I Heart My Island: Île d’Aix

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Former French Consul General Pierre Antoine Berniard has lived in Germany, Scotland, the United States, Canada, and Jamaica, but his heart belongs to Île d’Aix. The tiny croissant-shaped island off France’s central Atlantic coast is where he spent his salad days, and later served on the city council.

“Even when I was abroad, Île d’Aix was my strong roots,” he says. “A sailor would say [that the island is] my point fixe.”

And for good reason: Berniard’s familial ties there date back to the early 1700s, when his winemaking forebears came to the island.

Though Aix has changed hands and vocations—first religious, then military—several times over its long history, nowadays, it’s best known as a peaceful summer getaway—complete with beaches, historic forts, nature parks, and, notably, very few cars. (Accessible only by ferry, Île d’Aix prohibits automobiles, with the exception of service vehicles.)

It’s a popular destination for day-trippers hailing from France’s Poitou-Charentes region and folks from farther afield hoping to experience a taste of the simple life through extended stays at Hotel Napoleon (the emperor famously spent his last days on French soil on the island before surrendering to the British, in the summer of 1815) or rented houses amidst Île d’Aix’s laid-back—and mostly retired—permanent residents (all 220 of them!).

Here’s a look at the island escape through Pierre Antoine’s unique lens.

Aix Is My Island

Before or after the summer season (mid-April to late June; mid-September to early November) is the best time to visit my island. I must say you can visit all year long—each time is a different experience. The summer here is glorious, but it can be crowded, especially in such a small village. And though the cold months are tough, there is a strong sense of solidarity among the residents who remain on the island throughout the winter, so you will not feel lonely.

My island’s biggest attraction is the island itself. It’s the only true island in the region, as its two neighbors, Île de Ré and Île d’Oléron are linked by bridges. You cannot come to Île d’Aix without a ferry. When a visitor comes—takes the ferry, and arrives on the island—it’s akin to entering something like another world. There are nearly no cars. And the village itself, with its big, wide streets made for soldiers on parade, and all the houses—built for fishermen and soldiers—are a sight to behold.

A visit isn’t complete without learning a bit about the island’s history. Without this frame of reference, you lose a lot of things. There are books and booklets at the museum and the tourism office that will start you on your way.

My island really knows how to celebrate major events linked to our story. The event surrounding the launch of the replica of the Hermione, the ship that carried the Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic to aid American revolutionaries in their fight for independence, is a wonderful example. In July, there will be a big manifestation for the Napoleon bicentennial.

The dishes that represent my island best involve seafood—scallops, shrimps, oysters, and sometimes crabs. All my friends here fish on the rocks, and are very good cooks. White wine is the signature drink. There is still one resident who makes his own wine. But the real typical drink is Pineau des Charentes, which is not exclusive to Aix. You can find it throughout the Charentes maritime region. Be careful because it’s sweet and, as is the case with all sweet beverages, can be dangerous.

My favorite local expressions among the Islanders are “Was the fish good today?”, “How was the catch?”, “At what time is the next ferry?”, and “When is the low time?” These are the expressions you hear all the time on the street.

My favorite “island secret” is crossing the bridge to Anse de La Croix to go to the beach there and enjoy the spectacular view of Fort Boyard.

The most beautiful places on the island are my other secrets, two small beaches on the other side of the island: Baby Plage and Sables d’Or. I feel comfortable there. Everybody goes to the bigger beaches, Anse de la Croix or Grande Plage. Sables d’Or is never crowded, even in July.

Head to Fort Coudepont, a private property at the end of the “croissant,” if you want to get up close and personal with island flora and fauna. A man there is cultivating a diverse array of flowers there. It’s not open all the time, so make sure to contact the tourism office before trying to visit.

If you’re interested in a guided tour, I recommend the tourism office. There are people there who do it very well.

If you’re up for an adventure, try to be recruited by the people who produce Fort Boyard, a well-known TV game show in which two teams compete for prizes. If you’re not an actor or VIP, it will be a bit difficult, but it’s always worth a try. It’s bizarre; this show started in 1990 and has been a fantastic success. It’s known in 160 countries or something like that.

To experience the island’s cultural side, we have two national museums. Can you believe that a small village has two national museums? The Napoleon Museum and the African Museum.

Be sure to bring a camera, a swimming suit, fishing gear, and a book when you come for a visit, as you’re here to relax.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you’re in luck because this is the kid kingdom. Children can play everywhere, with security and tranquility. They play in the street, as I did myself. Nothing has changed. I have grandchildren who want to see me this summer. For them, it’s paradise.

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