Sun and sand are the big draw of the Charente Maritime département within the Poitou-Charentes region of France for seaside-loving families like ours. But its seemingly endless kilometres of mainland beaches are supplemented by something we love even more: four delightful, child-friendly islands just off the coastline.
Oléron, Ré, Aix and Madame are all imbued with a wild yet quaint authenticity, and as soon as we step onto their shores we feel leagues from mainland civilization. Oléron, the biggest, has eight little towns, while Ré, next down, is great for cycling days out. Kids love getting to both via their bridges, stretching nearly 3km. Then there’s Aix, accessible only by boat, and tiny Madame, less than 1km long.
We’ve spent a whole holiday on Oléron, lazing on the beaches, visiting the pretty ports, exploring the heritage sites, and learning about local oyster-farming. A big favourite has to be the St Trojan train, while older kids can practise a range of watersports, from surfing to scuba diving, plus horse-riding and treetop adventures. It’s also fun to take a boat trip to the famous Fort Boyard just off Oléron's coast.
Ré, at 25km long, is smaller, and you have to pay €16.50 return to cross its bridge, although most families quickly ditch their car to explore the island by bike, along peaceful cycle tracks taking you through vines and salt marshes to beaches that you can’t get to by road. Ré’s beaches are kiddie-heaven, from the long, sandy beaches with gentle waves on the eastern side through the pebbly beaches with their rockpools, to the wild surfers' paradises on the western side. But are other things to do on Ré: our two kids have discovered how salt is gathered, learnt about seashore life and taken part in environmental activities. You can also climb a lighthouse and visit a tropical jungle park.
We’ve found Aix and Madame, far wilder, great for day-trips. Aix, a 20-minute boat ride from Fouras on the mainland, is just 3km long, meaning you can walk or cycle around it in a day (cars are banned so there’s no need to worry about traffic). We’ve hired bicycles there, including kids’ bikes and baby seats, because you can't take your own on the boat. The island’s five beaches are both sandy and rocky, there’s a big shady forest in which lurks a fort, plus three small museums.
My own favourite, Madame, can only be visited at low tide, by walking along an 800m tombolo strewn with crabs. Kids love the sensation of getting temporarily stranded as you arrive with one low tide and leave with the next (make sure to study out the crossing times on the leaflet available in local tourist offices). There are no shops, so you have to take a picnic, or book at the ‘aquaculture’ farm serving seafood meals.
Although we only live an hour from the coast, we always feel as if we've travelled to a different country when we spend time on the islands. Just one word of warning – they all get horribly busy in the French holiday month of August, so try to visit when things are quieter. The free bridge to Oléron, in particular, has terrible traffic jams in summertime.