Pedal your way gently around this island pearl, delightfully plonked in mid-ocean with a bygone ambience – and gorgeous beaches.
Time seems to have stood still on the picturesque island known as the Île d’ Yeu , 23km2 of pure bliss that lie less than an hour off the coast to the west of St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie.
Few cars travel the gorse-lined lanes, and the island’s houses, often topped with pretty weather vanes and shuttered in gentle colours, seem bleached by the thousands of hours of sunshine that beat down on them.
Bicycle is king along the quays of the island’s capital, Port-Joinville, though challenged by Renault 4s and Citröen 2CVs, cars of yesteryear that dare to push gently through the hordes of bronzed, bicycled summer residents towing shopping trailers behind their two-wheeled transport. In Rue de la République, the narrow shopping street just one block back from the seafront, even bikes are frowned on, and pedestrians have it to themselves. In July and August, the market takes place daily.
The northeast side of the island is full of sheltered, sandy beaches for swimming and picnicking. On weekdays off-season, take your pick and you may have the sands to yourself.
More dramatic features will be found on the wild, rocky south coast: the 40m-high Grand Phare, or lighthouse, built in the 1950s; the caves on the Sables Rouis beach; the ruins of a feudal fortress (the Vieux Château); the pretty fishing harbour of Port de la Meule overlooked by the tiny, whitewashed chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bonne-Nouvelle, to the east; a Toytown-sized harbour on the western edge of the sandy Plage des Vieilles; and, in the village of St-Sauveur at the centre of the island, an attractive Romanesque church – one of the oldest in the Vendée – founded in the 6th century by St Martin of Tours.
Among several Neolithic monuments is an enormous, rat-shaped stone, the pierre tremblante, balanced above a cliff to the east of Port de la Meule, which will move if pressed firmly in a particular spot.
In 1945, the 90-year-old Marshal Pétain, who headed France’s pro-German Vichy government during World War II, was incarcerated in the gloomy Pierre-Levée fort after his death sentence for treason was commuted to life imprisonment. He died six years later, and is buried in the island’s cemetery.
Yes, there are points of interest here to fill your days, but the perfect experience on this island pearl is to grab a bike and pedal gently, your nostrils filling with floral scents, then pine, perhaps a hint of wood-smoke, then flowers yet again. If you can linger longer than a day, the island will grab hold of you, massaging you into a slower pace of life, one that is all too rare, all too necessary.
At Ascension, in even-numbered years, the island holds a flower festival, while in odd-numbered years there is a festival of the sea. If you’re looking for culinary specialities, try the tuna, the patagos/palourdes (clams) served with cream sauce, morgates (squid), tarte aux pruneaux (prune tart) or Min-Min (prune-and-butter sweets).