Situated along the mid-west coast of France, La Rochelle is a sparkling seaport on the Bay of Biscay.
Its free yet strong-willed identity as a town is heavily rooted in the 12th century – a time when its harbour business began to flourish, while its religious leaning was violently contested. The Knights Templar, Henry II and Louis VIII all had a hand in chipping at the stone of La Rochelle's future.
Today, while there is no denying it is a city steeped in history, La Rochelle lives on as a destination firmly anchored in the present. I'm told by native tour guides it's a place where the French themselves choose to holiday – tipped as one of the nation's best-kept secrets to outsiders – which comes as little surprise given its nestling between hotspots Nantes and Bordeaux.
As outbound destinations go however, getting to La Rochelle is très facile. A mere hour-and-a-half-long flight from Southampton will take you to Île de Ré Airport – a 15-minute cab journey from the city's beating heart.
If you're lucky, your ride could take you to Le Champlain, a charming branch of Best Western ideally plotted a short walk from LaRochelle's central square, Place de Verdun. As a converted townhouse, this English-friendly hotel boasts a smart and affordable charm, topped-off by its polite and attentive workforce. A double room here is spacious and quiet, and a continental breakfast satisfying. It's hard to complain about Le Champlain.
While it was raining on the Friday of my arrival (a notion which would sadly persist until my departure on Sunday), an enthusiastic representative from the regional tourist board, Sandrine Pailloncy, refused to let spirits be dampened. Brolley in-hand, she led a leisurely stroll through the 14th and 15th century arcades of rue des Merciers – an undisputed architectural feat of the town, modernly adorned by a host of lively, independent retailers. From macarons to menswear – you name it, they've got it.
This short walk takes you directly to the old port of La Rochelle. This bustling hotspot offers a panoramic infusion of the old and the new, with rows of eclectic bars, stunning seafood restaurants and self-serve city bikes facing up to a trio of old-time towers. Most notable is St Nicolas, the tallest at 42m, which bears an unparalleled aerial view on a clear day.
However, my excursion with Sandrine would take me 15 minutes north-east of La Rochelle's midst – on a personal tour of the Normandin Mercier cognac house – the glistening jewel in the crown of my continental visit.
This fifth-generation business is pioneered by uber-cool 'master blender' Edouard Normandin. His high-end products don't appear on French supermarket shelves, but are instead exclusively sold at fairs, on the internet or at the cellars themselves. While his most expensive bottle of cognac sets the deep-pocketed consumer back 780€, I was fortunate enough to enjoy its decades-aged contents straight from the barrel. Day-to-day tour-goers can enjoy this classy touch too, albeit for a fee.
At the heart of its operation – what's most admirable about Normandin Mercier – is Edouard's shining enthusiasm for his craft. He does not simply compose flavour, but good times too.
Elsewhere, other highlights of the city include the impressive La Rochelle Aquarium, the voyage to Fort Boyard from the old port and the daily central market in the heart of town. Were you to descend upon the latter, the seventh-generation sellers at Roumégous seafood might even permit you a complimentary oyster if you catch them on a good day – but don't hold me to that.
Nevertheless, there is one fact you can surely count on: la vie est belle à La Rochelle.