Ile d’Aix is one of my favorite places in France. The peaceful island on the glorious French Atlantic coast is ideal for families: there are no cars, the island is small and there’s enough to keep everyone happy. It’s the place to enjoy leisurely bicycle rides with the sea on one side and sandy tracks and trees on the other. You’ll see pretty little single-storey houses with brightly painted shutters and hollyhocks growing outside. There are three museums (which won’t take long but are all delightful) and a fort to visit.
Above all it’s the perfect place just to chill out.
Ile d’Aix might not be as well known as its posh and much larger neighbor, Ile de Ré, but it has quite a place in French history.
Where is Ile d’Aix?
Ile d’Aix is one of three islands off La Rochelle in the Charente-Maritime department on the French Atlantic coast. It’s tucked into the Charentais archipelago in the Bay of Biscay protected by Ile d’Oléron to the south and Ile de Ré to the north with Fort Boyard directly to the west. Strategically important as an island in the mouth of the Charente river where the famous ports of Rochefort and La Rochelle were vital in the story of the French Navy, this little island has seen more than its fair share of turbulence.
It’s just 3 kms long and 600 metres wide with a population of around 200, making it one of the smallest communes in France.
It wasn’t always an island; when the Romans occupied France it was connected to the mainland at low tide. In 1500 Ile d’Aix slipped away into the ocean.
Getting to Ile d’Aix
Ile d’Aix is accessible by boat from Pointe de la Fumée in Fouras, a 20-minute journey. For more information check the ferry website or tel: + 00 33 (0)8 20 16 00 17. + 33 (0)5 46 82 76 72.
In summer ferries run also from La Rochelle, Ile d’Oléron and Ile de Ré.
Entertainment begins at Fouras where French holidaymakers have to manoeuvre their huge carts piled high with everything a French family needs on holiday onto the ship. It can be hazardous; steer clear of the carts.
Getting around Ile d’Aix
Hire a bicycle from any of the several hire shops in the main village.
You can also take a horse-drawn carriage ride. Tel.: 00 33 (0)5 46 82 76 72. Mobile: +33 (0)6 87 23 11 49.
If you’re more interested in what to see and do and where to stay and eat, skip the history and scroll down!
A small island with a big(ish) history
Like many parts of France, Ile d’Aix was fought over by the French and the English. The island became English in 1360. But 15 years later is was back in French hands.
When Rochefort on the mainland was fortified in the 17th century, Vauban built a grand fortress on Ile d’Aix as well. During the Seven Years War the island was captured, again, by the British in 1757. They destroyed the Vauban ramparts then retreated. They returned again two years later and stayed here until 1763.
After the English departure the French army once again rebuilt the defences. The French officers involved included the captain of the French Royal Engineering Corps, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. He spent much of his time here writing the novel which ensured his fame, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a tale of seduction, ruin, vengeance and the wages of sin,
Darker times returned during the French Revolution of 1794. Used as a prison, hundreds of priests were left to die in prison boats moored in the harbour.
The island remained a useful prison. Fort Liédot housed Russians during the Crimean War of 1854, Prussians in 1870 and civilian insurgents in 1871. For two years Ahmed Ben Bella, future President of Algeria, was imprisoned here with his supporters.
It’s an interesting place to visit. Information on visiting Fort Liédot in Le Bois.
Religion and Ile d’Aix – an unlikely combination
Ile d’Aix punched far above its weight as an important religious centre. The Abbey of Cluny established the Priory Saint-Martin in 1067 and there it remained for nearly three centuries, lording it over parishes and religious houses in La Rochelle and its surrounds.
Abandoned in 1343 as the wars between France and England intensified, only the east wing of the priory remains. Beside it stand the transept, north apse and crypt of the original church where many of those who died on the prison boats are buried. It’s a romantic, rather austere place.
Napoleon’s Ile d’Aix
Realising the importance of this part of France, Napoleon started the construction of the massive Fort Boyard in 1801.
Today the formidable structure has no purpose, except for those passing in boats who want to see the gaunt sea fortress. Completed in 1857 it became famous through the French game show, Fort Boyard, first shown in 1990.
Back on Ile d’Aix…
…Napoleon arrived here to inspect the place in 1808. He ordered the reinforcing of the fortifications, the construction of a house for the island’s commander and the building of Fort Liédot.
A year later the British and French navies fought just off the island. The small British fleet destroyed some of the French ships; the battle was indecisive but Napoleon’s instinct had been right.
Everything changed for ‘Boney’ in 1815 after the French defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. He arrived on Ile d’Aix on July 12th to a rapturous welcome by the few inhabitants and prepared to set sail for America and freedom. With the Royal Navy blockading the island he attempted negotiations with the enemy. Perfidious Albion (the English) first dangled the idea of England and on July 14th he wrote a letter to the Prince Regent in London from the commander’s house where he was staying asking for political asylum.
The next day he dressed in his uniform and was taken by the British to HMS Bellerophon which sailed to Plymouth. From there he was transported to St Helena for his final years. He died on May 5, 1821.
The only town on Ile d’Aix
Arriving from the ferry, take the small road through the original crumbling double fortifications of Fort Rade. Once surrounded by a wide water-filled moat, today it’s the place to go for the lighthouses and views out to Fort Boyard.
