Charente-Maritime Geography and Natural Beauty

Sandy beach on Ile d Oleron, Charente Maritime, France

The Islands of Re, Oleron and Aix

Charente-Maritime’s off-shore islands have a great climate and fresh clean air making them ideal for outdoor activities such as horse riding, walking, watersports and bird-watching.

Exclusive and beautiful, Ile de Re is accessible via a 3km toll bridge from La Rochelle and makes a great venue for a day trip. Discover this epitome of traditional, laid-back France, with pretty villages of green shuttered white cottages, yacht-filled harbours and long beaches of fine sand.

Watch flat-bottomed oyster boats set out from St Martin’s harbour. Rent bikes and enjoy 90km of cycle paths winding their way through pine forests, vineyards, nature reserves and salt marshes. Enjoy daily markets and summer festivals of music and the sea. It’s also a great spot for watersports – you could try your hand at kayaking or hire a catamaran or jet ski.

With vineyards and marshes, the larger island of Oleron is more wooded than Re and the mainland bridge is free. Explore the Foret des Saumonards in the north and walk or cycle along pinewood paths behind sand dunes from where you have great views of the oyster beds (this is one of Europe’s biggest producers of oysters) and the offshore Napoleonic Fort Boyard, used as a nineteenth century rock prison. Fine sandy beaches make Oleron ideal for families, with plenty of opportunities for swimming and watersports. Take the guided tourist train around the citadel in the main town of Le Chateau, visit folk and costume museums and the nature reserve and bird sanctuary at Dolus-d’Oleron.

There’s so much for the visitor to enjoy here, from the mimosa which blooms from January to March in the mild climate, the many daily markets, summer festivals and special events, to the World Offshore Jet-ski Championship in June.

Heavily fortified during wars with the English and only 3km long, Ile d’Aix  is the smallest of the islands accessed by Inter-Iles ferry from La Rochelle or the Fouras-Aix vessel. A quiet place to explore on foot or by bicycle. No cars are allowed but there are carriage rides around the island. See Fort Liedot used as a prison in WWI and the museum of Napoleonic memorabilia in the house were the Emperor stayed before surrendering to the British ship Bellerphon in 1815. The whole island is a bird sanctuary and there are guided tours concerning oyster farming and salt production. Off-shore lies the strategically positioned Fort Boyard dating from the Napoleonic era. For a close-up view, take an Inter-Iles boat trip from La Rochelle.

Marais Poitevin

In total, the Marais Poitevin covers 100,000 hectares stretching 70km from Niort west to the Atlantic and includes areas of dry and maritime marshland as well as wetland areas. Now a French Regional Natural Park, the shady meadows and waterways, built originally by eleventh century monks around the Sevres Niortaise, is known officially as the Marais Poitevin, but referred to locally as ‘La Venise Verte’ – Green Venice - because of its system of canals, dykes and slow flowing rivers amongst green pastures and poplar trees.

Traditionally, farmers would travel between fields in flat bottomed punts, sometimes carrying livestock. Holidaymakers can explore this natural paradise by punt. Take a guide to point out wildlife from eels to egrets and visit Les Oiseaux de Marais Poitevin at St Hilaire-la-Palud.

This 7 hectare sanctuary of untamed marshland is home to over 70 species of birds and specific wetland vegetation (open end March to beginning November). Hire a punt with or without a guide - there are various embarkation points throughout the area, one of the largest being at Coulon. Cycle via miles of well marked trails, stopping at pretty marsh villages such as Arcais or Le Vanneau, which hosts a traditional floating market in summer. Find information on the customs and traditions of marsh life, such as poitevin weddings and evening markets, at the visitor centre in Coulon - Maison des Marais Mouilles.

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