Île d'Oléron in peak season

What a difference a day makes! This was our fourth stay at Huttopia Chenes Verts and we'd never seen it so busy but, on our last Saturday, there was a mass departure leaving the site only about a third full.

I think we've always stayed during the last week of UK school holidays whereas we checked in during the second to last on this occasion. It just goes to demonstrate the shortness of the French camping season and why many sites only open for a couple of months.

We return to Île d'Oléron year after year after falling in love with its laid-back atmosphere, its miles of sandy beach and network of cycleways. This year it was the only familiar island of the four we would visit over or six-week island hopping adventure. Being back felt like being enveloped in a favourite jumper and we quickly relaxed into our usual routine.

We cycled ten minutes to Plage Les Allassins once we'd pitched on the first afternoon and then cycled right across the island to the beach near Sauzelle for the following two days.

On Friday I turned 45 and we spent my birthday morning in Le Château, our favourite town on the island. We locked up our bikes to purchase a baguette and some sardines from Super U and took them to the citadel for a late breakfast. We spread a blanket on the castle wall and enjoyed the simple food with a view over the town and harbour.

After walking the perimeters of the castle we mooched around the colourfully-painted huts that house some adorable artisanal craft shops. We couldn't resist the antique shop either, and then the indoor and outdoor markets.

We spent a couple of hours on the beach before cycling to Saint Pierre to buy something special for my birthday dinner. Frugal hardly sums up our grocery shopping for the five weeks we'd already been in France. Mostly our meals had been fresh vegetables cooked with our camping store cupboard ingredients such as lentils and pasta. The only meat we'd purchased had been some chorizo and so we'd been mostly vegetarian/vegan/pescatarian. I felt my birthday was due cause for a huge beef steak each, plus wine from a bottle rather than a box and a tarte au citron for dessert.

I made a tabbouleh-inspired accompaniment using lentils rather than bulgar wheat. The lentil and vegetable side cooled a little while the steaks cooked. Sad to say I didn't enjoy the meat nearly as much as the side dish.

Tony and I have resolved to give up meat permanently, though neither of us expects to be fastidious about it. We'll be flexitarian and eat meat if it's served to us at a dinner party. I'll certainly order a meat pizza over a vegetable one too.

Between our veggie diet and our cycling, we've both lost weight, though without scales neither of us knows how much. The diet and exercise will have to be kept up once we're back home. I'm really to continue cycling since, on our last day on Oleron, we cycled 50km and I hardly even noticed I'd done it.

Our 50km bike ride took us, for the first time, all the way to the lighthouse on the western-most tip of the island. We'd come pretty close once before one year but the weather was so hot that we'd given up. The nearer to the end of the island we cycled, the fewer other people we saw and so it was rather a surprise to find a full car park. The tacky hotel, restaurants and shops were another surprise. What had become increasingly-wild terrain suddenly gave way to what you'd expect to greet you in Skegness.

The gardens around the lighthouse are beautifully planted in themed quarters. There's a charge to climb to the top of the lighthouse itself, plus two hundred and something steps, and so we refrained. Instead we spent €2.50 at a little vegetable stall, Tony putting to use the French he had learned from a Kindle book to ask how much a lemon-yellow squash was. We bought the squash along with six courgettes and I was delighted to put them in my new bicycle basket - a birthday gift from Tony.

In addition to the campsite being full - and a sign outside, 'complet', confirmed this - there were also more mosquitos than I remember. Fortunately we were equipped with three plug-in insect repellent burners, 100 citronella tea lights, insect-repellent infused aftersun and moisturiser. We endured bites mainly upon returning from our days out, a little bit sweaty, while locking up our bikes. Once showered and with our candles burning we were mainly left alone by the annoying critters.

Our fellow campers were French, British, Dutch, Belgian and Spanish. Since our pitch overlooked the volleyball and table tennis area there were often children playing. We were both surprised by Dutch and Belgian children of five or six years of age speaking English to other kids. Not the French kids though - they'd only been taught how to say, in an annoyed kind of accent, "NOT ENGLISH."

There were a few little gems we heard foreign children say in perfect English including, a five year old Belgian during a game of football: "My grandmother plays better than you."

We left Île d'Oléron at 8.30am on Sunday morning. A great tip for travelling through France is don't try to do it on a Saturday since French holiday lets always run Saturday to Saturday and the roads are horrendous.

Our next stop is the last island we'll be visiting. We have six nights on Noirmoutier en Île.


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