The Islands of Provence: Porquerolles
Iles d’Hyeres Porquerolles are the Perfect Romantic Getaway
By Max Hartshorne
Port-Cros is France’s smallest national park, located about 7 km off the coast of the city of Hyeres.
It may be small, but a staggering 1.2 million visitors visit the largest of these islands, Porquerolles, every year, so it’s hard to say that they’re undiscovered.
But to many Americans, these eco-friendly islands may be a great new place to go. Along with Porquerolles is the smaller island of Port-Cros and a larger third island, Le Lavant, which is mostly taken up by a military base and has a small part that’s reserved for a nudist camp. Ooh la la!
Though served by 22 ferryboats during the peak travel season of July and August, about half the island’s visitors arrive by private boat. It’s a pretty sweet ride across the strait, with the Provencal sun glinting over the water and the mountains just behind.
To get to Hyeres, you can rent a car at the Marseille airport, or take the TGV from Paris to Toulon, then take a bus to Hyeres. After you get to the ferry dock, called Tour fondue, you don’t need the car for a few days.
The Mistral Winds
But when the famous mistral blows, it can be a bumpy ferry trip. During our visit a planned kayaking trip across the sea to the island had to be nixed because nobody wants to be out in the water, even close to shore amidst the mistral’s winds. The good news is that though they blow about 300 days a year, these winds from the south always bring sunny weather.
And a sunny day on the beautiful and barely developed Porquerolles is a gift from the heavens.
Only a Few Cars
The island is about the size of Nantucket, the jewel of the Massachusetts coast, but the ferry ride is about one third as long and doesn’t include the cars. The cars, which are really the downside and cause of the traffic jams on the Grey Lady, that’s not a problem in Porquerolles. The only jams here are made from the local berries, the streets are full of bikers, walkers, and the occasional electric cart.
Each family is allowed to have one regular car—but there are no gas stations, so instead, most people bike, or use electric golf carts to get around. When you visit the village, (which like Nantucket’s doesn’t have a name) you walk the long walkway off the ferry and see a sea of masts. Sailing vessels of all stripes, plus rental jet skis and some of the classic old fishing vessels that still ply the local waters are all around you.
You pass by many of the palm trees, which sadly, have been the victims of a vicious beetle which has forced their removal all over Provence. And when you cut down one of these palms, you can’t use the wood for anything, the only solution is to chop it up for the landfill.
Our hotel, L’Auberge des Glycines, is run by the friendly Florence Sanchez and her family, and they will pick up your luggage at the ferry. Florence speaks English and has been here for 25 years. They’re open all year ‘round. Florence said that many people love coming out to Porquerolles over New Years, and they also come in February.
We visited Porquerolles in October, a week before the official end to the season. Jerome, a local guide who works for the National Park, told us that during the summer, all of those pleasure boats that come out for the day anchor to buoys 300 meters offshore. “It’s so crowded on the beaches that every person gets about half a meter!”
And Jerome wasn’t happy when one of these sandy crescents, Notre Dame Beach, was named the Beach of the Year for Europe. “We don’t like that, we don’t like that at all,” he laughed.
Looking at the island from the center of Hyeres, it resembles a crocodile’s snout. On either end of the 7 kilometer long island are forts, built to repel the many forces who tried to invade.
We climbed to the top of the Ste Agathe tower, built in 1531, for a sweeping view of the azure blue sea, the beautifully tilled orchards and ponds that act as water filters, and the masts in the big harbor.
It’s strikingly pretty even amidst the blowing winds which gave everyone a “mistral haircut.’
Lining the streets of the village are bike rental places, where for 11.5 euros you can grab a sturdy mountain bike for exploring the well-marked trails that take you up, back and to either side of the island.
The cost to bring your own bike across on the ferry is the same—and do not make the mistake of bringing a road bike.
These trails are filled with sharp shards of the famous schist, the hard rock that combines with limestone to make up most of the soils of Provence. And it’s pretty easy to get a flat and be stuck.
A remarkable view is a treat at the end of the ride to the north side of Porquerolles. There are cliffs at the end that descend down 300 feet to the crashing waves. No fences, no signs of warning, just an ominous drop along the ragged edge of lands end. Wow.
We wound our way up and down the trails, taking the longest ride from the village to see Notre Dame beach, and later we headed back to the Auberge for a big lunch in the sunny courtyard. A few people donned their suits to take the plunge but we remained up at the top, content to just drink in the view, enhanced by a navy blue million-dollar sailing yacht tied up just off the beach.
Snails and Local Veggies
Madame Sanchez first brought out the traditional Provencal starter, tapenade, made with anchovies and the dark black olives.
Then another Provence classic, boulot, snails in their shells, redolent of garlic and plucked out using the narrow implements set next to our forks.
Then the main dish, a groaning board with every local vegetable for sale in the market steamed up—green beans, zucchini, beets, carrots, p
lus local fish from the harbor and for good measure, calamari, more snails, and hard cooked eggs.
But even after this giant repast, we knew that there would be dessert, and of course, the obligatory coffee. All was fine with the addition of a little rest in our comfortable rooms, before more exploration of the island by foot.
Across from the Auberge is a large dirt square, one that in my New England would be a carpet of well-trodden grass. But here, it is a stony open field. In the evening, we discovered what this field is used for. It’s the traditional game of Provence, Petanque, which is just like the boule you’ll in Italy.
But the rules here call for throwing the small cochonnet, or the piglet, from a circle, scratched into the dirt. And like boules, the object is to come as close to that little yellow ball as you can using the iron boules, each with its own unique design to tell them apart and keep score.
We rallied to a victory, our team of international visitors, players hailed from Italy, Germany, UK, Australia, Canada and the US. As we sipped local rose and finished our game, anticipating another stellar meal of seafood, it was all good.
Life in Provence just ends up that way, whether the mistal is blowing or not.
Visit Porquerolles websites
Enjoy a voyage aboard a 1940s former tuna boat, Brigantin, for a memorable journey over to Porquerolles. 60e per person includes lunch.
Rates at the Auberge des Glycines, range from $78 off season to $250 during the summer. 33 (0) 4 94 58 30 36
The ferry costs 12e per person one way.
Porquerolles is located inside the Port-Cros National Park, France’s smallest national park designated to protect and conserve marine and land-based flora and fauna and promote agricultural and achitectural heritage.
This trip was sponsored by the Mediterranean Eco-tourism Experience Project, or MEET.org. Find out about their roster of exciting eco-tours throughout Europe and in countries on the Mediterranean. All opinions are the writer’s own.