All quiet off the C�te d’Azur?

The area is now a cosy retreat for the young and trendies

I’d never considered the C�te d’Azur as a place to go and hide from the world until a fashionable French friend, Pierre, startled me by saying that he had been on the most calming of island retreats there. He had stayed a week in a monastery on an island off Cannes. Even if, by the end of his stay, he hadn’t swapped his designer clothes for a hair-shirt, he had come back refreshed, uplifted, at peace.

Without quite getting myself to a convent, I decided to put to the test several islands off the French Riviera this summer, to see if they can offer the general holidaymaker a more relaxing atmosphere than that crazy mainland coast.

Lauded by Roman writers, long serving as hideaways for early Christian saints, then assaulted by pirates for many centuries, these isles fell under French royal control after the crown claimed Provence in 1481. From that time on they bristled with forts, to keep invaders out, and, often, prisoners in. Today, these diminutive islands serve principally as tourist destinations, though little known by Brits. Each of the four I sampled has a quite distinct flavour.

First stop Cannes, the port serving the flat, not to say laid-back, L�rins islands. Both bask within view and within easy boat-ride of town. Note, though, that unless you’re booked in at the monastery, you can’t stay the night, so the L�rins are essentially for day-trippers. Arm yourselves with picnics, as eateries prove rare. Plus, as the last boats head back early to Cannes, get on the earliest crossings you can.

The two islands carry the names of saintly Dark Ages siblings. Ste-Marguerite, closest to the mainland, has a pleasingly scruffy appearance in contrast to Cannes’s ultra-manicured look. Such dishevelled eucalyptus, darlings! As to the burly bruiser of a fort, main focus of cultural interest, it retains a suitably mean air. The place served, notoriously, as a prison to the Man in the Iron Mask. The swash-buckling fictional story claiming that he was Louis XIV’s troubling twin may be far from the truth, but, tantalizingly, the identity of the real political prisoner so cruelly kept here has never been uncovered.

The fort’s Mus�e de la Mer spreads its net wider, with displays on the island’s Roman colony and murals evoking the Maghreb across the Med – indeed, prominent Algerians were kept on the island after their territories were seized by the French military in the 1830s. Among a couple of atmospheric walled cemeteries on the island, one contains their graves.

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Down beside the fort, La Gu�rite is a rare, appealing caf�-restaurant, its sun-loungers set out on concrete slabs. Otherwise, visitors build little encampments in their own little rocky creak. The views back onto the mainland give onto the villa-crowded hills of Cannes, with undisturbed mountains behind.

L’Ile St-Honorat, just beyond Ste-Marguerite, has more character, more surprises, more soul. This island is still owned by monks and the gentle half-day walking trail around it is marked more by chapels than by forts. However, turning onto St-Honorat’s wilder south side, the awesome sight of a towering medieval fortified abbey built right over the waves takes your breath away.

Climb its cloistered shell for staggering views along the coast, but also of the walled monastery below. You can enter the latter’s sober church, and the monastic boutique, selling the island’s wines at near-golden prices… Cannes’s mercantile ways have clearly rubbed off on the monks here.

Some way west, the splendid hilly Iles d’Or lie out to sea from the town of Hy�res, after which they’re also often named. Of the three islands open to tourists, l’Ile du Levant is for specialists only, divided between the military and naturists. I focused on Port-Cros and Porquerolles.

Wild, wooded Port-Cros is an hour by ferry from Hy�res’s brash modern marina, Port St-Pierre. This island is firmly ruled by its national park authorities. The intense little curving port-cum-village contains just about the only buildings. The fort watching over proceedings is now given over to flora and fauna rather than firearms. Its displays warn, though, of hidden dangers menacing local marine life today.

On health-conscious Port-Cros, the main activities are hiking and diving. At Sun Plong�e, a cheerful bull of a man with a fish-bone tattooed on one foot tossed snorkelling gear at me and told me to go and follow a new trail, of underwater panels. It proved underwhelming, although I did spot fish swimming merrily about me that you’d normally only see served up on your plate in these parts. The rest of my time was spent hiking from one corner of the island to the other. Rather than coming across shiny people, it was shiny rocks I encountered on this secretive island.

The journey from the port of La Tour Fondue to Porquerolles is short and sweet. Porquerolles is consequently much more touristy than Port-Cros. Its waters come in the dreamiest shades of turquoise. The excitement of the Sunday crowd on the ferry I took was only increased by yachts rushing all around us, racing in a regatta in which we briefly felt we were taking part.

Porquerolles’s marina and neighbouring main village have clearly been expanding at a rate of knots recently. Cycle-hire shops, restaurants and hotels vie for trade. Away from the fray, beside the Maison du Parc information centre, the Jardin Lopez, with exotic plants growing below tall palms, offers a tranquil semi-urban oasis.

In summer the inevitable village fort puts on cultural events, while the restored windmill nearby opens its sails. However, most visitors head straight for the slim beaches strung along the island’s flattish north side. Aggressive cyclists kick dust in the eyes of more tranquil walkers in the rush to secure the best spots. To escape the crowds, I headed inland to discover the island’s vineyards and traditional orchards. By one mulberry orchard stands a charming walled cemetery. Alongside the locals buried there, I stumbled upon the poignant tombstones of four forgotten Commonwealth soldiers.

On a warm Sunday evening, I went on a long walk westwards, the crowds thinning rapidly. Reaching the island’s western tip, I was the only person around. However, a very disgruntled seabird screeched persistently at me. I found myself squawking back, engaging in a crazy conversation with a gull, angered at finding a lone man spoiling the otherwise perfect tranquillity of its sunset on the French Riviera. Back at Porquerolles’s marina, I was annoyed to find hardened party animals raucously extending their weekend.

Monday morning was deliciously calm. Hiring a bike, I explored Porquerolles’s more dramatic southern side. The cliff views from the Calanque de l’Indienne were spectacular. The climb to the S�maphore nearer the island’s centre was painful on the calves, but after a few enforced photo stops, I reached the island’s sublime highpoint. The semaphore guard’s wife was hanging out her washing. Her friendly dog came to greet me, and I was rewarded with giving the delightful creature a pat on its back. I savoured that moment of unexpected tenderness on the C�te d’Azur, having learnt that, even on the islands here, you have to work hard to be rewarded with such rare peace.