While Ile de Rés house prices reflect its film-star status, neighbouring islands offer more for your money, says Helena Frith Powell of The Sunday Times
When the English move to get away from it all they go to France. When the French want to do the same thing they go to the Ile de Ré. The Ile de Ré is one of three islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the French coast close to La Rochelle. The other two are the Ile d’Aix and the Ile d’Oléron. Of the three, the Ile de Ré attracts the most attention and the highest property prices, with good reason.
It is one of the most unspoilt coastal resorts in France, partly because the local authorities have imposed strict laws on building permission and renovation projects in the 10 villages lining the 44 miles of its coastline.
Building a house on the Ile de Ré is not easy or cheap, but the property market is thriving. Brits are joining well-heeled Parisians in looking not only at holiday homes but also at plots on the island as an investment.
“We are considering buying a small plot of land which we may or may not build on,” says Delphine Edelman, who lives with her husband, Douglas, in London. “There is a limited amount of space to build on the island, so I think any plot is a good investment.”
The plot the Edelmans are looking at is right behind the dunes in Couarde-sur-Mer, one of the most popular villages on the Ile de Ré. It is just 1,000sq m (10,800sq ft) and has been valued at €610,000 (£420,000).
“It’s a lot of money,” says Delphine, “but the Ile de Ré is chic, yet low-key. You do not get the vulgar crowds of Saint Tropez, which, I guess, is why the island has always been a favourite among the Parisian elite.”
It is not just Parisians who are drawn to Ré. Rumour has it one of the latest buyers there is Johnny Depp. Other famous visitors and residents include Emmanuelle Béart, Lionel Jospin, the former prime minister, Gérard Depardieu and just about any other French celebrity you’ve never heard of.
Property prices these days can be higher than on the Riviera, though they depend on the usual factors: sea view, condition, size and so on. Most important, though, is location. For the Ile de Ré is riddled with snobbery and Parisian pettiness.
“Prices vary hugely depending on where you buy,” says Langton Highton, one of a handful of Brits living on the island. “The three smartest villages are St-Martin de Ré, La Flotte and Couarde-sur-Mer. Then of course you have Les Portes-en-Ré, which is where all the rich and famous go.”
Highton, originally from the Lake District, and his French wife, Colette, built a house in the village of Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré two years ago. They paid £125,000 for a 2,000sq m plot. Building the four-bedroom, 200sq m house cost them another £180,000. But they had a tussle with the authorities before they got permission to build.
“The French archeological association found remains of some neolithic people on our plot, but luckily they weren’t significant enough to stop us getting permission,” says Highton.
They spend most of the year on the island but escape to their house in the Lake District during the summer rush. “We love it here. It has more sunshine than anywhere in Europe outside the Riviera and, for most of the year, a population of just 18,000.”
In July and August this can rise to 250,000. Another problem, according to one English resident who prefers not to be named, is finding anybody to do building work. “Builders don’t want to pay the €9 bridge toll to come and work here;even if they do, getting them to do what you want is impossible,” she says.
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Opinion on the bridge built in 1988 linking Ile de Ré with the mainland is still divided. Some say it has ruined the character of the island by attracting more people and businesses. Others say it was essential for locals to have easy access to the mainland’s hospitals and services.
“What is not in doubt is the effect it has had on property prices,” says Jean-Jacques Massé, who runs the Ré Agence Ouest estate agency. “The owners know that; they are demanding huge prices. If the house has a sea view, no matter how expensive it is, people will fight over it.”
For example, a five-bed house in La Flotte with a large garden and sea view is on sale with Ré Agence Ouest for £1.25m. The Volets Verts agency has a house in need of renovation for sale in the centre of St-Martin-de-Ré for £1.3m. It is a staggering sum to ask for an unremarkable property that looks like it was last lived in before the second world war.
But St-Martin, the island’s biggest village, commands the highest premium. It is one of France’s most beautiful villages, with cobbled streets, elegant stone houses and a quaint port. Now Ryanair flies to La Rochelle, Brits are starting to discover it. “I have guests who tell me it’s as easy to get here for the weekend as it is to get to Norfolk,” says Olivia Mathé, who runs the Hotel de Toiras in St-Martin.
Here, it’s not enough just to find a house for sale, you also have to make sure you buy within the city walls. Buying outside is considered very non-U.
“It’s totally ridiculous,” says Mary Little, who bought a house on the nearby island of Oléron a year ago. “The French have turned the Ile de Ré into another arrondissement of Paris.”
The Ile d’Oléron is a name one does not dare whisper on the Ile de Ré. The Rétais, as locals are called, are totally dismissive of it. “It has nothing to recommend it,” says the anonymous English resident of Ile de Ré. “It is built-up and full of ghastly people. A bungaloid suburban inferno.”
Granted, you are unlikely to run into Johnny Depp on the Ile d’Oléron, but it does have at least one thing to recommend it: a vast Atlantic coast. The Ile de Ré faces west to east, so has a series of benign and pretty beaches. Oléron, which faces north to south, offers the real Atlantic experience. Property prices are also up to 50% less than on the Ile de Ré.
Mary and George Little moved to the island from the Dordogne to get away from other Brits, buying a modern three-bedroom house in Grand Village Plage two years ago for £230,000.
“We particularly liked this village because of the amazing beach,” she says. “There is nothing better than starting the day with a walk along it, watching the Atlantic crash against the shore.”
Philippe Boismorand, who runs the island’s Ouest-Soleil agency, believes it is catching up with Ile de Ré. “Oléron doesn’t have the same snob value as Ré, but things are changing,” he says.
He has a two-bed flat for £85,000 in the centre of Saint-Trojan-les-Bains, which, together with Grand Village Plage, is the main centre of interest for foreign property buyers. “In the Ile de Ré, that would cost you at least 30% more,” he says.
According to Boismorand, a two- to three-bedroom house on the Ile d’Oléron will cost you at least £160,000. “And prices are rising,” he says. “People are beginning to understand the beauty of Oléron, although it will probably always be true that the two islands do not attract the same type of person.”
The Ile d’Aix is the smallest of the three islands and lies between the bigger two. It is 1.8 miles long and 0.43 miles wide and has about 200 permanent residents. Its most famous inhabitant, Napoleon, finally surrendered to the British there on July 13, 1815. No cars are allowed and people cycle or use horse-drawn carts. Some residents of the Ile de Ré say, nostalgically, it is like their island was before the bridge arrived. To get to the island you have to take a boat from Fouras on the mainland, where you leave your car.
“There is no property market,” says Michel Estiot, of the Baguelin estate agency in Fouras. “Places hardly ever come up for sale and if they do, they go, almost always to friends or family members. If you’re interested in property there, the best thing is to contact the mayor.”
So if you are into the jet-set and quaint, whitewashed villages, go for the Ile de Ré. If you want to get stuck into local life, enjoy listening to the Atlantic Ocean crashing against the shore and wouldn’t know Béart if she came up and kissed you, the Ile d’Oléron is for you. If you are prepared to go everywhere on foot or by bike, choose the Ile d’Aix. Whichever one you go for, you’ll need a big budget. Island life is not cheap.
Agence Ouest-Soleil, 00 33 546 761 212, www.ouest-soleil.com; Baguelin, 00 33 546 848 651, www.baguelin-immobilier.com; Volets Verts, 00 33 546 093 154, www.lesvoletsverts.fr; Ré Agence Ouest, 00 33 546 098 819, www.reagence.com/indexhtml.php
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019