Oléron does not enjoy the same reputation as the island of Ré. And yet, it has many strings to its bow, often unsuspected... Less tidy, it offers the advantage of being less "civilised" and more accessible in terms of prices. A little too neglected in places, this island remains a popular destination that lives mainly in summer. And it exudes an incredible charm along its paths. A good idea for an escape if the long weekends in May allow it.

Arrival, citadel and beaches as far as the eye can see

With its 30 km length and 12 km width, Oleron is the second largest French island after Corsica. It is linked to the mainland by a viaduct which is more than 3 kilometres long, inaugurated in 1966 and... free of charge, unlike the one on the Ile de Ré. However the free access has its disadvantages, tourists flock there of course, but also the Charentais who sometimes come from far away to spend the day or the weekend. Its large fine sandy beaches and the quality of its waves have made it an ideal place for surfing sports, revealing to amateurs, enthusiasts and professionals, surf spots unequalled in the region.

To the south-east, not far from the bridge, is the second largest town on the island, Château d'Oléron. Its citadel is an unmissable visit. A military structure designed to protect the southern part of the island of Oleron, it was built in 1630. Noting the weaknesses of the structure, the chief engineer Vauban decided in 1685 to create two horned works. The work began three years later and required thousands of men. Some 7,000 workers, including salt workers from Dolus and Saint-Trojan, worked on the construction. Many of them lost their lives due to fatigue and the harshness of the winter. Several times reinforced to prevent English incursions, the citadel was converted into a prison during the revolutionary period. Bombed by the Allies, the building requires a major restoration which has been carried out since the 1980s. The ramparts offer a superb view, early in the morning when the oyster farmers leave on their boats, or late in the evening at sunset. The whole building is accessible, two lifts serve the floor. The rest of the southern tip of Oleron faces the Arvert peninsula on the mainland and offers huge stretches of beach. On the other hand, Saint-Trojan-les-Bains, at the south-western end of the island of Oleron, is the most wooded commune on the island. Its large pine forest was planted in the 19th century to hold back the sand, as the dunes can be over 30 metres high. Above all, this former village of fishermen and salt producers, once isolated from the rest of the island, has been open to tourism since the late 19th century. Saint-Trojan has the charm of the first seaside resorts, with its elaborate villas of regionalist inspiration (Basque, Anglo-Norman), its waterfront and its long sandy beach. Today it is a village that holidaymakers enjoy for swimming, walks in the forest and the oyster port and its colourful huts.

Capital and return of fishing

It is impossible to talk about Oleron without mentioning the town which is known as the capital of the island. It must be said that Saint-Pierre-d'Oléron is located in the centre of the island at equal distance from the bridge and the Chassiron lighthouse. This particular position benefited the city very early on, allowing it to develop commercial relations with northern Europe, exporting salt and wine from Boyardville and La Cotinière. This typical port, located facing the open sea, is today recognized for the quality of the products that the fishermen land: sea bass, sole, scampi. It is also the ideal setting for a stroll. Strollers will observe the brightly coloured flotilla, the ballet of boats bringing their precious goods into the first fishing port of Charente-Maritime, eating an ice cream after swimming. The fish market is magnificent, and the fishmongers and restaurant owners of the coast buy their supplies there

In summer, life is delightfully lively around the street vendors, concerts and restaurants. But Saint-Pierre-d'Oléron is also known for its great spire piercing the sky. Located on the Place Camille-Mémain, the lantern of the dead, built in the middle of the medieval cemetery, is a must-see with its 25 m height. Rich in varied landscapes, Saint-Pierre-d'Oléron inspired one of the great Charente authors, Pierre Loti. Born in Rochefort-sur-Mer, the writer spent his holidays on the island. He is buried in the "Maison des Aïeules" which he bought in 1899. And, as an epitome of the island, the salt marshes and swamps converted into oyster beds are mainly located around Saint-Pierre-d'Oléron

To the north, a mythical lighthouse

Further north, the landscape gives way to the cliffs and the famous Chassiron lighthouse. Emblem par excellence of the island of Oleron, the lighthouse has stood at the northern tip of the island since 1834. The first 33-metre high tower was erected in 1685, at a time when the Rochefort arsenal was booming and a strategic location for the Royal Navy. Due to the increasing number of shipwrecks on this steep and foggy coast, and the increase in maritime traffic, the Chassiron lighthouse was put into service in 1836, and equipped with the latest technology of the time in terms of lighting: a vegetable oil lamp with six wicks. It was switched to gas in 1895, and then to electricity around 1905. Originally white, the lighthouse took on its current black stripes in 1926, to distinguish it from its counterparts at Cordouan and Les Baleines. The last lighthouse keeper of Chassiron left in 1998. The site was redeveloped in 2007, with the creation of a museum and a garden in the shape of a compass rose

A nature sanctuary

To the south and north-east, the territory is characterized by the presence of the forest on nearly 2 900 hectares (public forest) including 700 of dune massifs. Mainly made up of maritime pines and holm oaks, these forests contribute to the diversity of the island's landscapes, forming a real interface between the ocean and the houses

Above all, Oleron also has two nature centres, protected natural sites open to the public all year round: the Port des Salines in Grand-Village, which allows visitors to discover the salt marshes. The idea of creating this eco-museum was born from the desire to restore this threatened environment and to re-establish a very important traditional economic activity on the island: salt farming. Inaugurated in 1994, the Port des Salines and its 5 exhibition huts are designed for young and old. Very lively and educational, each one allows you to understand the functioning of a salt marsh, the stages of salt harvesting, its use and the trade that was made from the island of Oleron. What a pleasure to rent a boat to walk around and contemplate the fauna and flora of the marshes or to go on a tasting tour that combines heritage and gastronomy (saltwort, oysters, white beer with fleur de sel...). On site, you will find a shop and a restaurant serving fish, seafood and regional products. Not to be missed: the Salt Festival in August! Note: the ecomuseum is accessible to all thanks to the many facilities provided.

Also not to be missed is the bird sanctuary in Dolus, founded in 1982 in the heart of the island, in a sensitive natural area bordered by former salt marshes. Swans, herons, egrets, greylag geese... More than 60 species and 500 animals enjoy this unique environment. The visit takes place along a 1.5 km path, accessible to all, marked out with information points on the life and habits of the main species encountered. You can climb to the top of an observation platform to enjoy a remarkable view of the surroundings

Useful information

When can I go? Of course, you can set down your luggage on the island of Oleron all year round, even if the island is mainly alive in summer. The arrival of fine weather is naturally more pleasant and the best periods are May-June and September to avoid the crowds of summer holidaymakers.

How to get there. By train (La Rochelle, Surgères, Saintes and Rochefort stations, then bus to Oléron) or by car (follow the A10 motorway then take the free bridge)

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