Table of Contents
4 Days on the Golden Isles - Walking the Wild Side of the Côte d'Azur
If you think the Côte d’Azur is all about row upon row of sun loungers lined up in the tourist hot spots of Nice, Monaco Cannes and St, Tropez, then be prepared to think again. The Côte d’Azur has a wild side. 4 days walking on the Golden Isles could change the way you think about the French Riviera for good.
There is always something exciting about islands isn’t there? When you look across the sea and see an island, something in your psyche urges you to get across the water and explore it. It just has to be done – however challenging the crossing. To leave an island unexplored is to reject an opportunity to discover riches that the comfort zone of the mainland on which you stand may never yield.
There are three such islands lying invitingly close to the French Côte d’Azur. It is the shimmering mica rich rock of the islands of Île de Porquerolles, Île de Port Cros and Île du Levant surrounded by azure blue water that gives the Golden Isles their enticing name. They benefit from 300 days sunshine a year, mild winters and a cool breeze that refreshes you on the hottest of Summer days. They are all reachable (in season) by ferry from the little port village of Le Lavandou. Four days is quite long enough to explore them in some depth, so – let’s go do it?!
Day 1 - Île de Porquerolles
You could easily choose to base yourself in Le Lavandou for the whole of the trip, but we decided to base ourselves on the Île de Porquerolles itself for a couple of nights instead. The accommodation options on the island are pretty limited, but the thrill of not just visiting an island but actually staying on it overnight – when all the day trippers had gone home – was too tempting to resist.
The Syndicat d’initiative in Le Lavandou has maps of Île de Port Cros and Île de Porquerolles and all the bus/ferry timetables if you need hard copies. A visit there when you first arrive is a good idea to get your bearings. The Golden Isles are reachable by ferry service only and there are no cars on the islands. Welcome to the wild side! The limited ferry service runs in season (second week April to end October) only) There is often only one ferry per day and there are some days when the ferry doesn’t run at all, so you need to check the vedette website to plan your trip in advance to avoid disappointment.
We stayed overnight at Le Lavandou, 2 nights on Île de Porqerolles and then a further 2 nights in Le Lavandou to give ourselves 4 full days of exploring the Golden Isles. Further details of where we stayed can be found at the end of this post. As they are reachable only by ferry, the Golden Isles are mostly inhabited by day trippers, so an overnight stay is a unique experience.
On our first day, we took a 9.45 ferry from Le Lavandou and caught the 11.30 hotel shuttle bus from the end of the pier to Le Mas de Langoustier, which would be our base for the next couple of nights. An afternoon was plenty of time to walk the 3 kilometres into the small village of Porquerolles, explore the silvery sanded little beach of Plage d’Argent en route and return to the hotel via the interior route. The island is criss-crossed with a plethora of well signposted trails. Most of the paths are shared with cyclists – this is a haven for mountain bikes – but there are trails dedicated to walkers too if you prefer that.
The pretty little village is centred around a tree lined square and has a church, a few restaurants, a supermarket, boulangeries and ice cream shops. There are a couple of alternative accommodation options in the village too if you want to be more central.
Day 2 - Hiking Île de Porquerolles
These boots were made for walking, and on our second day here, that’s what we are going to do. There is a well signed 12 kilometre circular walk directly rom Le Mas de Langoustier around the coastline, returning back though the interior of the island. You could walk it in about 3 hours or so, but we took a leisurely 6 hours over it because today was all about soaking up the atmosphere of this peaceful place and we were in no hurry for our walk to come to an end.
A pause for a coffee at the Villa St. Anne was a good place to take a break and buy a picnic lunch, which we ate at the beautiful spot of Gorge du Loup. with an azure blue sea to gaze on.
Even though we had taken the day’s hike at such a leisurely pace, there was still plenty of time for a swim on the beach neighbouring Le Mas du Langoustier and a relaxing sunbathe in one of the deckchairs on their pretty little private beach – La Crique.
Day 3 - The Wild Side of the Côte d’Azur
As this was a Monday, there was no ferry from Île de Porquerolles to Le Lavandou. An alternative ferry runs a service from Île de Porquerolles to La Tour Fondu – a little way up the coastline from Le Lavandou. A 9am shuttle from le Mas de Langoustier dropped us at the port in good time to catch the 9.30 ferry and to meet our pre-arranged local taxi on the pier. By 11am, – after a coffee on the beach at at the Plage de l’Argentière (from where you can see all the Golden Isles), we were all set for a day’s walk along the wild side of the Côte d’Azur.
