ILE DE RE, France — So you've been around in 80 ways and are thinking about new destinations. Think France. Think France's Atlantic Coastline. Think "The French 8."
If you pay a call on France's unknown eight islands, all mere tiny dots on the map, clinging to the Atlantic-kissed west coast from Brittany (Bretagne) all the way down to the Vendee region, you'll be rolling sevens.
The names of "The French 8" may be known to France's kiddies from geography class, but who else in Europe can rattle off these unusual islands--Ile de Re, Ile d'Yeu, Ile de Groix, Belle-Ile-en-Mer, Noirmoutier, Oleron, Ile d'Aix and Quessant?
Because some of them are warmed by the Gulf Stream, their climate is a bit milder than that of mainland France. The spits of land are all summer resorts that offer small, isolated beaches where few foreign tourists darken the horizon. And where more often than not, considering the super-skimpy bikinis, the beaches reach "epidermic" proportions. Yes, France's isles have charms that are natural ones.
Besides sheltered beaches, all of the isles have majestic rock formations, thrilling sea vistas, ample lodging and restaurant facilities--and many can boast of intriguing historic backgrounds.
The Island of Quessant, for instance--which has the distinction of being the nearest parcel of French soil to the United States--was the setting for a battle between the British and French navies during the American Revolution. The English claimed the island as theirs and renamed it Ushant, but the French fleet won and drove John Bull's sailors off for good.
The neighboring island, Belle-Ile-en-Mer, has a splendiferous villa that actress Sarah Bernhardt used to live in. It has many points of interest, not excluding grottoes and impressive rock anatomy that dangle invitations at your camera.
Its capital village is Le Palais, a fishing port with awesome fortifications from the past. Belle-Ile-en-Mer is noted among the French for its exquisite seafood, one of the few places in Europe where you can get lobster only minutes out of the sea.
With a charming lighthouse at its rocky northern end, Ile de Groix stands guard over a calm stretch of water that makes for good fishing, sailing and swimming.
Best Secluded Beaches
Noirmoutier, connected to the mainland by a toll bridge, probably has the best lineup of secluded beaches of all the islands, with some serene inns that provide rooms and full board. Covered with salt marshes, it is heavily wooded.
Ile d'Yeu has innumerable excellent beaches and enticing beach hotels. A 14th-Century castle stands on an isolated rock that is connected to the island with a footbridge. This island allows automobiles that can make the crossing on ferryboats.
The Island of Oleron, with some of the best swimming places in Europe, also accepts autos. The largest of "The French 8" (18 miles long and three miles across at its widest), it is dotted with narrow-street small towns, comfy inns and iodized beaches that are backed by pine woods.
Right next to Oleron is Ile d'Aix, the smallest of the Atlantic islands (about 1 1/2 miles long and 657 yards wide) but by no means the least in historic interest. It was from this island that Napoleon boarded the boat that took him to St. Helena to which he had been exiled.
Napoleonic relics abound, especially at the local museum. Although tiny Ile d'Aix does not have much in the way of lodging (don't plan to stay overnight unless you have bookings), the island can be thoroughly explored and enjoyed in a half-day.
White, Sandy Beaches
Of the eight, my favorite is Ile de Re, which has been dubbed the "White Island" because all its beaches are that color, as are many of its rock clusters. Rife with fishing villages, Ile de Re has fragrant pine woods, many camping sites, horseback riding trails and vast sea-salt flats (the island ships its treasured sea salt all over France).
Endowed with an exceptional amount of sunshine, Ile de Re grows a delectable asparagus that is fertilized with seaweed. The island's vineyards also use seaweed to fertilize, which gives the wines a lingering flavor found in no other wines.
Its main city, St. Martin-de-Re, was a fortress town and served as the showdown battle site between the French and English in 1625. Today the star-shaped fort serves as a penitentiary and keeps a spectacular naval museum.
Another museum that should not be missed is at St. Clement des Baleines, the Arche de Noe (Ark of Noah). It features a pirate's cave, an enchanted forest, a collection of 5,000 exotic insects, a naturama of the world, a display of extinct animals and 70 undersea places that Jules Verne's Capt. Nemo visited in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." About a dozen scenes from "The Longest Day" were filmed on the Ile de Re.
Oddly enough, there are no travel brochures for "The French 8"--but if there were, they could promise a lot of things because they are eye-lands unto themselves and relaxing re-treats.