This area, located half-way between Bordeaux and French Brittany, has a rich history, consequences of (among others) notable Roman and English occupation, is famous for the food produced there (especially oyster, but also wine products, meat, grocery, butter...) and enjoys a beautiful coastline and preserved nature that makes it one of the most favorite summer destination in the country, along with the French Riviera (and generally, the South). The coastline enjoys a real Mediterranean climate while being on the Atlantic shore because of the benefit effect of the Gulf Stream.
Fly to La Rochelle or Bordeaux (an hour's drive from the southern Charente Maritime), Poitiers.
TGV is 2h from Paris (and other major cities). Please note coming from the South East is not convenient, as you cannot cut straight, either by car, bus or train. You have to take either the south way (via Bordeaux, or the northern one (via Poitiers).
TGV, hire car.
Many of the villages are steeped in history, man has occupied this land for a long, long time. At the southern tip of the region is the "Haute Saintonge", this special area is a bit like the land that time forgot. Some of the locals still wear their blue overalls and slippers for all occasions. The land glows with light and warmth. The houses with their Roman tiled roofs and their ramshackle outbuildings just invite further investigating. The architecture is predominantly Romanesque - it is littered with fabulous churches, farms, wells, market halls. The ornamentation on the churches is awesome,maybe visit the church of Sainte Fortunata at St Fort sur Gironde and see the horses heads, or the church at Lorignac or Sainte Ramee.Grapes and sunflowers, as well as tobacco and maize are grown here. Most villages have a local wine maker, some have several. 100 years before the Revolution a wine producer had a moment of serendipity. He poured some grape juice into a seemingly empty Cognac barrel. He forgot about it and rediscovered it a few years later - the nectar known as Pineau was born. This area has lots of Pineau producers, you can visit most of them and of course taste the Pineau !
Despite La Rochelle used to be a Protestant fortress due to British influence, the area contains an outstanding number of well preserved churches and abbey complexes.
Royan is a lovely town, bombed by the Allies in WW2 it has managed to rise, phoenix-like from the ashes to become a chic, very French, resort. La Rochelle is further North and is a beautiful place to visit
The Charente Maritime is a haven for wildlife and attracts many ornithologists. Both the flora and fauna are worth the visit. There are opportunities for fishing, sailing and golf.
Visit the local wine producers and have a degustation (wine tasting). Taste the wine, Pineau and of course the World famous Cognac houses of Hennesy, Remy Martin, Otard, Martell all have conducted tours in English as well as French. Chateau de Beaulon is in the heart of the Haute Saintonge and you can visit the distillery in Lorignac as well as visit the chateau itself at St Dizant. There is a huge wildmarsh park at Vitrezay where you can walk along the shores of the Gironde or round a series of lakes. The beaches are nearby. There are golf course in the area. It is a ramblers paradise with miles of marked walks.There are thermal springs in Jonzac as well as Caribbean themed indoor water sports ( Les Antilles de Jonzac).
Plenty of waterside restaurants dotted around the small ports of Mortagne, Port Maubert, Vitrezay plus a plethora of other restaurants ranging from humble 10 euro inclusive meals to Chateau fare at rather more! Melon au pineau is a speciality as is a whole range of seafood and the salt marsh lamb.
This is the land of wine, Pineau and Cognac!
The Vins de Pays Charentais is quite a find, it was born out of necessity when the demand for grapes for Cognac declined but has been improving rapidly and is a perfect summer drink.
Lots of places to stay from campsites, b and b, hotels, rent a luxury holiday home.
French. The area used to speak its own dialect, "patois charentais", very curious to hear, and yet related to Latin, like most of the dialects in the South of France. A few words, just for fun: cagouille(pronounced "kagoo-y", means snail, a word you may hear if you don't drive fast enough to the local taste); "langrot"' (from the Latin "Lacerta", lizard. Remember, it is a countryside area); Shheun (dog, close to the French "chien" and pronounced like the English "ocean", without the "o" and really marking a "h" sound after the "c".) This language is almost dead anyway, but you might like to show your knowledge when visiting a local winery...
Basically very safe; as usual in tourist areas, mind your belongings. While driving, one word: take it easy! most of the roads after Saintes and La Rochelle are countryside style, and locals are famous for being careless, illogical and a bit aggressive. Although, Police is very active and present during summer time, and the fact is locals know where they are while you probably won't!