Island Paradise: Holiday makers will struggle to find fault with France's flawless Ile de Re
Runner up in the 2013 Association of French Tour Operators travel writing competition.
So why does everyone love Ile de Re? Why does the French resort on the Atlantic coast consistently get such rave reviews in the press? In keeping with the worst traditions of investigative journalism, I set out to reveal the hidden flaws, the grime beneath the gloss, the nastiness other travel writers have ignored.
Couldn't find it. Sorry.
This, then, is a story of my failure. The journey to Ile de Re began well. No endless queues at Heathrow or Gatwick, but a nice fast train from Clapham Junction (everyone in London lives near Clapham Junction) down to Southampton, followed by a two-minute walk into the airport building, a quick check-in and a flight on a propeller plane (remember those?) to La Rochelle. From there it was a short, comfortable coach ride to the island, which is linked by bridge to the mainland, but another world completely.
The only way to travel: Tom Mangold takes a break from cycling the coast
Britons love Ile de Re, and I've never heard a single complaint about it because, in its quiet and understated way, it is as typically French as Gauloises and heart-starting coffee.
People wear berets and striped jerseys; everyone seems to exclaim 'Pouf ...' and shrug their shoulders; they all drink red wine in pavement bistros and the food everywhere is close to Cordon Bleu standard.
And, oh yes, on Ile de Re everyone - and I mean everyone - cycles. The island is to bikes what Silverstone is to Formula 1. If you can't, or don't want to cycle, do not come here.
We stayed in the capital, St Martin, which has, like every other town or hamlet on the island, three or four very reasonably priced bike shops where they rent out high-quality hybrids (a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike) - not the rusty rubbish you usually get in southern Spain or Florida.
The cycles have baskets, pumped-up tyres and working gears. Cycling really is the only way to see the island, on dedicated paths that are as flat as runways, linking one picture-postcard hamlet to another. En route you'll meet grandmothers, infants just out of nappies, the stick-thin and the morbidly obese, but all of them on bikes and loving it. Indeed, some bike paths have M25-style congestion problems at peak times.
We stayed in the famed Hotel de Toiras, which is almost on the harbour's edge. This quiet, dignified hotel has elegant rooms without numbers (the staff know all the occupants by name), discreet Limoges China on the tables and a mixture of 16th and 17th Century reproduction furniture. The building was home to a rich merchant in the 17th Century and Madame Olivia Le Calvez, the present owner, has turned it into a very classy five-star establishment without destroying any of the period charm and comfort.
With only nine suites and 11 rooms, it is almost a family home.
The hotel runs a pick-up service to and from the airport. Around a fifth of Mme Le Calvez's guests are British and 40 per cent of guests have stayed at Hotel de Toiras before, which speaks for itself. I looked hard for flaws in the hotel, but failed to find any. To be greeted by name by staff and to eat (expensively) in a dining room full of 18th Century furniture and good manners is a welcome change from the type of people factories I usually stay in.
Once the bike has been parked for the day, St Martin's evenings are another French classic experience - almost parody, almost theme park, yet this is the real thing. You sip your wine while sitting on wicker chairs outside a pavement cafe before going for a stroll around the beautiful harbour, with its gently curving quay and cobblestones.
There's no rotting fish smell here, just boats and working men in thick pullovers, shouting and behaving as French fishermen should. The main square has a necklace of stalls selling sweet-smelling soaps and candles, fashion jewellery, arty driftwood, and ice creams which are a heart attack in a cone.
The fish restaurants deliver what the menu boasts, and the only bad humour we encountered was from waiters whom we asked if the fish was fresh. It was. Ile de Re is oyster heaven, producing some 8,000 tons a year, and you can see some of the man-made oyster farms while out on your bike. We stuck to the fat (and cheaper) mussels and white fish - again nothing to complain about here.
There was fast, good-natured service everywhere, and sizeable helpings. Why couldn't I find anything wrong? After dinner, we'd head up the narrow streets and past whitewashed houses with blue shutters and the ubiquitous wild hollyhocks straining their flowers from pavement to the ground-floor windows.
