We visited the Lérins Islands on our first research trip of the French Riviera, during the early days of France Just For You. We knew that we would include this region in our self-drive tours of France, so it was essential that we knew it inside out.
Our first port of call on the French Riviera was Nice, and the crowded pebble beach there was nothing to write home about, though I did enjoy our swim under the stars that night. Only in the French Riviera is the sea warm enough to bathe in at night in October!
However, after a couple of days in this southern city, we felt that our whole experience was lacking authenticity. To discover the real beauty of the region, we would have to venture beyond the big cities and resorts.
Our next stop was Cannes, as we knew that the town’s glamorous history and film festival would be of interest to some of our travellers. After a day exploring the city, we decided to take a boat to the Lérins Islands, about which we’d heard a lot of good things.
Cannes harbor (Photo: Guy Lebègue)
There are two main islands served by ferries from Cannes. We left early and took the 15-minute ferry journey to the larger of the Lérins Islands, Ile Sainte-Marguerite, made famous by the legend of the Man in the Iron Mask, who was held in the island’s prison.
Ile Sainte Marguerite (Photo: Museesc)
The Fortress and Maritime Museum
The museum is housed in the island’s 17th century fortress. Here you can learn about the history of Fort Royal and the legends of the Man in the Iron Mask, whose identity remains uncertain even today. Some historians and writers speculated that he was the illegitimate older brother of King Louis XIV, or even his twin brother, who may have been hidden away during his youth and was locked away when he later laid claim to the throne. Others say he may have been King Louis’ true father instead of King Louis XIII, and alternative theories suggest he was a rebel who was involved in the planning of political uprisings. Many of these theories are explained in the museum, and visitors can visit the cell where the Man in the Iron Mask was held.
(Photo: Cédric Puisney)
The museum contains interesting artefacts from shipwrecks, some dating back to the Roman times. Apart from the building’s historical interest, the museum is nice to visit at the hottest time of day in the summer if you plan to spend a whole day on the island. The fort also has beautiful views across to Cannes.
Walking trails and beaches
There are various walking trails on the island, which are all well sign-posted and easy to follow. You may like to allow a few hours for exploring the island and enjoying its iconic umbrella pines and eucalyptus trees. Not all trails are shaded, so be sure to bring sunblock and a hat on a sunny day!
The beaches on the island are rocky, but they are less crowded than on the mainland and the sea is just as beautiful. The atmosphere is also more peaceful and natural – the perfect place to bring a picnic or enjoy a sunset. If you’re looking for a quiet place to stop for a swim, take the Chemin de Ceinture, which runs along the south side of the island. There aren’t beaches as such, but there are secluded little creaks and enclaves under the trees which offer some privacy and nice views of the neighbouring island of Saint Honorat.
Food and Drink
There are a couple of restaurants and bars on the island, but these are sometimes closed during the low season. We recommend bringing a picnic and a blanket, so you can sit down and enjoy lunch at one of the island’s pretty little creeks.
Ile Saint Honorat
On our next visit to the Lérins Islands we visited the smaller Ile Saint Honorat, which we had heard was the more charming of the two main islands. Saint Honorat receives fewer visitors than its larger neighbour, so the island seems more peaceful and well-kept. If it’s tranquillity and solitude you’re after, you’ll love Saint Honorat.
Ile Saint Honorat (Photo: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez)
The Abbey and Monastery
The island has been home to a community of monks since the fifth century, when Saint Honoratus, an early Archbishop of Arles, founded a monastery there. It became a place of pilgrimage in medieval times, but as the islands were fought over by the French, Spanish and Italians from the 17th century onwards, the monk population dwindled, having suffered from attacks and expulsions, and the monastery was closed just before the French Revolution in 1787. However, in 1859, the Bishop of Fréjus bought the island from the State and established a community of Cistercian monks, around 30 of which live in the monastery today.
Volunteers help to run the abbey and are pleased to give guided tours. The Abbey is set among gorgeous gardens and the monks make their own wine and honey, which visitors can purchase from the monastery shop. Those who are interested may attend Mass in the Abbey with the monks. Mass normally starts at 11.25am from Monday to Saturday, and at 9.50am on Sundays, subject to festivals and other ceremonies.
Saint Honorat Abbey, Lerins Islands (Photo: Mark Fischer, Flickr)
Walking trails and swimming spots
Similar to Sainte Marguerite, Saint Honorat has a few walking trails which circle and bisect the island, and often run alongside vineyards. Take the path closest to the sea (make sure you’re wearing good walking shoes) and stroll around the island. It’s a beautiful walk as the seascape views are very varied on each side of the island. Again, stop for a picnic at one of the secluded rocky creeks, and enjoy a swim in the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean.
We think that the history, architecture, and natural surroundings on both islands are interesting and beautiful. If you are interested in the history of the Man in the Iron Mask and in archaeology, you may find the fort and the Maritime Museum at Sainte Marguerite especially interesting. Also if you are looking to spend a whole day on one of the islands, you will be able to do a longer walk on Ile Sainte Marguerite. If it’s seclusion and tranquillity you’re looking for, and perhaps a more spiritual atmosphere, we highly recommend a half-day or full-day trip to the beautiful Ile Saint Honorat.
If you would like to include a trip to the Lérins Islands in your French Riviera itinerary, please just let us know!