“ Country: France / World Region: Europe „
As part of our fab fortnight in France we splashed out for three nights and stayed in the Novotel Thallasso Oleron in Saint Trojan Des Bains, on the Ile d'Oleron, or Oleron according to the locals.
"Oleron? Where's that?" I hear you ask. It's not many people I've talked to who've actually heard of it, so if you have, consider yourself a true Francophile.
Oleron is France's best-kept secret if you ask me. It's a blissful little island off the south west coast of France, south of Ile de Re, an hour and a half from La Rochelle (cheap flight destination) and two hours from Bordeaux( cultural heaven). I say little island but it's actually the second largest island in France next to Corsica.
It's actually about 30kms/18miles long and 6kms/3.6miles wide and is separated from the mainland by the Straits of Antioche and Maumusson- highly dangerous stretches of water- but connected to it by a spectacular bridge, more of which later.
I really didn't know what to expect when I booked, but I'm glad I did and the three days I stayed there left me wanting to return....soon.
Here's my rough guide to this paradise in the Atlantic that you've never heard of and the ten reasons why I'll be going back.
The island is an absolute haven for all beach lovers. Having two distinct halves, the wild west coast (La Cote Sauvage) and the calmer eastern coast, the island is perfect for every kind of energetic water sport you could think of. Think of it and you'll see it. We enjoyed our late afternoons body-boarding and messing about with a wooden skimmer in the shallows, but there were professional types with their kite surfers, Malibu boards and windsurfing kits who were making us feel decidedly envious of their skill and fitness.
The Grande Plage, near St Trojan on the SW of the island, seemed endless and had the best waves on the island when we visited.
On the calmer eastern coast there are sheltered bays, with many a blue flag flying, perfect for families with children where the water is much safer. These beaches are spot-on for sunbathing and just chilling out -something we would definitely do more of next time.
The best part about the beaches was that they were relatively empty in August. Also car parking wasn't a problem and it was free which is unheard of in Britain.
As we queued to get onto the island, and here I mean queued spectacularly - like 2 hours of queueing, we couldn't help wondering why everyone else wanted to come on holiday with us. It wasn't until we arrived at the hotel that we finally understood.
The receptionist told us that while the rest of the south western coast may be having fairly dismal weather, Oleron, with its own micro-climate, tended to have glorious sunshine. In fact it is called the ile lumiere (island of light or Sunshine Island) because of the number of sunshine hours it receives in a year. We had been in Hossegor the previous week and had been thoroughly disappointed with the weather which was set to continue, but Oleron magically brought the sun out for us which we revelled in.
The best part about Oleron is the totally amazing, awe-inspiring sunsets. There's no doubt about it that sitting on a 100ft high sand-dune overlooking the Grande Plage at sunset was the highlight of my summer holiday. Oleron offers perfect sunsets, in spades.
3. A trio of historic buildings
As you drive onto the island, you cross a most spectacular 'pont-viaduc' as the Oleronaise call it, or a bridge to you and me. Hubby, the civil engineer, wanted to stop and take in the technical intricacies of the project, but as we'd been in the car 8 hours since leaving Hossegor I put my foot down and said 'sod off, look at it on the way out!'
It was fantastic though and at night, with it's elegant curving structure lit up, it really is worth a closer look. For the record, he discovered that it's 2 miles long and 10.6m/35ft wide, built of pre stressed concrete and is very minimal in style. It stands on 45 piles, rectangular in section. The central spans are 79m/259ft wide and stand 23m/75ft above the high tide at its highest point, ever. Don't panic, the water cannot reach you! There are two carriageways for cars, two cycle lanes and two pedestrian walkways.
It's a brilliant bridge, as bridges go and since 1966 it's been the only way on and off the island unless you've got a rubber dinghy of course. That way it's just a short distance across a stretch of water amongst the most dangerous in the world. Easy!
The second building is the engineering miracle that is Fort Boyard.
If you ever watched Fort Boyard, with the busty Melinda Messenger, in the 1990s you may have wondered where it was set. I always imagined it to be somewhere in the Caribbean, but no, it's in the Atlantic, just off the eastern coast of Oleron.
It's a very impressive structure, almost like a ship itself. Instigated by Louis XIV, but left unfinished until Napoleon III, the weaponry it was trying to defeat had already advanced so much it was clearly never going to be of any use - other than as a prison. So, the Communards - Jimmy Summerville not included - were incarcerated here. Always a good thing to do with Parisian, or any French, workers who rebel I feel. The French authorities should bear this in mind when there's another French fishermen's blockade!
Although Fort Boyard is closed to the public, you can sail closer to it in high season, leaving from Boyardville. But better still, you can take a half hour helico-peter ride over the famous fortress and see the inside of the prison from above -far better than sailing up to it, but quite expensive. Last summer it was 65 Euros each.
You can read more about Fort Boyard and its history on
The third structure is the lighthouse at Chassiron, (Phare de Chassiron) at the northern tip of the island. This black and white lighthouse dates back to 1836 and has 224 fairly dodgy narrow steps to climb to the top. It's a one way system I'm afraid so it can be very interesting when it's busy. If you're afraid of being stuck at the top of a 46m high lighthouse, or have a fear of narrow, fairly steep steps, give it a miss.
