Sleep on a Sailboat on This Car-Free French Island
The South of France you probably haven’t heard of.
When people think of islands off the coast of France, they tend to look west to Île de Ré and the handful of spots strewn around Brittany’s jagged shores. But at the very southern edge of Provence, before veering into the star-studded spots lining the French Riviera, there’s a trio of islands dubbed “les îles d’Or,” or “the Golden Isles,” that are frequented more by sailors than the party-centric crowd you’d find in nearby Saint-Tropez. Beyond being remote, since no road connects to them, a couple of the islands are also completely car-free. For all those people who'd rather not learn the rules of the road for another country but still want to go beyond metro-serviced, crowded cities when traveling, this one’s for you.
Each of the islands is more rugged than the next. Porquerolles’s powdery beaches require hikes through pine forests—and there’s (blissfully) not a beach bar in sight. The unspoiled Port-Cros, a national park, was ransacked by pirates up until the 20th century and is now a hiker’s paradise, with nothing but marked trails crisscrossing preserved forests. And only a small sliver of neighboring, electricity-free Le Levant (90% of which belongs to the French army) is open to the public—and it’s mostly a naturist resort.
The ideal way of hopping around these coasts is by boat—either on your own or with the help of a captain who can navigate the waters. If you’re chartering a boat for a few days, even better. Port-Cros, the smallest of the islands, doesn’t even have accommodations, and options are limited on the biggest island of Porquerolles (which boasts a whopping population of 200). That’s why most people post up on the shore of mainland France in the town of Hyères, the “original French Riviera,” one of the lesser-visited destinations on the coast between Nice and Marseille. The majority of the tourists here are French (if that tells you anything), and it was the winter retreat of choice for the likes of Tolstoy and Queen Victoria.
If you take a drive along the Giens peninsula—once an island itself that’s now sewed to the mainland by a double strip of sand dunes on either side of the salt marshes—you’ll reach one of Hyères’s traditional fishing harbors, Tour Fondue, which is where the ferry takes off for the Golden Isles. Sure, you can visit all three, but you’ll want to make the car-free island of Porquerolles, just a 15-minute ride off the coast, your base. Here’s what to do once you get there.
Bike to Caribbean-worthy beaches
With only a handful of studios and small hotels on the island, the best place to post up for the night is on one of the boats docked in the harbor (which can easily be booked via Airbnb). Since the only mode of transportation on the island is by bike, this is the first thing you’ll want to check off the list once you arrive. Luckily, most boats come with a pair of wheels; if not, there are bike rental stands near the main square (which doubles as the main village).
The croissant-shaped island stretches four miles long and two miles wide, and it’s divided into two parts: the steep cliffs on the southern side, where hikers can trek down to hard-to-spot creeks, and long, sandy shores in the north, best reached by bike. Take your pick of coastal loop trails that start at the port and branch out to the beaches lining the northeastern shore, like the popular Plage Notre Dame (named one of Europe’s most beautiful), which is shielded by Aleppo pines.
On the opposite side, you’ll find one of the lesser-frequented beaches, the shallow Le Langoustier, about a 45-minute bike ride from town. Nearby, the secluded, Tiffany-blue-shuttered Le Mas du Langoustier, a former country-home-turned-hotel that once belonged to the island’s owners, is everything you picture when you think of Provence—namely, French country-style antique furnishings and a pool encased by eucalyptus and pine trees. You’ll find lounge chairs and umbrellas on the sand below (the closest to a beach club on the island), and a bistro, La Pinède, on the terrace overlooking the sea. The restaurant’s special? La langouste (lobster), of course.
Walk barefoot past Andy Warhol paintings
When Godard shot his classic Pierrot le Fou in the 1960s, the land where Villa Carmignac sits was a farm. Architect Henri Vidal later turned the farmhouse into a villa and surrounded it with vines, creating Domaine La Courtade in the process. More recently, it’s opened up as a contemporary art museum—which you stroll through sans shoes—with galleries illuminated by a ceiling of water and permanent works by artists from Andy Warhol to masters like Botticelli.
Outside, in the national nature reserve, you’ll find 15 sculptures by the likes of Jeppe Hein and Olaf Breuning placed in the surrounding gardens, where an open-air cinema is held in the summer months. If you happen to be visiting on a full moon, you can take a guided tour of the sculptures led by the (recorded) voices of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Patti Smith.
“Hyères in particular has a strong presence on the modern and contemporary art front, due in large part to the famed Villa Noailles, which hosts exhibitions, festivals, and contemporary art and design ateliers all year long,” says Alexandra Weinress, founder of Paris-based The Seen, which offers bespoke private art tours around France. “The Villa Carmignac is a beautiful continuation of the region's cultural heritage, since it features a wide range of artists who are propelling new ideas forward.”
Sip rosé, play pétanque, and bask in boat life
Despite being such a small island, Porquerolles is home to two wine estates: the organic Domaine La Courtade, which offers tastings and tours of the vines, and the Chanel-owned Domine de l’Ile in the heart of the island, not far from Plage Notre Dame. Pick up a few bottles of rosé and pedal back to town for a DIY apéro in the main square, where locals play pétanque (or boules) until the sun sets.
The island’s handful of restaurants mostly line the town square (Place d’Armes), so if you’re visiting in the busy summer months, you’ll want to reserve ahead. This is also one of the reasons it’s better to come in the shoulder season (May and September are really the best months, since there are fewer tourists and it’s not sweltering). Two great picks in the square are Pélagos, where you can dine on catch of the day à la plancha or freshly shucked oysters, and L’étal du Boucher, a combination butcher shop, wine cellar, and restaurant with a Thai twinge.
The island clears out when the last ferry leaves, so most places wind down early. End the evening with a cocktail on the terrace of L’escale, which looks out at the harbor, before heading back to your boat for a nightcap on deck—which you’ll quickly realize everyone else in port is doing.