Hyères and Porquerolles - live the Riviera lifestyle without the luvvies
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‘Don’t just visit Porquerolles for the day’, a French friend
advised me when I said I was heading to Hyères on the Riviera. ‘Stay overnight and experience an authentic
slice of island life.’
And what good advice. On a summer afternoon, this idyllic island - permanent population 300 - buzzes
with visitors who have taken the short ferry ride from Hyères, attracted by
Porquerolles’ sandy beaches, pretty village, and network of hiking and biking
trails. Book into a hotel though and
you can relax over a cocktail, watch the sun set over the harbour, and sit down
to a delicious dinner.
I stayed at Les Medes, just behind
the harbour, and dined informally but royally at Pelagos, overlooking the sandy
square where locals play pétanque on summer evenings. Next morning, I got up early to walk the
quiet quayside and enjoy the early morning light before day visitors poured off
the first ferry of the day.
Porquerolles goes hand-in-hand with Hyères, oldest seaside
resort on the French Riviera. Founded by
the Greeks, Hyères developed in the Middle Ages around the local salt marshes,
a prosperous community that enchanted the romantics of the late 19th with its
medieval centre and glorious location. Today it offers a slice of Riviera lifestyle without the glitz and
pretension of some of its near neighbours.
Midway between Marseilles and Saint-Tropez, Hyères is
sheltered by low hills which create a microclimate favouring tropical palms,
orange trees and other exotic species. There are beaches too in abundance. The Giens Penininsula stretches south from the town centre, two lines of
sand dunes enclosing the salt marshes which once brought prosperity to the
town. Today they are a nature reserve, a
meeting place for more than 250 bird species and home to a colony of flamingos.
Just a ferry hop away, Porquerolles is the largest of the
three Iles d’Or or Golden Islands. Just
four miles long, it boasts one pretty small town and some glorious beaches
including Notre Dame, recently voted Best European Beach 2015. You need to put in a little effort to get
there though. Porquerolles is car-free
and Notre Dame is around 45-minutes by bike along undulating pine-fringed
trails. Hire your wheels at the
Smallest island is Port-Cros which boasts a bijou harbour of
terracotta coloured villas and palm trees. But whilst Porquerolles is for bikers, walkers and beach fans, Port Cros
is the hiker’s island, wooded and rugged with tiny coves at the foot of steep
paths. You will find beaches on the third island, Le
Levant, but strictly naturist only!
The three islands make up the Regional Natural Park of Port-Cros, a protected area spanning both land and sea. I enjoyed a close-up look on an exhilarating half-day speedboat cruise that included a refreshment stop in Port-Cros. On a sunny summer Sunday, an ice cream boat was flitting between the small yachts moored in the aquamarine shallows and water sports enthusiasts were out in force.
If sailing or windsurfing sounds too energetic, I can
personally recommend paddle boarding, a gentle activity that’s perfectly
suitable for mature travellers with a sense of adventure. I made my debut with Alex from Attitude
Paddle in the calm, clear waters off La Courtade beach and found the wide,
thick paddle board remarkably stable. It
was just the pilot who had issues! But after
a couple of early dunkings, I was soon able to steer where I wanted to go. More or less!
Back on the mainland, Hyères has a delightfully authentic
feel. Yes, I spotted a few high heels
at the bustling Saturday morning market, but most of the shoppers were young
families and elderly residents come to buy the freshest of local produce. Succulent peaches. Round yellow courgettes. Huge beefsteak tomatoes. All mouthwatering stuff.
Needless to say, you eat well here. I
began my stay with lunch beside the beach at Le Pradeau Plage, the waves
lapping the tiny cove beneath the pine trees. But there are many restaurants too tucked in the narrow streets of the
Old Town, especially around Place Massillon, a pretty square beneath the
Knights Templar Tower where I enjoyed Catch of the Day at Le Haut du Pavé.
Fish lovers need never eat anything else here and the shell-pink rose wine - 70% of local production - is the ideal accompaniment. For traditional Provençal fare with a light touch, drop in on innovative Dutch chef Dop Weber at Joy in picturesque rue de Limans - the fragrant ground almond sponge of his clafoutis cherry pudding was to die for.
Away from the table, you can wander the narrow pedestrian
streets of the Old Town, festooned with brilliant bougainvillea in summer. Walk the elegant boulevards lined with
exotic palms to see the 19th century villas and public buildings. And visit the terraced gardens of
Saint-Claire castle and the Art Deco Villa Noailles, both offering panoramic
views over rooftops towards the islands.
On my last day, I sat at a terrace table at Le Niel
Paillotte Arbanaise, a popular, quayside restaurant that overlooks the tiny
harbour of Port du Niel. Here at the tip of the peninsula, I enjoyed slow food
at its very best, the gleaming fish carried across the road from the fishing
boats, still wet from the sea. Food
miles? Here in Hyères, you can measure
the journey in feet!
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