The French Riviera isn’t well-known for its islands, yet just a stone’s throw from the glitz and glamour of Cannes and Saint Tropez lie tranquil archipelagos of exceptional Mediterranean beauty, where you can stroll through pine forests and rolling vineyards, explore ancient forts and monasteries, and sunbathe on soft-sand beaches in clear turquoise coves.
Stepping ashore on the Cannes or Hyères islands, you cannot help but feel like you’ve travelled back to a simpler time when the French Riviera was still a sleepy place inhabited by monks and fishermen, ruled by the rhythms of sunny days and the summertime buzz of cicadas. No cars are allowed on the islands and there are few inhabitants, so if you’ve ever wondered what the Côte d’Azur was like before the grand hotels and apartment blocks sprung up along the coast, you simply must visit the enchanting islands of the French Riviera.
It was not always calm and quiet though. The islands were also the site of occasional invasions, prison camps, and pirate attacks, which leaves the islands of the French Riviera as rich in history as they are in beauty.
Les Îles de Lerins (The Cannes Islands)
The Îles de Lerins lie only a twenty minute cruise from Cannes, yet they feel like another world entirely. As you drift close to land you can smell the cool, fresh scent of the pine forest mingling with the sea air, and see the crystal clear waters lap up on pretty coves.
Île de Sainte Marguerite
Île Sainte-Marguerite promises natural beauty and historical fascination in equal measure. Drop anchor off the lovely shore to explore the walking paths through the fragrant pine and eucalypt forest, visit the birdwatching lagoon, or have a picnic on one of the tiny coves shaded by umbrella pines. Because the water is so clear the snorkelling is excellent here, while there are some dive sites nearby and you’ll often see dolphins frolicking in the deeper waters.
Among the tangled forest and rocky paths along the sea, you’ll find evidence of Île Sainte-Marguerite’s history. The island has been inhabited since Roman times and long acted as a defence outpost for the coast. The splendid Fort Royal was built in 1624 to block sea access to Cannes, but its biggest claim to fame is as the state prison that held the real ‘Man in the Iron Mask’, whose identity has forever remained a secret (despite much movie-spinning speculation). Visit Fort Royal to take a tour of the cells where this unfortunate prisoner lived out his days, and wander through the rest of the fort, now the home of a marine archaeology museum.
Île de Saint Honorat
Among the sun-drenched vineyards and pine forests of Île Saint-Honorat, practicing monks still go about their lives of worship as they have on this island since 410 AD— despite being rudely interrupted by Spanish invasions, Saracen attacks, and the ultimate injustice: being turfed out by a wealthy actress during the French Revolution. However, these periods of exile never lasted very long, the monks soon returning to this oasis of peace to continue their quiet lives of contemplation and wine-growing. Visitors to Île Saint-Honorat can visit the medieval abbey and take a wine tasting tour through the award-winning vineyards, or enjoy a beautiful lunch in the single restaurant with breathtaking views back over the Côte d’Azur from the terrace. Walk off the lunch with a stroll through the pine trees and past lovely rock beaches, enjoying the afternoon sea breeze as it rustles through the trees, the light patterns dancing across the loamy forest floor.
Île d’Hyères (Hyères Islands)
This desperately pretty trio of islands are the perfect place to escape into nature after the celebrity party vibe of summertime Saint Tropez. Each of the islands has its own character – from the almost Caribbean paradise of Porquerolles, to the bohemian nudist life of Île du Levant, and the lush beauty and great diving of tiny Port Cros.
To rent a bike and whoosh along the forest paths of Porquerolles island is summertime bliss; to swim in its dreamy turquoise waters is even better. There’s a tropical Caribbean feel to Porquerolles island, and its sugar-white beaches, bending palm trees, brightly-painted houses and explosions of pink bougainvillea only amplify this sense of being thousands of miles from the busy Riviera.
Laze about on one of Europe’s most glorious beaches at Notre Dame, dine in waterfront seafood restaurants by the harbour, or get your heart pumping with a ride over the hill to Fort Repentance and cool off with a swim at the secluded Notre Dame beach. Because most of Porquerolles island is national park, development is extremely limited, meaning that the natural landscape teems with ancient oak and olive groves, fig plantations and fields of lavender and rosemary, and each rise is met with a stunning view of cobalt blue sea.
Île du Levant
This is a lush island that has much of the tropical beauty of its neighbours but a very different vibe, given that it’s part nudist colony, part military outpost. (A rare combination indeed). While only a tenth of the island is open to the public, the town of Heliopolis has been a naturists’ paradise since the 1930s, so expect to see much well-tanned flesh and very little modesty.
It’s a relaxed place and surrounded by beauty, from the high cliff paths to the wooded valleys full of birdsong and jasmine that fills the summer air with its heady scent. There’s more activity on Île du Levant than on the other islands, with busy nightclubs, concerts and restaurants in the summer months, and a vibrant village square with numerous shops. There are also some superb beaches, and you don’t have to go naked yourself—although plenty of others will, so the overly prudish might want to stick to other islands.
Île de Port-Cros
Arguably the prettiest island of them all, Port Cros is a hilly, tiny island, its deep green interior rimmed by beaches and surrounded by sparkling sea. Declared a national park in 1963, the protected area extends 600m out to sea, creating an extraordinary marine reserve in the emerald and sapphire waters. An underwater nature path has been constructed through the reserve for snorkelers, while divers will find some sensational diving offshore, with huge wreck dives and one of the best spots in France for marine life at La Gabinière.
Back on the island, visit the charming port, explore the Fort de l’Estissac, or simply spend a happy afternoon strolling past olive groves and vineyards. There’s no bike hire or cars here, so enjoy your walk, taking in the sea views and breathing in that irresistible smell of summer in the South of France.
A yacht charter is the ideal way to drift between the islands of the French Riviera, whether a day trip to explore the islands off Cannes or Hyeres, or a dreamy week-long charter to take in the many glittering delights of the mainland Riviera before casting off towards the islands. When the lights and high life of the Riviera call you back, it’s just a very short cruise before you’re back among the boutiques, beach clubs, and waving palms of the Côte d’Azur.
This summer, drop anchor in paradise in the beautiful archipelagos of the French Riviera, where the monks still rule and the cicadas cast their summertime spell over an ancient Mediterranean landscape.
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