Catching my breath atop a crumbling, 600-year-old church, I look down to see whitewashed fishing villages peppered with terracotta roofs sprawled out beneath me. In the distance is a prison that the locals compare to Alcatraz – at odds with the quaint and cobbled streets of Île de Ré.
The Église de St Martin offers 360-degree views of the island, and squinting under the June sun, it’s a relief to have reached the peak of its tower after what felt like a slightly perilous climb up its ancient, winding stone steps (especially after a pastry-laden breakfast).
Île de Ré is the idyllic setting for The Time of Their Lives, a film starring Joan and Pauline Collins that sees the pair swap the banality of British retirement for a jolly on the French island. Just west of La Rochelle and its glorious Côte Sauvage, Île de Ré is reached by a dramatically arching two-mile bridge. Joan and Pauline pootle across this bridge in their blue vintage Citroen 2CV – a car as common in Île de Ré as an Uber Toyota Prius in London.
The island boasts vast golden beaches and more than 60 miles of cycle tracks. It undoubtedly fulfils its reputation as a cyclist’s paradise: all sorts can be seen trundling along on wheels, from recumbent bikes and tandems to panting dogs in trailers and fresh loaves in baskets. I would like to say that in the film Joan and Pauline share a tandem… alas Joan stays firmly in the Citroen.
Saint Martin de Ré, the “capital” of the island, is encased by a very impressive 17th century wall and surrounded by what would once have been a water-filled moat but is now lush grass verges. In its centre, Hotel La Maison Douce – a play on the French for “home sweet home” – lives up its name and is a great place to stay. There’s an inner courtyard garden and the 14 rooms are in converted cottages resplendent with free-standing bath tubs and ethereal mosquito nets. My chambre prestige starts at €125 a night.
Just a few minutes’ walk away is the aforementioned église and an array of chic boutiques and seafood haunts on the harbour. Wild flowers and teal shutters decorate the houses. A lively place to eat and drink is Le Bistrot du Marin, which serves the best pork terrine du chef I’ve ever had the pleasure of wolfing down. Every islander I meet is wonderfully welcoming and has an excellent (and therefore distinctly un-Parisian) sense of humour. The staff at this restaurant are no exception.
Once you venture outside Saint Martin, Le Bois Plage en Ré is just a short bike ride away. It has a vast beach backed by dunes and a pinewood forest, plus an inexpensive, unpretentious little market and beach bar.
La Couarde sur Mer is also a delight, with a retro merry-go-round and a truly life-affirming pistachio ice cream. Or you could go for salted caramel flavour, made from the famous fleur de sel cultivated in the island’s salt marshes.
Past the marshes and right across to Île de Ré’s most westerly point sits the island’s lighthouse. The Phare des Baleines is named after whales that have washed up on its shore in the past.
While I’m standing at the top of its 57-metre-high tower, admiring the far-reaching views of the Atlantic, two spitfires come roaring past at eye level. Witnessing this is an invigorating, unforgettable experience – much like island life itself.
The Time of Their Lives is on digital download from 17 July and on DVD from 31 July