On the Road With… is a series that chronicles the adventures of the wine and travel experts on Team McCue. Today, Account Assistant Sophia Flores-Istin shares highlights from her recent trip through the city of La Rochelle and its surrounding region in western France.
We all have different ways we like to travel. I used to think of the term “staycation” as a way to describe my favorite form of travel, because every time I got the opportunity to take a plane across the world, all I wanted to do was stay there (I soon learned that “staycation means something entirely different). In any case, I was lucky enough to have a go at living abroad after college, when I moved to France and stayed put for a couple years.
Though I lived in Paris, a hub for international travelers and jet-setters, I found myself frequently visiting the same places, content to park my suitcase in any quaint or historic town and just live among the locals. One of these places was the beautiful city of La Rochelle, capital of France’s coastal region of Charentes-Maritime, about a 3-hour train ride from Paris. Many Parisians make this trip to the coast and the islands surrounding this gorgeous city on their summer holidays, along with British tourists, expats and other visitors. But this city is not a tourist trap. It has a captivating history and rich local culture that, to a Californian like myself, are absolutely spellbinding.
This region is also where my husband hails from, giving us all the more reason to return frequently and visit family. Having spent so much time in and around La Rochelle, it would be impossible for me to cover all that this region has to offer. So I’ve chosen just a few highlights and photos from my most recent stay there this past June.
Le Vieux Port and Les Trois Tours de La Rochelle
Each time I get to visit La Rochelle, I make sure to take a day just to walk around the central district of the Old Port and its iconic towers that frame the harbor looking out towards the ocean. This port and its towers date back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and are still in use today, both as a museum and living harbor. On our last trip, my husband, his family and I climbed the windy stone staircases inside the Saint Nicolas tower to arrive at the top, where we stumbled upon a breathtaking 360º view of the port, the ocean and the heart of the old city. When you climb the tower, you can opt for the guided audio tour or just explore these historic monuments sans commentary. I was surprised to find so many enclaves, winding staircases and ocean views inside. In hindsight, this makes sense, as these towers served as a military defense lookout, a lighthouse, even a prison!
Île de Ré and its capital of Saint-Martin-de-Ré
As a new-worlder, my fascination always tends toward the history of a place, but it seems the many Parisians and other European visitors to this region are more drawn to the beautiful islands and beaches surrounding the city. Every visit to La Rochelle merits at least a quick jaunt over to its adjacent island of Île de Ré, which has been made simple with the construction of a long bridge connecting the two. Though this means that this island does have car traffic, unlike some smaller, pedestrian islands in the area, Île de Ré has become a destination in and of itself, dotted with quaint villages, spectacular beaches for swimming, sailing, and all other kinds of summer activities. The island’s towns have a cohesive look and feel, thanks to a signature style of the local homes: white houses with tiled roofs, painted shutters lining the windows and colorful roses tremières, or “hollyhocks”, sprouting from the cobblestone and climbing up the walls. I recommend taking at least a day to explore this fantastic place, by foot or by bike. My husband and I enjoyed perusing the local shops on our last visit, and we picked up some of the region’s local specialty items, like the island’s fleur de sel. If you stop by the harbor at Saint-Martin-Île-de-Ré for lunch, you can live like a local and enjoy a laid-back crèpe on a restaurant terrace by the sea, soaking in the sunny weather that this region is known for.
Photo credit: Katharina Istin
Visiting downtown and Shopping in Les Arcades
In line with my slow-pace approach to traveling, one of my favorite things to do in La Rochelle is just explore its city center, browsing through local shops, restaurants, brasseries and other monuments in this part of the city. This city has enjoyed a long history as a center of booming maritime trade, linked to its unique geography and fascinating history as an independent and once protestant city. Beautiful stone archways that once sheltered local merchants from the elements in this booming trade center still shade local shoppers as they wander through the large shopping district that has everything from local to national brands. La Rochelle’s coastal location puts fresh seafood particularly oysters (les huîtres) and mussels (les moules) at the top of the list of my recommendations of must-try local cuisine. On our last trip, my husband and I stopped by La Boussole restaurant for a late meal on the streetside terrace. This small restaurant gives an exotic fusion twist to some traditional dishes, which we really enjoyed. For those looking for more classic examples of regional specialties, La Rochelle has a large selection of highly-rated restaurants and even one Michelin-starred establishment.
Photo credit: Katharina Istin
Château de Buzay and other sights and activities around La Rochelle
While I could spend my vacation frequenting local spots and blending into the Rochelais lifestyle, I have made it a point to visit some of the many tourist sights and visitor activities that the area has to offer. The beautiful, eighteenth-century Château de Buzay is just one example of a possible daytime excursion, with guided tours held during certain months of the year. La Rochelle also has an impressive aquarium, L’Aquarium La Rochelle, which is worth the visit, showcasing over 12,0000 marine creatures during a two-hour visit with an optional audio guide. Ultimately though, our stays in La Rochelle will always center around outdoor activities largely available to this coastal region. Sailing, boating, kayaking, surfing, swimming, sunbathing or any combination of these activities are always part of the program when we visit the region during the sunny season.
Francofolies Summer Music Festival
An important side-note for festival-goers and music lovers: La Rochelle is home to one of France’s best outdoor music festivals, highlighting and promoting emerging artists on the French and francophone music scene.
Our last visit to La Rochelle was much too short (isn’t it always?), but even after a brief visit, I couldn’t help but feel grateful to have an excuse to keep coming back to this stunning region.