Charente-Maritime is located on the western coast of France. Not to be confused with the larger region of Poitou Charentes, it has a landmass of 6864 km2 and just over half a million denizens. With over 400km of coastline, it's easy to see why 'maritime' is an appropriate name. Sea defences and fortifications line the Atlantic coast, along with sandy beaches and nature reserves. The department includes three offshore islands that become tourist honeypots in the summer, and is famous for the historic city of La Rochelle and the high quality of its seafood. This is also a key industrial area, traditionally important for shipbuilding but today more significant for engineering and vehicle construction.
According to archaeologists human occupation of this part of France goes back at least 35,000 years. Charente-Maritime is of course a much more recent phenomenon, having been created during the French Revolution from a combination of the old provinces of Aunis and Saintonge. Originally titled Charente-Inférieure, the present name was bestowed in 1941, though the territory remained unchanged.
The rich and lively history of the region has included periods of Roman and Viking dominion, and over a thousand châteaux testify to the importance of the region in the Middle Ages. The 12th century church of St Pierre d'Aulnay has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and there are other notable examples of Romanesqe Art elsewhere in the department.
- La Rochelle
The climate of Charente-Maritime is much influenced by the Atlantic. Autumn and winter are typically wet, but you'll still enjoy a lot of sunshine at this time of year – La Rochelle receives a whopping 2400 hours of sun annually! Temperatures are very pleasant from May to October, and even the hottest summer day is characterised by a cooling onshore breeze, which incidentally provides ideal conditions for sailing. The average temperature is around 24 degrees Celsius (75 Fahrenheit) in July, and this is also the driest month.
Charente-Maritime offers some of the very best beaches in France, composed of silver-white sand and fringed with pine forest. Starting at Royan, the beaches stretch for 100km with La Palmyre and Côte Sauvage considered to be the crème de la crème.
There are plenty of beach clubs so you can leave your little ones in safe hands while you enjoy the watersports on offer, or simply soak up the sun.
Charente-Maritime is packed with tourist attractions, including:
- The hundreds of châteaux, especially those at Montendre, Jonzac and Crazannes, which is sometimes referred to as the 'Puss in Boots' château as it inspired the fairytale of that name.
- The idyllic Ile De Ré, reached via a bridge from La Rochelle, offering a perfect climate, whitewashed cottages, long beaches and historic maritime sites to explore.
Paléosite is a prehistoric park, rightly popular with visitors to the area. Kids will enjoy discovering what life was like for Neandertals 35,000 years ago in a setting that uses the latest technology to ensure it's a fun experience. The interpretation centre lies at the heart of a large park, which contains the archaeological sites where the discoveries were made.
Set in pine forest, the Zoo de la Palmyre is a great family destination. Housing 1,600 animals, it has been developed over 40 years to become the most popular private zoo in France, drawing 0.8 million visitors a year.
Museums, galleries and culture
With over a hundred in the department, it's impossible to see all the museums that Charente-Maritime has to offer. In Rochefort you can visit the Marine Museum, while La Rochelle's Museum of the New World charts France's relationship with the Americas since the 16th century. The city also has an excellent Natural History Museum.
La Rochelle hosts an annual music festival, known as 'FrancoFolies', which showcases talent from around the Francophone world. It lasts a week and attracts some 150,000 people.
You can buy the freshest produce at local markets to make some very special picnics. Big-town shopping is available in La Rochelle, where you will find numerous boutiques and upmarket stores. La Palmyre is just one of the seaside resorts with art galleries where you can buy the work of local artists as a genuine souvenir.
Visitors have three 18-hole golf courses to choose from, located in La Rochelle, Saintes and Sainte-Palais, near Royan. These greens give experienced golfers a chance to improve technical aspects of their game, while the novice will be content with the beautiful surroundings and ocean views. There are six smaller courses throughout the department.
Bike hire is exceptionally good value – under 20 euros/day for a tandem - and the landscapes are forgiving even if you aren't too fit so there's really no reason not to get in the saddle and explore.
Fishing is popular but do seek advice about the regulations before you begin. Sea fishing from a boat is a very enjoyable pastime in the offshore waters of Charente-Maritime, and especially good for sea bass, sea bream and skate.
If you need some pampering, try 'thalassotherapy', which uses seawater and mineral-rich mud to promote relaxation and improve skin conditions. Originally developed in French seaside resorts 200 years ago, it's making a comeback, with three thalassotherapy centres on the Île de Ré alone.
Food and drink
Pick up some potatoes from the Ile-de-Ré, local oysters and Bouchot mussels, the latter harvested in June/July. You can even take a special tour of an oyster farm followed by a tasting session. Restaurants abound in Charente-Maritime and naturally fruits de mer feature heavily on the menus. The picturesque old port in the centre of La Rochelle is the perfect place to eat after dark, with innumerable seafood restaurants offering up the catch of the day for very reasonable prices. If you don't like fish, try tantouillée, a slow-cooked casserole of pork and chicken. Both red and white wine are popular in the Charente-Maritime, which also produces Cognac and Pineau.
Ease of access
You can fly to La Rochelle with Ryanair from London Stansted, and during the summer months with FlyBe from Birmingham or Southampton and easyJet from Bristol.
To reach Charente-Maritime in a more eco-friendly manner, catch the Eurostar to Paris and then an onward service to La Rochelle. The journey time is 3 hours from Paris.
Value for money
Considering how many tourists visit Charente-Maritime, the prices are surprisingly reasonable. The key to getting good value is to book your accommodation as early as possible, and to avoid the peak season if at all possible. The quality of the food is outstanding, and even eating out is inexpensive if you choose set-price menus.
Charente-Maritime offers fine beaches, a wealth of natural and cultural heritage and plenty of attractions to keep both adults and children entertained. It is an equally perfect destination for simple, summer fun as it is for a cultural spring break.