The wild side of the Côte d’Azur – spot the Wild Goats.
Walking along the coastline keeping the water on our right all the time and following the well marked yellow flashes of the Sentier Littoral (coastal road) meant that we didn’t really have any need for our map. That’s my sort of walking – no chance of getting lost! The route meandered past Plage du Pellerin and Plage Leoube until it reached the convenient mid way point of Plage l’Estagnol in time for a wood fired pizza lunch at the buzzing restaurant on the beach – Restaurant l’Estagnol. Highly recommended – as well as wood fired pizza, you can choose from a wide range of fresh fish or the local specialty – bouillabaisse.
The path continues on past the Pointe de La Vignassr and over a small port area until La Plage de Cabasson opens out to welcome you. A pre-booked taxi at 5pm back to Le Lavandou allowed plenty of time for refreshments at the shady beach café.
It’s not often I eat twice at the same restaurant on a trip, but La Pignato at Le Lavandou was an exception. The varied menu shows plenty of creative flair and was definitely a cut above the menus offered at other venues in this touristy little village. Try the mushroom with truffle pizza or the prawn risotto. Make your reservation on tel: +33 4 94 29 92 26.
Day 4 - Île de Port Cros
Port Cros is a much quieter little island than neighbouring Porquerolles. Not even bikes are allowed here, so walkers in search of solitude have the peaceful, largely shaded trails all to themselves with only the birds and plants to share them with. Port-Cros is one of a small number of national parks in France – unlike Porquerolles, which does not have this status.
Ferries are the only way of an accessing these islands. They carry everything from large sacks of laundry to bouquets of flowers to Amazon parcels. The first ferry to Port Cros left Le Lavandou at 9.30 and we caught the 17.40 ferry back at the end of the day. There are a number of walks to choose from on the island. We chose the purple walk (signed Plage du Sud, Barrage , Les Crêtes) , which takes a minimum of 3 hours. Steep climbs and rocky descents means it takes much longer to walk the 9 kilometres than you would think, especially if you including a short (but very steep!) detour up to the top of Mont Vinaigre for a lovely view from 194m above sea level. A day is plenty of time to take your time over a picnic half way round and linger on Pointe du Cognet and La Plage du Sud before heading back up to the village for the last 45 minutes of your walk.
There is a whole different day you could spend here if you took the Sentier des Plantes (Botanical Trail) and took a left fork off to Plage de La Palud where there is a 40 minutes snorkel trail under the ocean. You can pick up a leaflets on both trails at the Maison du Parc.
Flora and Fauna
I have spent a lot of time in the South of France and am familiar with the dry Garrigue landscape. The acidic soils in the Golden Isles mean that the vegetation here is very different from Mediterranean Provence. The Golden Isles are covered with lush green forests known as Maquis. Aleppo and maritime pines are the main species of the forest, but you can also see eucalyptus, cork oak, strawberry trees, heather, and mimosa which are unable to grow in the limestone soils of Mediterranean Provence.
Posidonia is not an algae but a plant, made up of creeping roots, and rhizomes of ribbon like leaves. It forms vast underwater meadows which provide oxygen, shelter, breeding grounds and habitat for many species. On the shore, cushioned carpets of soft, shell pink Posidonia leaves cover the beaches of the Golden Isles. Posidonia has the appearance of a fragile, delicate plant, but it is much tougher than it looks and is vital for the survival of many marine and land species.
Unfortunately, jelly fish can be a real problem here and a sting is nasty and definitely to be avoided. The Syndicat d’Initiative or the National Park Office can advise on the level of risk and which areas to avoid swimming from.
Somewhat to my surprise, I discovered that three large vineyards lie in the heart of the Île du Porquerolles. Several dozen hectares of grenache, mourvèdre, tibouren and syrah grapes allow for the production of an AOC-classed white, red and rosé wines.
Glad I Packed
- A lightweight raincoat – it was a bit damp on Day 1, but beautifully warm and sunny (& not too hot) thereafter.
- Walking poles – there are some steep ups and downs on both islands.
- Microfibre towel – sea swimming at the end of a long walk is the best sort of swimming there is?
Wish I'd Packed
A Snorkel – so I could have made the most of the underwater snorkel trail at Île de Port Cros.