Walk through a gate complete with drawbridge (never actually closed or drawn up) to the only small town on the island. It’s ambitious, with roads at right angles and the sense of being much larger. Here you’ll find the only hotel on the island, museums, shops and that all-important cycle hire.
The little town fronts onto the Place d’Austerlitz, once a parade ground, now a pretty open space with houses built around it in a semi-circle.
Attractions on Ile d’Aix
The original commander’s house is grand from the outside, but charmingly domestic inside. The place where Napoleon spent his last three days of freedom tells a small part of the story of this extraordinary man. It’s full of fading maps and pictures, artefacts like a shelf full of pipes, busts and statues.
Wander through the rooms, taking in the small bedchamber where he wrote that famous letter to the Prince Regent that was destined to become just a museum exhibit. There’s a room of Napoleonic memorabilia showing his progress through the rank to Emperor; there are maps, clocks given to the Emperor, and lots of engravings from his life.
Napoleon’s descendants continue the story of the house
One of the most surprising discoveries is the Gourgaud Room in the former drawing room. It’s a lovely story that begins with General Baron Garpard Gourgaud (1783-1852), Napoleon’s ever faithful aide-de-camp who followed Napoleon after Waterloo to Aix to hand over Napoleon’s asylum demand, then accompanied him to St Helena, staying there to 1818.
The story becomes intriguing when you see the portraits of his great-grandson Baron Napoleon Gourgaud (1881-1944) and his American wife Eva Gebhard (1876-1958), the daughter of a New York multi-millionaire. Dividing their time between Paris and Aix, the successful art dealer couple championed the likes of Picasso, Braque, Cezanne and Matisse. In 1925 the couple decided to buy the house where Napoleon had stayed and restore it as a museum. It opened in September 1928.
In 1933 they founded the African Museum with many of the stuffed animals coming from the Baron’s own big-game hunting exploits in Africa in 1913 to1914, 1928 and 1930 to 1931. They were apparently stuffed by the foremost taxidermist of the time, Rowland Ward of London (amazing what you can learn in the most unexpected places). The museum is not very politically correct to modern thinking, but it gives a fascinating insight into the life of the wealthy 100-odd years ago. Paintings of Africa make up the rest of the museum.
Information on both museums here.
Atelier-Boutique de la Nacre
If you’re interested in mother of pearl, visit the Atelier-Boutique de la Nacre. It’s a museum and shop where you can see the precious shells in their first incarnation, how they grow, what they are made of. Then buy some of the pretty jewellery in the shop. Place de l’Eglise, tel.: 00 33 (0)5 46 84 66 17.
And that’s the sightseeing done!
What else to do on Ile d’Aix
Well…very little apart from enjoying the island’s natural beauty. You can just go for the day but I recommend a longer stay.
Hire a bicycle and take a day pedaling slowly around the island. The views out to sea are wonderful and the last time I was there the replica boat L’Hermione from Rochefort could be seen in the distance. She was surrounded by small sailing and motor boats getting a closer glimpse.
The original L’Hermione took General Lafayette to fight with the Americans against the Brits in the American Revolutionary War in the late 1770s and 1780. Lafayette’s château is very near my house in the Auvergne, but that’s for another time.
Either take a picnic and stop anywhere, or find one of the little cafes and restaurants that hug the coastline.
Where to stay on Ile d’Aix
There’s one main hotel, a couple of campsites, some bed and breakfasts and a Pierre et Vacances residence.
The best option is the Hôtel Napoleon.
The former home of the Baron Gourgaud who restored the museum, the hotel is a pleasant building on the edge of town. It has 18 pretty rooms decorated in chic seaside style that perfectly hits the spot. Views from the bedrooms are either onto the street (and the tourist Office opposite) or the courtyard and the sea.
17123 Ile d’Aix
Tel: + 33 (0)5 46 84 00 77
Rates Doubles from €90 low season to €18 high season
Breakfast from €12
Where to eat on Ile d’Aix
The little restaurants and cafes in the village are good. If you like seafood Ile d’Aix is a real treat. Try Chez Josephine (what else?), the restaurant attached to the Hotel Napoleon. Sit outside and look over the green spaces of the Place d’Austerlitz where fabulous sunsets dip over the distant fortifications. The cooking is seasonal, fresh and very good value.
Everyone rates Bar Beau Teint at the exit of the village as one of the best restaurants on the island (tel: +33 6 65 15 59 38). Go a little further to Les Paillottes in Bois Joly, tel.: 00 33 (0)5 46 84 66 24. Park your bicycle and take a seat under the shady terrace for good seafood.
The village and environs have several other restaurants, along with simple, takeaway sandwich places for picnics.
More on this part of France
Discover more about Napoleon’s France (including Ile d’Aix as well as Paris, Boulogne, and the Route Napoleon in Provence).
If you’re interested in sailing, the French Atlantic coast is important, particularly for Vendée Globe Race. It takes place every four years and is the world’s foremost round-the-world, non stop solo race. The last one started in Les Sables d’Olonne in November 2020 and finished in the spring of 2021.
More about the glorious Vendée department.