You reach the island by ferry from the Pointe de Fouras at the Port de la Fumée and cross part of the Antioche Sound with a 20 minute crossing to the Ile d’Aix. Alternatively, travel here from La Rochelle.
Hire a bike when you arrive – there are no cars and no busses – cycling is the main means of transport but it’s no chore on this tiny flat island which is 3 km long and just 600 m wide.
Lazily cycle from one empty, stunning beach to another – the golden sands beckoning you into the sea. Wild flowers abound here where nature is king, interspersed by hollyhocks and fragrant roses. Homes on Aix cost the equivalent of a Parisien apartment – that is if you can even buy one – all new development is banned.
A sunset stop however has to be made at at some fisherman’s shacks for appetisers of oysters and wine, fresh from the sea – that day’s catch. Seafood is the speciality of the several fine restaurants on the island.
We were told that plans were afoot for barbecues so you will soon be able to cook your own fish too – very good idea.
Our hotel for the night was the Hotel Napoléon – a contemporary styled chic retreat near the harbour. I think it’s actually the only hotel on the island although you can rent one or two of the houses here. Most of the island’s visitors are French day-trippers however so it’s rather fun to stay overnight. The name of the property’s restaurant? Why Chez Josephine of course!
The name of the hotel might have given you a clue as to this island’s history for the big attraction is Napoleon’s house. Aix was the last place the former emperor stayed on French soil before he went into exile. This rather melancholy fact is made more poignant when you hear that he personally built the property (now a museum dedicated to his memory) a couple of years before.
Other things to do other than relax, fish, sail and sea-watch? There’s a little shell museum dedicated to mother of pearl and an African museum.
It’s a fortified island, built to protect the nearby 17th century naval stronghold of Rochefort and it strongly reminds me of Portsmouth and its military past. Due to the Napoloenic threat, we have similar fortifications all along the coast.
The distant Fort Boyard, made all the more popular by the Channel 4 programme, is reminiscent of one of Palmerston’s sea-forts off the English south coast. This little island has seen its fair share of conflict in its colourful past and was even part of England for a while.
Today however Aix is all about peace and relaxation. I have rarely taken to a place so quickly and I can’t wait to return.
That hackneyed old phrase – wake up and smell the roses? Well I suspect that if you stay a while on Aix, you will certainly start to look at life afresh.
Contributor & photographer: Sue Lowry
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