When to Go
Early in the season is definitely best. Ferries can be difficult to co-ordinate much before the middle of May, and by the Summer School Holiday season (mid July to end August), the Golden Isles can receive up to 5-6,000 visitors per day, which maybe isn’t the peace, quiet and solitude that you are looking for? The weather in July/August is also too hot for doing anything other than lazing on the beaches, which would seem to be a waste of the beautiful walks and trails on these special little islands.
Stay Curious - Île du Levant
If you only have time to visit one of the Golden Isles, I would definitely make it Port Cros – but wait – stay curious – what about Île du Levant I hear you ask?
The Naturist Reserve of Héliopolis on Île du Levant is the cradle of naturism in France. Just the name is enough to excite your curiosity isn’t it? Naturism is free throughout the island but is the rule on the seaside paths. There is a village on the island with several restaurants and simple accommodation where you can holiday in harmony with nature and enjoy sunsets and starry nights.
The ferry stops at Port Cros first, so anyone staying on – unless they are there just for the circular ride – must be heading for Héliopolis. Firmly seated when we disembarked our ferry at Port Cros was a thin Frenchman careering somewhere towards his mid eighties. He was stooping a little with the weight of his tattered rucksack that looked as well travelled as its elderly owner. He unpacked and repacked his bag several times on the short ferry crossing, so the contents were clearly visible to his fellow passengers. For his trip to Île du Levant, he was carrying:
- A 3 legged portable folding stool.
- 1 large bottle of sun cream
- 1 large bottle of Eau de Vittel
- A camera – with a large zoom lens.
- A small blue towel with yellow fish swimming across it
- 2 spare batteries (presumably for his hearing aids)
Who needs any more for a stay on a naturist reserve? Judging by the big smile on my fellow passenger’s wrinkled face – which I am guessing he was probably born with – he was going to have a GREAT trip.
No images, for obvious reasons. You will just have to use your imagination.
It had me wondering though …
- When do you get to take all your clothes off?
- Do the rules allow you to wear a sun hat?
- What about sunglasses?
- What do you wear to ride a bike around Heliopolis?
Maybe one day, I will find out – in that other life that awaits me …
Where We Stayed - Accommodation Review
Le Lavandou - Auberge de la Calanque
A lovely auberge – the Auberge de la Calanque just on the edge of the village within easy reach of all the restaurants and facilities and – most importantly – the ferry port. We were allocated Room 1 which has a to die for sea view and a lovely sunny balcony to enjoy it from. The room was spacious, immaculately clean and elegantly decorated – very comfortable. White fluffy bathrobes were provided too. Breakfast was simple, but more than adequate. There is no restaurant at the hotel, but there is a small bar for guests, There is also a swimming pool. A great choice of hotel for exploring the Golden Isles.
Le Mas de Langoustier - Île de Porquerolles
Le Mas de Langoustier is an iconic hotel right in the heart of the Île de Porquerolles with a long standing reputation for excellence. The best thing about it is its isolated location. We were allocated Room 484, which is in the “Chambre Élégante” category. The room had a lovely balcony overlooking the well tended grounds which sweep down to the sea in the distance.
- Location, location, location – a secluded location in the heart of an island with no cars – an overnight stay is a unique experience.
- Two restaurants – one “bistronomic” La Pinède (22/4 – 7/10) and one gastronomic L’Olivier (Jun – Aug). Check opening times – Tuesday to Saturday only?
- Hourly shuttle bus to the village/port
- Lots of quiet areas to laze in a deckchair and relax
- Close to a small sandy beach with good swimming
- Access to La Crique – a small sitting area overlooking the sea and beaches
- A very good breakfast buffet
- A swimming pool – although it was shut when we were there
- No light lunch options were available during our stay, through they may be offered by the pool (which was closed shut during our stay) in season?
- A picnic lunch will cost you a whopping 29 euros pp – we stopped at the village en route instead
- Check the drinks menu for prices before you order. This is an island – and an iconic hotel – but we were still a bit taken aback by just how much a G&T cost?!
- The village is around a 40 minute walk away from the hotel – too far to carry – or wheel – luggage of any size. The shuttle bus only runs once an hour.
- Hassle checking out – the bill was wrong and had to be corrected, which took so long that we nearly missed the shuttle bus – and the ferry connection! Le Mas de Langoustier – you could do better …