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|WHERE'S JOHNNY JET? Ile de Ré, France|
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|Bonjour from a small island off the coast of France! Last week we left off at the Gare Montparnasse in Paris as I was on my way to visit some friends on a beautiful island named Ile de Ré. This week we tour Ile de Ré.
I got to Ile de Ré from Paris by TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, or "high-speed train") to La Rochelle. My first-class Eurail pass cost $914 USD, was valid for 15 days of travel within a two-month period, and allowed me to go to 17 countries (next year it will be 18). I ended up traveling only in France and Ireland, so a Selectpass would have been better (5 days of first-class train travel in 3 countries, to be completed in 2 months for $370 USD). However, Eurail pass holders still need to make reservations to be guaranteed a seat. It’s best to take care of it in advance. From the U.S., Rail Europe (Eurail’s American distributor) offers this service, but charges a premium. The fee varies by route, but it’s seldom more than $15 USD. This particular train would have cost $15 through RailEurope, but because this was a last-minute trip I didn’t make advance seat reservations. So I took my chances. I walked up to the ticket booth, waited in a long, slow line -- and got lucky. Seats were available, probably because I was traveling off-peak. The best part: I saved $10, because the walk-up charge was only $4 USD.
PARIS TO LA ROCHELLE
The train to La Rochelle took just 2:49, traveling up to 186 mph. When I arrived all I knew was I needed to get a bus to a place called Les Portes, on the tip of Ile de Ré. In other words, I arrived clueless because my buddy Andy (who I was visiting) hadn’t told me which bus I needed. He was in a hurry when I called, and all he said before hanging up was that taxis are expensive. The brief conversation led me to believe the La Rochelle train station is small (Lesson 1: Don’t assume anything), and that someone (like me) who doesn’t speak French would have no problem hopping on the city’s only bus. I must have been delusional. Heck, I might as well added to my fantasies that a beautiful, half naked, French woman would be holding a sign with my name on it, just waiting to drive me to Les Portes. Boy, was I wrong!
To add more disarray, everyone I asked "Which bus to Ile de Ré?" looked at me like I was speaking Chinese. That’s probably because to them I was -- my pronunciation doesn’t come close to sounding like French. At frustrating times like these, I wish I had listened to my 7th grade French teacher instead of trying to make the girls laugh. It quickly became not so funny that I used to make up French phrases like, "J’you know vwhat I meen?"
Fortunately, a young semi-bilingual French girl saw me struggling as I was talking to one of the MANY bus drivers. She saved the day by walking me over to the "Re Bus." I was so relieved. That’s just one example why you shouldn’t believe the hype that the French aren’t nice, and/or don’t like Americans. It’s not true. Maybe there once was a grain of truth to it, but no more. My last few trips here, I found the French to be very friendly and hospitable. Visitors just need to smile and do the basics, like say "bonjour" and "au revoir" when entering and leaving stores and restaurants. The French take it from there. Want more proof? Another young Parisian spent 20 minutes waiting in line with me, just so she could teach me how to use an automated Metro ticket machine. How nice is that? And she was already late for an appointment. TIP: When you’re looking for English-speaking help, teenagers and those in their early 20s are usually the best age range to approach.
La Rochelle is 290 miles southwest of Paris (between Bordeaux and Nantes), and is a beautiful, historic port city. In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries La Rochelle was one of France's great maritime cities. Today it is a city of 130,000, with a huge pleasure-boat marina. It’s an ideal place to sail, with four islands off the coast: Vendée to the north, Aix and Oléron to the south, while to the west is Ile de Ré.
LA ROCHELLE TO l'le de Ré
Before 1988 visitors to Ile de Ré had to take a ferry. But now the island is connected by a 1.8-mile bridge, and the cheapest method after walking and biking is the "Re Bus." Getting to the last stop on the island costs €8 (tickets can be purchased on the bus), and takes 1 hour, 45 minutes. It’s not because the island is massive (it’s only 18 miles long by 3 miles wide); it’s because the bus makes lots of stops, and the only roads on the island are narrow and windy. A quicker but much more expensive (€50) mode is a taxi (45 minutes).
Ile de Ré
Ile de Ré is a popular European tourist destination. In the wintertime there are 16,000 residents, but when summer arrives that number swells tenfold. People love Ile de Ré because it gets the same amount of sunshine as the south of France, and enjoys a constant light breeze. That is perfect for water-sport lovers. The island reminded me a lot of New England, but it’s a bit more casual. The summer weather is similar too: warm days, cool evenings. The island is divided into 10 communes (villages). From east to west: Rivedoux-Plage, La Flotte-en-Ré, Sainte-Marie-de-Ré, Saint-Martin-de-Ré, Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré, La Couarde-sur-Mer, Loix, Ars-en-Ré, Saint-Clément-des-Baleines, and Les Portes-en-Ré.
