I recently spent time traveling in France. We visited late August into early September—right as school started back in both the states as well as in Europe—and it was a perfect time with great weather and minimal crowds. We spent several days each in Île de Ré, Bordeaux, and Paris. I’m going to focus on Île de Ré and Bordeaux in this post, and then will follow up with a second post focused on Paris. I’ll detail out what we loved in each area of our trip!
Île de Ré
Our first stop was in Île de Ré, which is an island just across the water from La Rochelle on the western coast of France. Fast trains link from Paris to La Rochelle in just 3 hours, which is how we got there, after taking an overnight flight to Paris. From the train station, you can take a taxi across the bridge onto the island. I read somewhere that Île de Ré is the “Hamptons of Paris” and I can definitely see why. We saw lovely villages, beautiful beaches, the freshest (and cheapest!) seafood, and did lots of biking. It’s a small area, very laid back — French seaside chic at its best.
The island is very flat and there is a large network of excellent cycle paths so biking is the way to get around by day. Every village has rental shops where you can find beach cruisers or electric bikes. All of the villages are connected by bike lanes, as are almost all of the beaches.
We spent most of our time in two villages:
The largest area on the island is St-Martin-de-Ré, which is a fortified area with cafés, restaurants, shopping and a pretty harbor. Many of the buildings date from the 17th-18th centuries and make up a gorgeous landscape of white exteriors, terra cotta rooflines, and “Île de Ré” green shutters.
We also spent time in La Flotte. There is a café-lined harbor, a pretty beach, and a fabulous food market alongside many local shops.
In both spots, we biked and shopped the amazing indoor and outdoor markets in the mornings. Al fresco lunches would follow with fresh food and wine, people-watching, and taking in the scenes. In the afternoons we’d get in some sun and relax time, as the French do! Nights were gorgeous, simple beachside spots with the freshest seafood you could possibly imagine. It was the perfect way to kick off our trip, relax, and get over our jetlag. We spent 3 nights in Île de Ré which I thought was the perfect amount of time.
The second leg of our trip was in Bordeaux. We rented a car and drove in from Île de Ré. We were happy to have the car and I would recommend it if you are spending a few days in the area.
The City of Bordeaux
We had some extra time on our drive and stopped in the city of Bordeaux on our way out to wine country. It was a sleeper hit of the trip for all of us. The area is famous for wine, but Bordeaux city itself is vast and sprawling and filled with historical gems. After googling “what to do in the city of Bordeaux” and getting an overwhelming number of immediate suggestions, we decided to enlist the help of a guide who agreed to meet us on a last-minute notice. We walked around the city and visited some the most beautiful buildings—the ancient Cathedral Saint Andre, The Place de la Bourse, and the Grand Théâtre in Bordeaux’s Place de la Comédie were standouts, in between plenty of gorgeous storefronts and cobbled streets. We did not have time to visit the brand new wine museum, the Cité du Vin, but I have heard amazing things. We drove past and admired its modern architecture on our way out of town.
Bordeaux Wine Country
I hadn’t ever visited the vineyards of Bordeaux before, and it the part of our trip I was looking forward to most! The area was so beautiful, and far exceeded my expectations. I was anticipating something a bit more commercialized like Napa Valley, but with larger châteaux. Instead, it surprised me how quiet and understated the area was. Don’t get me wrong, the châteaux were stunning and so rich with history. But, the appellations were just so simple – one little town square after another. Uncrowded roads lined with open vineyards connected each municipality. At night the sky was pitch black and full of stars. The simplicity contrasted with the fact that this region produces the most powerful and complex wines in the world. As well, when you piece together all the small areas it totals about 7,000 châteaux spanning some 300,000 acres! Bordeaux produces more merlot and cabernet sauvignon than anywhere else on the planet.
We decided to stay at Château Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac, which is in the heart of the Médoc. A few people had recommended we stay in the City of Bordeaux, which is a good hour-plus drive from the vineyards. We were so glad we decided to stay in the heart of the appelations instead. It made for such a peaceful stay, and it was really lovely to not have that drive at the end of a long day of wine tasting. I would highly recommend our hotel—it is a Relais & Chateaux property and was gorgeous and well-appointed with impeccable service.
We spent three nights with two full days of wine tasting while in Bordeaux. Below is a breakdown of where we visited and loved:
Left Bank – Pauillac, St. Estephe and St. Julien
We started out on the left bank, known for its gravelly soils and graphite-driven red wines with a dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. The most prestigious sub-regions in the Médoc include Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Saint–Estephe, Margaux and Pessac-Leognan (the areas first classified in 1855). The wines from Médoc are some of the boldest and most tannic of Bordeaux, perfect for aging.
Wineries we visited
Restaurants we loved
La Cambuse – lunch
La Maison d’Estournel – dinner
Le Saint Julien – dinner
Right Bank – St. Emilion
We took a day trip to St. Emilion and enlisted the services of a driver from Atlas Travel, which I’d highly recommend. This area in Bordeaux is known for its red clay soils that produce bold plummy red wines with a dominance of Merlot. The most well-known and sought after sub-regions including Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. The wines from this area are still moderately bold, but generally have softer, more refined tannins. For this reason, right bank wines are a great way to get introduced to the region.
Saint-Emilion itself is a charming medieval village located in the heart of the famous wine area. For many decades this picturesque town has been an economic and religious center attracting royals, winegrowers and pilgrims. Every square in the small village center is packed with history and some incredible architecture. Thousands of hectares of vines surround the medieval village making the landscape an unforgettable scenery. It is worth a stop in the village itself – we took a break over lunch and spent a couple of hours walking around and exploring.
Wineries we visited
Restaurants we loved
L’Envers du Décor – lunch
We had an amazing time in both Île de Ré and Bordeaux. Stay tuned for a recap of Paris, next.