Fortunately, the town is ignored by the Euro-trash beach boys and their tattooed girlfriends, and local planning laws forbid new architectural ugliness or Disney-style coastal road advertising hoardings.
This yuck-free location has its own good-humoured energy and exhibits none of what we all know we dislike from many vulgar Mediterranean resorts further south.
One day we cycled the three miles or so east to the nearby town of La Flotte, which is even prettier than St Martin. It has a fine beach and a small working harbour surrounded by quality restaurants and bistros.
To save on a dwindling kitty, we bought some wonderfully fresh baguettes from a local boulangerie, and simply munched away while sitting with the La Flotte elders on wooden benches overlooking the harbour. Some pleasures simply cannot be bought.
The harbour at the Ile de Re capital St Martin is the ideal place for an after-dinner stroll
West of St Martin is La Couarde-sur-Mer, a gentle 25-minute bike ride away, where artificial oyster beds can be found. Outside the town are small poppy-filled fields from Manet paintings and a reminder of what it was that brought British tourists to France in the first place. In La Couarde, we enjoyed a first-class lunch in a bar with a bottle of good beaujolais - a brilliant reminder of why this is the antidote to the South of France, which has long since begun to lose its distinctive Gallic flavour.
The Ile de Re may not be quite as sunny, it may not have the film festivals, the dreary celeb fiestas, the lunatic prices and the dreadful traffic jams - in which case, what is there to miss? Stay with me, I'm still looking for the downsides.
Later during our stay, we took the bus to Ars-en-Re (it's just a little too far to cycle) to enjoy the morning market - remember markets? Long before Westfield and its ilk, ordinary people used to set up stalls in a square and sell hand-made goods over which you could haggle.
We walked around and bought fresh oranges, cheeses with jaw-breaking names, and Moroccan-made wooden nick-nacks for the kids. Stall-holders gossip, enjoy a laugh and a joke, and try out their English on you.
Ile de Re's population of 16,000 swells to ten times that number in summer, yet the island exhibits none of the nervy, crowded restlessness of other popular locations.
On one occasion, we cycled to the stark skeleton of Chateliers Abbey just outside La Flotte. It was founded by Cistercian monks in 1152, and they produced salt and wine in commercial quantities there until the site was finally abandoned in 1575.
Pedal power: Tourists on their bikes make their way through the pretty town of Ars-en-Re
We stopped and just absorbed the atmosphere, the silence, the weather and that rare ambience so infrequently achieved on the average holiday. Can you still remember what it is like to be somewhere where muzak is not playing from loudspeakers? Where you can stop and think and reflect and not be forced to converse above the canned din?
The fact is that taken as a package - travel arrangements, costs and location - there are no real negatives to Ile de Re. I must admit complete investigative failure.
Indeed it was only after we'd relaxed on Ile de Re for a week that we began to appreciate the quality of the location by noticing how many French holidaymakers were among us. It's like finding a Chinese restaurant in London that is popular with Chinese diners. If Ile de Re is good enough for them (it's a three-hour TGV ride from Paris), it's good enough for us.
Even the return was bereft of the usual vacation-spoiling panic and hassle. We took the comfortable coach back to La Rochelle airport, a place as quiet and unhectic as Southampton airport, a place without queues or over-intrusive security checks.
Our Flybe flight landed on time, and at Southampton there was no waiting about for 40 minutes in the baggage reclaim area.
For those who can no longer face the midsummer hell of Heathrow and commercial vulgarity of so much of the Mediterranean, then regional airports and low-key locations such as Ile de Re are a fantastic alternative.
Getting there Flybe (flybe.com) flies from Southampton to La Rochelle - one-way fares cost from £69. Bed-and-breakfast rates at the Hotel de Toiras in St Martin (hotel-de-toiras.com) start at €260 (about £220), based on two people sharing a deluxe double room.