‘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 harbour.
The smallestisland 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 paddleboarding, 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 rosé 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!