My friends Andy and Rebecca rented a house in Les Portes. It’s the furthest village from the bridge, and gets the fewest visitors. Andy and Rebecca got married here a week before (long story, but I missed the ceremony because my flight was delayed). The celebration was still going on, although many guests had left. Each night featured big home-made family dinners, games, music, and dancing to the wee hours. They chose this island because Rebecca spent her summers here as a kid, and it’s a beautiful place.
After dropping my bags off at the house, we hopped on bikes and rode furiously to the beach. The beaches here are wide, sandy and beautiful. They are also clothing-optional. I’m not just talking about topless; there are hairy dudes hanging trou. It’s a good thing my friends were just topless, because I wasn’t ready to bust out the dragon. Besides Rebecca, we hung out with my college friend JT and Rebecca’s brother Toby. The beach was relaxing. We chatted, reminisced, soaked up some rays and took a quick dip (the water was chilly – good thing we weren’t naked) before taking a short walk down the beach to check out one of the many German bunkers. They were built during World War II, and can be found up and down the coasts. They were built to be indestructible -- I guess that’s why the French haven’t removed them – but over the years some have slid down the top of hills. We climbed on top and inside one. It was creepy -- not just because of its history, but because it was on such an angle that it threw off our equilibrium.
The only time I was in a car on Ile de Ré was when Andy picked me up from the bus stop. What’s great about this island is that the main mode of transportation is bicycles. That makes everything so slow and relaxing -- no horns, no speeding, no hurry. If your hotel or house rental doesn’t include bikes, don’t worry; they can be rented in every commune. I was on the island for only a short time, yet we rode all over. There are over 60 miles of bike paths, mostly out of the way of cars. In the early morning (9 a.m. — that’s early for here) we rode to the bakery to stock up on chocolate croissants and fresh baguettes (can’t go a day without these bad boys). Around noon we rode along the bike paths (more below). In the afternoon we went to the beach, while in the late afternoon we stopped in town for drinks and snacks (pizza, ice cream) before our late dinner.
RIDING TO SAINT-MARTIN
Ile de Ré is the perfect place to ride bikes. Most paths are flat, lying along the water and between the marshes. No hill is steeper than 62 feet (I didn’t ride anything higher than 3 feet, except in Saint-Martin-de-Ré. The ride took 90 minutes, and was awesome. We saw many horses and sheep grazing, wild birds (by the natural bird refuge), countless sand dunes, vineyards (of course we had to stop and check out the grapes), oyster farms, sunflower fields and salt marshes. Salt made this island rich in the 17th century, and they still produce some of the world’s finest today. We stopped at a roadside table and bought some to take home as gifts (I hope customs doesn’t think it’s cocaine).
Saint-Martin-de-Ré is another beautiful historic port city. This place hustles and bustles in summer, primarily with European tourists. It’s considered the St. Tropez of the Atlantic, because of its resemblance to that famous resort. There is plenty to do here, from shopping on the narrow cobblestone streets, to relaxing at a sidewalk café or sightseeing. Saint Martin is surrounded by impressive Vauban fortifications, first set up in 1681. In town, a Gothic church dominates the skyline. Unfortunately, I did not have much time to explore or kick back. I had to catch the Re bus to La Rochelle (1 hour; €5), then take the train back to Paris.
Here’s a 1-minute Johnny Jet video of my trip to Ile de Ré. With high-speed the video takes about 2 minutes to load; with dial-up, allow up to 3 weeks.
Next week we fly on a low-fare carrier to Ireland, then pop over to New York before flying back home to California -- where I set out on yet another overseas adventure. Here’s a hint: Flight time to this destination from LAX is 11 hours, 15 minutes; coming home it’s a quick 9:15.
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Ile de Ré
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|LIVE WEB CAMS OF THE WEEK|
Since this week is Thanksgiving in the United States, we celebrate the holiday with festive webcams. Okay, I couldn’t find any Plymouth Rock cams, but I did find one at Plymouth University! I also discovered a webcam from my home state of Connecticut, which is where I enjoyed most of my Thanksgiving dinners. Happy T-Day!
|WEBSITE OF THE WEEK|
What a great invention, though I’m sure website managers who require a user password don’t feel the same way. That’s because BugMeNot.com allows visitors to quickly bypass the login of web sites that require compulsory registration and/or the collection of personal/demographic information (such as the New York Times Travel Section). Now there’s no need to close out of a website that requires such info; just log on to BugMeNot.com, and get a free username and password.
Want to laugh? Crank the volume, and check out these Chinese dudes lip-syncing the Back Street Boys.
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|GOOD TO KNOW!|
Six tips for avoiding airport hassles this holiday season |
Visions of frazzled nerves, long lines, and lengthy delays at the airport have many travelers already dreading their holiday flights. To make your trip to the airport less painful, we've compiled several time-saving tips that will help you avoid hassles and delays this holiday season, both before you leave and once you arrive at the airport.
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