If you are interested in seeing a marvellous panorama of the Ile de Re, the Ile d'Aix, La Rochelle and the rest of Oleron of course, then it's worth every tentative step! It's open 10 am to 8pm in July and August and cost 2 Euros for adults and half price for kids.
4. I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike.....
As the island is almost completely flat, it's absolutely perfect for cycling. We hired bikes from our hotel for the day, and there are other hire shops dotted all over the island and we thoroughly enjoyed our tour of the southern end of Oleron.
There is the most amazing network of cycling tracks on the island that are just begging to be explored. We were astounded at the simplicity of following the signs and routes on the map. Most of the routes are away from roads, but are two way systems passing through acres of pine forest, across farm land, around oyster beds and into towns and villages. We very rarely had to use the roads but where we did they were extremely quiet. Often the routes led us into small villages which made brilliant stopover points for a baguette, a drink or a full blown three course meal. We only had to negotiate one roundabout and even there, the bike lane was clearly marked around it.
Our teenage kids had the best day of the holiday on their bikes and they were quite proud of the distance we'd travelled by the end of our journey, if not a little saddle sore.
5. Food, glorious food....
If you've never tried oysters then Oleron is the place to go for your first experience. Far better than out of a packet from M&S I'd say and even better when it's on the wooden verandah of a tiny oyster hut, sipping a glass of the local Pineau wine (17% proof) - but not such a good idea if you're on your bike tour!!
As well as oysters, langoustine and mussels are a speciality. In the village of St Trojan, we found several eat and drinkeries that sold fantastic food at very reasonable prices and all the kids loved what they had. They even commented that this was the best food they'd had all holiday.
6. The laid back feel of the island
If you are a barefoot beach bum, like me, then this island will definitely appeal to you. I found it remarkably relaxing, as if I'd passed through a time warp and was in 1970s Cornwall. No commercialism, no crowds and no noise. I felt I was in slow motion for the few days I was there.
This truly is a fantastic place to relax. There are no rows of sunbeds on beaches like in major tourist destinations, so it's a take-you-own-stuff-to-the-beach type holiday. You are on the sand on your towel, unless you're posh with a fold up lounger.
The restaurants we visited were also laid back. They weren't rushed off their feet even though it was the most popular week of the summer holidays and therefore they gave you enough time to have a relaxing meal. I could also say they were a little too relaxed, especially in bringing the bill - they perhaps wanted to us stay and drink some more, who knows.
7. I need therapy
The hotel we stayed in has a thalassotherapy centre where you can receive salt water treatments for a variety of different ailments. The spa was full to the brim, so we didn't benefit from any of the treatments that we could have had (at a fairly hefty cost I have to say) but the way people seemed to float out of the therapy-centre in a trancelike state, I'd say their 'treatment' had worked.
We did have access to a salt-water pool, hammam and solarium as well as a gym and very healthy locally produced meals. We didn't go for much of that though as we like our fats!
I'm not sure if you have to be resident to enjoy the treatments, but it would be worth enquiring. More details:
8. Great for learning/practising your French
We found that there was very little fluent English spoken in the places we went so it was fantastic for us and the kids, moreover, to practise their modern foreign languages. I'm quite keen to try out my French but there were some members of the party, namely my posh friend from Edinburgh's husband, who were quite miffed that no-one spoke English. "Bloody French!" he was heard to mutter a few times.
I felt like I had definitely spoken more French during the time on Oleron than during the three days in Bordeaux or the week in Hossegor that had gone before it. All in all it had been an adventure and I loved it!
9. Le Petit Train de St Trojan
This is a miniature railway that takes you 12km from St Trojan to the beach through the fragrant pine forests at the south of the island.
It's something we didn't get to do, but it would have been ideal when the kids were smaller. At the station in St Trojan there's a little buffet where you can enjoy a meal and a drink before or after your journey. You can combine the steam train, a day at the beach, a walk through the forest and a drink back at the station. A really enjoyable day I'd say.
If you have a tent, or want to book a caravan/tent/mobile home type place to stay in then there are lots of places on Oleron for your delight and delectation. There are camp sites that are near to the beach or in the forest. You really can have an Atlantic dream island for a fairly reasonable price if you plan ahead well enough.
The next time I go to Oleron I won't be paying hotel prices, but will be renting a mobile home for a fortnight. In fact I'm googling it as we speak. Well almost, obviously I'm typing just now.
For some more details try out:
There could be an eleventh reason why I'm going back, which would be the number of nudists, sorry naturists, on the island. I never saw any, but apparently they are there. I'd probably see the wrong kind though knowing my luck.
So I've finished my ten reasons and I'm sad to be leaving Oleron again, if only on paper. But not to worry, it won't be long before I catch the first glimpse of the bridge that will take me back to my Atlantic paradise, I'm sure.
And as I leave, I haven't even touched on the small villages on the island or the island's capital, St Pierre d'Oleron. I'll leave them for you to discover when you go and fall in love with this magical place, a place you've never heard of, but somewhere that will capture your heart!
How to find Oleron:
1. Look on a map and drive the route recommended by Google/AA route planner or similar
2. Fly to La Rochelle and hire a car
3. TGV to La Rochelle and hire a car
Car worked for us I have to say but we drove from Hossegor, near Biarritz.
Avoid a long journey onto the island in August on a Saturday. Try to go midweek.
Whenever you go, however you go, have a great time!
An island off the Atlantic coast of France.