An arsenal of charm in historic Rochefort

The island of Aix.

The island of Aix.

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RACHEL JONES heads to the Charente-Maritime region of France, where she finds ships, hidden bays and heavenly style.

On paper Rochefort and the nearby coast is a home from home.

Like Portsmouth, the town is rich in maritime history and the Atlantic coastline of this region is dotted with sea forts.

There’s even a neighbouring island – well more than one actually, and they’re very different in atmosphere and population from the Isle of Wight, although just as interesting.

But the area also has the bonus of being French. That’s not to do a disservice to our home coastline in any way, it’s just that Gallic towns do have the tendency to be...well, utterly charming.

To begin with, the slight latitude shift means Rochefort residents tend to fair better weather-wise. Our time in the port on the Charente estuary is certainly balmy enough, although it’s summer and I imagine some pretty impressive storms drift in from the Bay of Biscay.

The main square and streets are lined with pavement cafes and independent shops – no supermarkets and large chains wrestling with the neighbourly atmosphere here.

The key to Rochefort’s appeal is its heritage policy, which means much of the 17th century town – built as a dry dock and living space for naval workers - has been beautifully preserved.

We stay at what could be the most stylish B&B in town, possibly even the country.

Huge claims aside, Palmier Sur Cour really is lovely.

The rooms are tastefully dressed in greys and reds, which even extends to the surfaces and accessories of the bathroom.

Someone here clearly has an eye for design – enter Madame Coulon, as immaculate as her wonderfully-presented B&B.

The eyecatching, intriguing mantelpiece sculptures dotted around the place? Madame Coulon is an artist and made those.

The little courtyard that places you in the South of France? The proprietor is from the stylish south and this gives her a taste of home.

‘I hate to tell you this but I think she made this jam,’ hisses my pal and travelling companion Heidi as we eat far too much breakfast and dream of becoming domestic dynamos. Envy can’t comfort us though - Madame Coulon is really nice too.

Leaving to refrains of ‘we wouldn’t be worthy even if we gave up work and enrolled on every art and craft course within an 100 mile radius’, we head for one of the coastline’s islands.

To reach Aix island, we pass Fort Boyard - a 19th century sea defence now famous as a game show location.

The 3km long and 700m wide island of Aix is a haven where cars are non-existent and the only form of public transport is horse-drawn carriage.

Hire a bike and you can find tranquil bays, cool forests and secluded historic features, as well as the island’s one bustling hamlet.

This strip of land and the sea defences once protected Rochefort, sheltered in a bend of the Charente river and created for the storage of the navy’s arsenal.

The town is currently harking back to its past with a shipbuilding programme that is causing quite a stir.

In 1997 work began on the reconstruction of frigate Hermione – the ship that took the Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic in 1780 to assist General Washington in the American Civil War.

A museum features sailmakers and other craftspeople demonstrating and working on traditional techniques.

And there’s even a ship’s cat which has taken up residence there and has become one of the chief attractions.

For a town, Rochefort has a surprising range of museums. The most impressive thing about the rope museum is the 374m long building that houses it – although rope turns out to be strangely interesting.

There’s also the Maritime Museum and the weirdly wonderful Musee des Commerces D’Autrefois. This is a series of reconstructed shops, cafes and other businesses bringing back the town of the early 20th century.

The photogenic and fascinating ‘shops’ were created from the vast collection of an accountant who bought stock before businesses went bust, preserving the old products, technology, styles and ways.

Also keeping the visitor busy and satisfied are some great restaurants and a colourful weekly market. Nevertheless this town is quiet and a trip to bustling La Rochelle, just up the road, is a good idea.

The region as a whole has plenty to offer, whether you’re a maritime history enthusiast, beach lover, fan of France or domestic goddess in the making.

Rachel Jones travelled with Voyages-sncf.com. Fares from London to Poitiers start at £89 standard class return. All fares are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit voyages-sncf.com or call 0844 848 5848. There are also flights available between Southampton, other UK airports and La Rochelle. The city is a popular tourist destination and a 35-minute drive from Rochefort. For details of Palmier Sur Cour visit palmiersurcour.com

Visit en-charente-maritime.com andville-rochefort.fr

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