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Escape to the Ile d'Aix and the Ile Madame

Escape to the Ile d'Aix and the Ile Madame

If you feel like heading over to the coast, you don’t have to stop there – there’s nothing quite like a little island escapism for getting away from it all and lifting the spirits...

After what turned out to be a long winter, the promise of a few fine days is all the excuse we need to head off for some sea air and sunshine. For far too long we’ve been intending to discover one particular stretch of Atlantic coastline which has somehow remained a mystery, and now seems like the perfect opportunity.

Islands_Aix

After finding and booking a hotel we set off and soon find ourselves heading towards the oyster fishing village of Porte des Barques, at the mouth of the Charente estuary. Everything looks fresh and ready for the summer visitors, and a combination of late afternoon and low-season means we have it virtually to ourselves. After checking in and transferring overnight bags, we fling open the windows of our hotel room and gaze at the estuary, and one particular feature in the middle distance. The Île Madame is a tempting sight, particularly since the sinewy causeway – ‘la Passe aux Boeufs’ – which makes it accessible at low tide, is currently exposed. Shadows are already lengthening, so minutes later we’re rolling across the ridge of sand and pebbles, rather than taking the planned stroll, barely believing that it’s drivable.

The island is tiny, just 1km long and 600m wide, but packs in a lot. Once across we pass La Croix de Galets, a curious cross shaped mound of stones laid by pilgrims on the grave of over 200 priests who perished here during the French Revolution. Further on lies the Fort de l’Île, created to defend the estuary (and Rochefort’s arsenal and naval dockyards) from sea-borne attack. On the shoreline below are some carrelets - slender pier-like platforms for net-fishing, and there are more on the opposite side of the island, beyond a seaward tidal causeway known as ‘la Passe aux Filles’.

Islands_Aix-beach-france

Islands_Madame-Mineau

For some island insight, we visit the Ferme Aquacole de l’Île Madame, where Elizabeth Mineau (who inherited most of the island from her family) and husband Jean-Pierre produce young oysters, clams, seabass and seasalt, as well as grazing sheep on the salt meadows and running a ferme-auberge and giftshop. We catch them during a rare quiet moment, and they’re charming hosts, who happily share observations and experiences of life here. Inspired, we return to le continent, dine on fresh seabass in the hotel restaurant and sleep soundly with a sense of achievement.

We awake beneath a cloudless sky, head off and park the car at nearby Cale des Fontaines, where heavily laden oyster boats are being trailed up a slipway by venerable tractors, while we await the boat which will take us to the Île d’Aix. I love boat-trips, and today’s has the added attraction of passing Fort Vauban and Fort d’Enet on the Fouras peninsula, then making a circuit around the distant, brooding bulk of Fort Boyard. Even though it can’t be visited, Fort Boyard is world-famous as the location for a long running TV series, a lighter role than the defensive one planned by Louis XIV after Rochefort’s arsenal was completed in 1666. The fort’s construction eventually began in 1801 and took 63 years years to complete, at a total cost of 8.5million francs. Maintenance teams are still working as we circumnavigate the vast, if ultimately useless creation, before turning towards the Île d’Aix.

Rochefort-Boyard-France

Stepping ashore among more coastal fortifications hints at a troubled past, but for now it feels like our very own island hideaway, particularly since tidal patterns allowed our boat to depart over an hour earlier than those leaving from Fouras. After ambling lazily along the gently curving Quai de l’Acadie we flop into a comfy sofa on the sun terrace of Chez Françoise – a cheerful bar/crêperie providing great views, good coffee and, better still, bike hire. After a few minutes’ guilt free relaxing we pick up a couple of bright green bikes and pedal off to explore the island, starting with a run through the village laid out in 1669 by France’s greatest military engineer, Vauban. Today, though, it’s clearly at ease with catering for more welcome visitors, with a cheerful dash of laid-back island style.

We’re not stopping just yet, however, as we want to see what lies beyond the ramparts ahead. The answer is a sea-fed moat, followed by parkland where we turn to follow the coastline, an uplifting experience between a straggle of nicely weathered villas on one side and the sandy Plage aux Coquillages, glimpsed through maritime pines on the other. We love it already, and it just gets better, as the trees end and we pedal right beside the beach, gazing out to rows of bouchots (mussel beds) before the track narrows, climbs and heads slightly inland. At first we’re among dense, leafy surroundings, but a few minutes later there are sea-glimpses, one of which looks promising. Sure enough, a grassy path leads to a shady spot, complete with a picnic bench, beyond which lies the sheltered cove known as Baby Plage. The path down is rocky, but manageable, and it’s an idyllic place to lie in the sun and imagine you’re a castaway.

