My grandparents discovered the Ile d’Aix with the advent of paid holidays, in the 1930s. They continued to visit the island for the rest of their lives, and it was easy to share their love for this special place.
For me, it was where I rode my first little bike with stabilizers, back in 1957. Since then I’ve bought a house there with my husband, and we go there as often as we can, a few times a year with family or friends.
A beauty all of its own
It’s such a beautiful island, with a settlement protected by Vauban fortifications, and then a wilderness, with forest and beaches... Its ecosystem is very fragile, and the region is fighting a hard battle against climate change, which threatens its existence.
The island is, first and foremost, a military stronghold, not the fishermen’s island you’d think it would be. Originally, it defended the Charente estuary. Then the time came when Ile d’Aix could no longer ensure this defence alone, and so they built Fort Boyard, one of the area’s major attractions.
No cars roll off the ferries, here. The local mode of transport is the bike... or your legs. If you really make an effort to dawdle, you can walk around the island in two hours tops. Bikes are perfect for exploring the island’s 100 or so hectares and taking in the different biomes, with their breath-taking landscapes.
The last ferry leaves the port at 5pm , taking all the day-trippers with it. That’s the best time to enjoy the beach.
The island is also known as the last place Napoleon lived in France before his exile to St. Helena in 1815. Here, it’s impossible to forget the Emperor. A museum pays homage to the man, as do many streets and squares in the town. And with good reason: it was a descendant of General Gourgaud, a major dignitary in the French Empire, who rediscovered the island early in the last century. He had married Eva Gebhart, the American woman who started the “Friends of the Island of Aix Society”, which is still very active on the island.
I can remember seeing Baron Gourgaud coming out of the water when I was a little girl. His butler went running down to give him his parasol. It’s an image that has stayed etched in my memory, even if the island’s beaches have much-changed since then.
There are only three or four families from the island, so never speak ill of anyone: you might be talking about their cousin!
Places to go
• The Napoleon Museum, for visitors who like a bit of history: Rue Napoléon
• The African Museum for its impressive mask collection: Rue Napoléon
• Les Paillottes for dinner with amazing views, Chemin de Bois Joly
• Le Pressoir for dinner with sand between your toes, Chemin de Bois Joly
• L’Aixois for lunch away from the crowds, Chemin de Bois Joly