eggs for breakfast are served in wire "roosters" with red feathers; the delicious kiwi and pineapple jams are made by the Madame herself. The home is filled with lovely touches, including a heated bathrobe.
But the highlight: the heated pool in the garden, under a glass awning, and the Jacuzzi in the wooden cabin adjoining. All this for €80 euros, including the three-course breakfast: a price that is low, I will add, for this island, where a room in an average 2-star hotel starts at €85, with breakfast €10 extra.
Continuing onward, I decided to cycle the entire island from east to west, starting on the "route of oysters" from Chateau. This "oyster route" is occasionally a bike path, but even when it is not, it is relatively car-free, and you see the water – flat and calm – to the right. The excitement is reaching the mid-point on the eastern shore, Boyardville, where the 'proper' east-coast bike paths begin, cutting through a sizeable forest.
Warning: these forest paths are not marked. I lost my way at every turn. A loveable surfer-bar-man, at one point in the forest, told me I was hardly the first tourist to stop in to beg for help.
"Oh no," he laughed. "It's France. We never mark anything!"
Once out of the woods, a surprise of a lovely bike path along the north-east coast awaits, all the way to Saint Denis. It runs along the coastal road, between the grass and the sandy beach, and is relatively deserted (at least in low season). Even when it ends, the biking continues to be a pleasure because of the pretty lanes that lead to Saint Denis – and then to the lighthouse, on the farthest-most tip.
My favourite moment of the trip was reaching that lighthouse, which faces my own country, the USA. Here, the one hotel, surrounded by marshes and sea, has a Norman Bates isolated charm (I was the only guest), with a run-down cabin look and fake velvet curtains, and mattresses that vary in quality from room to room (I checked them all).
The day I arrived, in mid-April, this hotel, Les Dauphins had just opened after the winter, and the restaurant was closed, with no life form in sight besides birds. So that evening I biked to the local town, Saint Denis, for dinner. Guess ? Oysters! Then cycling back, in total darkness, along the deserted roads, I got lost in the marshes but then followed – what luck – the sweeping light of the lighthouse.
From the lighthouse, you can set off the next morning and take a beautiful bike route down the western coast, for at least 15km, passing the beaches of Les Huttes and the evocative quiet village of Domino. Eventually though, around Les Sables Vignier, you must take a road. Just make sure to angle off that not so pleasant road, whenever you can, so as to enjoy cycling through the pretty villages.
Note that the bike maps the tourist agency gives you are just a tad above terrible. None of the small roads are named, so unless you have GPS or good intuition, you will find yourself stuck on that trafficked road, all the way from La Cotiniere, mid-coast, down to Saint-Trojan-les-Bains on the southern tip. Dare to detour off this road. About 7km after Grand Village Plage, I saw a dirt path going into the Saint Trojan forest, and swung a right, even though a local hotel owner had advised me that it was impossible and highly unrecommended to bike along the paths in this southern forest. "It's only for horse riders," she told me. "Terrible conditions for bikes."
Suspecting she might just not want those bikers on those paths (her husband happened to be an equestrian), I entered the forest anyway.
These turned out to be the best paths on the entire island. The dirt is hard and flat, perfect for even a thin-wheeled bike, and the nature is free of all human habitation, not even a sign post, at least for a few kilometres. I cycled past swamps and vines, and eventually made it to the southern coast, where a Thalasso spa rises high among the trees. Now in case you are compelled by the hot sea water pool and sauna to splurge on a room there, do know that for €18 you can have a day pass to the very same premises.
A final highlight: my last leg from the Thalasso spa back to Chateau, this time using my GPS on my cellphone. I crisscrossed on dirt paths through watery marshes and canals, amazed by the power of Google Maps, and found myself eventually back in the neighbourhood of Gaconniere, at the wonderful bed and breakfast where I first stayed.
Sunny and full of quirky angles, the island is recommended for cyclists who can figure out how to find these off-the-track paths, and enjoy the occasional stretches of virgin forest. The beaches, especially on the west coast, are majestic, with stretches of reeds and sweet-smelling mimosas and sand. And the people – many transplanted urbanites among them – are laid-back and friendly as well.
Incidentally, the oysters are excellent.
From Bourcefrancs-le-Chapus to Royan back to La Rochelle
My bike ride leaving Oleron to go down south was exhilarating – once I got off the bridge. The winds were so powerful that I could not even bike it, but found myself pushed to the railing as I walked, or rather tugged, my bicycle along. It took an hour of gritting my teeth to cross it.
Wanting nothing more than to get off the trafficked road once off the bridge, I hopped a fence, with my bike, to find myself in a parking lot, where I had to hop another fence to get to a smaller road. Efforts well compensated. Very soon, I found myself biking through quiet neighbourhoods, with not too much wind resistance, towards the marshy zigzagging route that leads to Les Palmyres.
It is a beautiful ride, especially once one gets to the forest: 20km of a bike path that takes one through a pine-scented flat landscape, with ever so often a glimpse of the ocean. I recommend taking the marked bike route, rather than the detour I took through horse paths, which were sandy and unbikeable, but deeply peaceful, with leaves and birds.
Once in the Palmyres – which is a disappointingly touristic town featuring just a sprinkling of bland hotels, vacation mega spas and restaurants – I biked on along the coast to Saint Palais-sur-Mer, where I found a gorgeous 17th century wine-chateau-cum-hotel (Domaine de Saint Palais), with just 15 rooms looking out on a sunny courtyard for the same price as a 2-star hotel in Royan. From here, I took the cheerful route along the coast to Royan, some of which was a bike path next to the sea (if one skirts towards it).
From Royan, I took a train back north, to Chatellaillon.
The bike route Chatelaillon to La Rochelle turned out to be the most spectacular bike route of my journey. While Chatelaillon is nothing much to speak of, one quickly finds a bike route running parallel to the train tracks, which closer to La Rochelle, becomes a wondrous stone path right next to the sea. The city of La Rochelle is magnificent: medieval towers rise over the port, and a breathtaking range of white houses and cobbled streets zigzag through the interior. The aquarium of La Rochelle is also most recommended.
My favourite: the old and new ports. I stayed in a sailboat this last night of the trip, for just €60 (owned by a wonderful woman, Martine, whom I found through Airbnb), resting from the biking while floating in a rocking berth. Staying in this sailboat and cycling to town for dinner was a magnificent way to end a trip. The sailboats light up in the water, with their white sleek sides, and one bathes in the sunlight and the lapping silence. And I loved the one euro hot shower in the "capitainerie".
Karin Luisa Badt is a professor of cinema and theater at the Universite de Paris VIII, and a regular lecturer at New York University. She is also the author of a series of children's books and plays. She is a regular blogger on the Huffington Post, where you can read more from her.
More information on Île d'Oléron
Île d'Oléron tourism website (with a not-particularly-helpful cyclin section)
See also our article on La Vélodyssée, the Atlantic Coast bike path that provides coastal access to La Rochelle and surrounds.