Islands_Aix-port-des-barques

Beyond the cove the path divides, cyclists being obliged to turn inland around Fort Liédot, to which we decide to return later, to see its inner complexities. After passing some heavy horses grazing peacefully in a sheltered meadow, we freewheel down towards the western coastline, passing more fortifications before reaching the definitive Atlantic coast sandy beach known, unsurprisingly, as La Grande Plage. By now it’s lunchtime, so we head back (getting to almost anywhere on the island seems to take just a few minutes) to a cheerful looking sandwich bar/crêperie we’d passed earlier. Seated beneath one of the Mar y Sol’s parasols, we watch island life unfolding, while enjoying made-to-order panini and salads, followed by delicious crêpes.

After cycling back into the nearby village (‘le bourg’) we investigate La Maison de la Nacre’s museum dedicated to the remarkable world of mother-of-pearl and the assortment of molluscs which produce it (and featuring the world’s largest clam shell). Just around the corner are two more collections, the Musée Africaine, presenting the proceeds of early 20th century safaris by island benefactor Baron Gaspar Gougaud, and the Musée Napoléon, created in the gracious house in which the Emperor passed his last days on French soil (his room is just as he left it) before being exiled on St Helena, coincidentally in the company of the Baron.

Our final island visit takes us on a back to Fort Liédot for a guided tour where we learn about the network of coastal defences, descend to vast underground chambers and gain insight into the daily lives of the fort’s garrisons. Particularly poignant are inscriptions left by Russian soldiers imprisoned here during the Crimean war. By now it’s time to ride back to return the bikes and await the return of the boat back to our starting point, still in brilliant sunshine. It’s one of those days you don’t ever want to end, so we return to the hotel via a brief but rewarding visit to the Ecomusée de la Presqu’Île to discover the history and oyster-fishing traditions in and around Port des Barques, before watching the sun setting slowly into the Atlantic. It’s the stuff of dreams – and one of these days we’ll do it all again...

Islands_Carrelet-france

 

Where to stay

La Chaloupe, 49 Ave de l’Île Madame, 17730 Port des Barques
05 46 83 00 10 www.lachaloupe17.com

We stayed at La Chaloupe, a hotel restaurant ideal for low-season short breaks & convenient for Île Madame & crossings to Île d’Aix. Some rooms have uninterrupted sea & estuary views. The hotel has 8 bedrooms with prices starting at €55 for a double room.

  

Find out more…

Boat Trips

Port des Barques – Île d’Aix
www.compagniedes3iles.com
La Fée des Îles day trips around Fort Boyard and onwards to Île d’Aix for 5-6 hour stopover. Sailings daily Apr-Sept, from Cale des Fontaines, Port des Barques, 10.30am Apr, May June & Sept and 9.30am Jul & Aug. €17, €4 for your dog. Book at Tourist Office: 05 46 84 87 47

Fouras-les-Bains – Île d’Aix
www.service-maritime-iledaix.com
Daily ferry service from La Pointe de la Fumée for 30-min crossing to Île d’Aix. €14.30 summer / €9.30 winter, reductions for children, disabled and groups. See website for timetables and bookings.

Local Markets

Port des Barques – Wed mornings in Place Vieljeux.

Fouras-les-Bains – daily covered market in Rue de la Halle 7am-2pm & 4pm-7pm Jun-Sept (mornings only in winter). Esplanade du Fort Vauban Tues & Fri Jul & Aug.

 

Exploring Île d’Aix

We hired cycles from Chez Françoise (available half-day, full-day or longer), 05 46 84 66 84.

Calèches de L’Île d’Aix
Discover the island on a 5km calèche ride hauled by two heavy horses.
05 46 82 76 72

 

Museums

La Maison de la Nacre, Place de l’Eglise, Île d’Aix
The last mother-of-pearl maker in France. Take an audio guide in English explaining extraordinary displays of shells and objects.Open daily 10am-12.30pm & 1.30-5.30pm, April-Sept, €4, under-15s free.

See our feature on Hervé Gallet here >>

Musée Napoléon / Muséum Africain, Rue Napoléon, Île d’Aix
Open daily (except Tues during Oct-Mar), times vary. Joint ticket with African Museum €4.50, under-26s free – free for everyone on 1st Sun each month.

Ecomusée de la presqu’île, Port des Barques
www.ecomuseeportdesbarques.net
This small museum in the heart of oyster activity explains the production, history and the local environment. Guided visits in English for groups only, but you can visit unaccompanied. Open all year on request (05 46 84 19 19), and Mon-Sat in June-Sept. €4, under-6s free.

 

Visits

Ferme Aquacole de l’Île Madame
Organic oysters and fish, seasalt and samphire. Open all year except Nov and Jan, closed Wed. Guided visits: adult €5.80, under-10s €3. Auberge and
boutique: 05 46 84 12 67.

Fort Lièdot, Île d’Aix
www.rochefort-ocean.com
Normally closed to the public, guided visits give privileged access to this “indestructible” fort, part of Rochefort’s “ceinture de feu”. Visits (French only), Wed and Sun at 3.30pm, duration 45 mins. €5, under-8s free. Reservation required at Tourist Office 05 46 83 01 82.

 

WORDS & PHOTOS: ROGER MOSS

Copyright Living Magazine - June 2013