Two islands make up the Ile de Lérins off Cannes. Just a peaceful 15-minute boat ride from the glitzy resort, these islands are the place to unwind, enjoying a waterside picnic, swimming in hidden coves, wandering around the Abbey, and tasting monastic award-winning wines.
A little history
The islands have been occupied since Roman times but followed very different paths. While Saint Honorat has always been associated with peace and prayer, Sainte Marguerite has been more warlike.
In AD 410 St Honoratus landed on Saint Honorat, his private paradise, but word spread and soon the hermit had a successful monastery on his hands, including the future St Patrick as a disciple. By the fifth century, this was arguably the most illustrious monastery in Christendom. It eventually controlled abbeys and land stretching from the Cannes coast to the Loire Valley. A small community of Cistercian monks still runs the island.
Instead, the island of Sainte Marguerite chose war. In the 1630s, the island was occupied by the Spanish, who built a pentagonal fort on an ancient Roman site. Under French royal rule, the fort was finished and became a feared state prison, including for political prisoner and religious dissenters. The mysterious inmate known as ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ was held there for 11 years from 1687 to 1698. The so-called Fort Royal is still formidable today.
Touring Ile Sainte Marguerite
The island of Sainte Marguerite is the closest, largest and lushest of the secret Iles de Lérins off Cannes. From the ferry, it’s a gentle five-mile circuit around the shore, but there are lots of short cuts back to the fort and the ferry landing stage. To get a sense of the island as a place of pillage and plunder, visit the Fort Royal first. For a picnic, choose one of the wilder creeks on the southern side of the island, along the Allée de Ceinture, or the lofty grounds of the Fort Royal, looking across the bay towards Cannes.
From the pier, take a left towards the pentagonal Fort Royal, the island’s star attraction. This cliff-top stronghold and former prison overlooks Cannes and the coast, with romantic views from the ramparts. The Fort Royal was built by Cardinal Richelieu but remodelled by Vauban, the great military architect. During World War Two, the occupying Nazis added bunkers and a look-out tower.
The fort is most famous for being the prison of ‘the Man in the Iron Mask’. The mysterious masked captive was confined here for 11 years and might conceivably have been Louis XIV’s twin brother, or even a woman. His cell is oddly moving.
Behind the former prison is the Maritime Museum (Musée de la Mer) with a Roman boat and a collection of pottery recovered from ancient shipwrecks.
From here, if feeling lazy, take the Allée des Eucalyptus, where stately trees line the way to the wilder, southern shore, with its rocky coastline and sea breezes. Cars are banned so you should have the coves, trails and turquoise waters mostly to yourself, except in summer. The perfect micro climate means that the island is often balmy in April, even when clouds hang over the Cannes hills.
Instead, if feeling more energetic, retrace your steps from the fort to the pier and follow the coastal path in an anti-clockwise direction. Pass the island’s only proper beaches, between the pier and Pointe de Batéguier, to the Etang du Batéguier nature reserve. In spring and autumn this brackish lake is a welcome landing stage for migratory birds. Even outside these times you might spot herons, stern and wild duck, or a kestrel overhead. All proof that the island is attuned to birdsong not bling.
From here, follow the Chemin de Ceinture path, which hugs the waterfront and runs west to east the 3km length of the island. It takes you to the wilder waterfront, facing the contemplative monks, not consumerist Cannes. The dizzyingly natural scents evoke Corsica not Cannes. Breathe in the scented bush, a mix of eucalyptus and thyme, lentisk and lavender, honeysuckle and heather.In the secluded coves, it’s hard to believe that Cannes’ star-studded Croisette is just over a mile away.
For swimming, sensible sorts choose one of the island’s rare sandy beaches, facing Cannes, close to Chemin du Batéguier. Romantics and yachties prefer the wilder southern shore facing away from the city. Here, the coastline is riddled with tiny, crooked coves made for sunbathing and swimming. Edged by Aleppo pines and scorched brush, the creeks fill up with smug yachties in high summer.
Keep following the trail east, rounding the windswept Pointe de la Conventionto reach the tamer northern shore. After a picnic or gourmet lunch, amble back to the jetty and chug home to Cannes. If rushing for a boat, cut across the forested interior via the tunnel-like paths.
Where to eat
Ponder a Mediterranean picnic of ham, cheese and olives picked up at Forville market in Cannes, before the cruise. Or try these places restaurants.
Isles de Lérins
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 43 49 30
Lunch on the waterfront April-October, and dinner from mid-June Thursday-Saturday. Seafood and Provencal dishes, including grilled lobster and seabass ceviche.
Between the pier and the Fort Royal
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 43 49 25
Mostly only lunch served in this waterside seafood spot, but sometimes dinner in July and August. Expect bouillabaisse and grilled fish.
Visiting Ile Saint Honorat
Saint Honorat is tucked behind Sainte Marguerite, and easily overlooked. It’s not quite as accessible as its big sister – exactly as the monks like it. Even so, in August, the flotilla of moored yachts almost makes a bridge between the two islands. Sadly, you can’t hop across, but need to take the ferry from Cannes. It’s all part of preserving the monks’ peaceful way of life. This serene, mile-long island has been a place of prayer for over 1,500 years, bar the odd piratical invasion.
The island is still a heady mix of scented paths, swaying umbrella pines and wafting monks. Around twenty Cistercian brothers share their retreat with the world. These black-and-white cassocked monks are among the holiest and happiest you’ll ever meet. As Brother Marie-Paques, the abbey spokesman says, “a community life means joy and inner peace.”
The community is contemplative and cloistered, as St Benedict envisioned. Their tenets are work, love, pray and self-sufficiency, an extension of the Benedictines’ devotion to “ora e labora” (`work and prayer’). It’s about simplicity, stripping life down to its essence, including communal prayers seven times a day. But these austere monks also observe the ancient Benedictine tradition of hospitality. You are welcome to join them for Sunday Mass, Vespers or even a spiritual retreat.
Take a clockwise tour of the island, respecting the monks’ private domain, signalled by symbols of cassocked monks. Resisting their gated pathways strewn with wild geraniums, hug the coast and you can’t go wrong. From the jetty, head east, passing well-tended vineyards and olive groves. On the east of the island are tiny bays and ruined chapels, a reminder that some date back over a millennium. Curiously, the island is also dotted with furnaces that forged cannonballs in Napoleonic times.
The fortified monastery is the most romantic building, standing sentinel on the southern shore, facing the open sea. Soon to be restored, this stark medieval citadel defended the community against Saracen raids.It is without equal in the Mediterranean. Climb the eerie staircase to the roof terraces for views over the honey-tinted abbey and the mountains beyond across the water.
From here, a path leads to the handsome abbey, mostly dating from the 19th century. The abbey complex is worked by the twenty-strong monks, who toil in the vineyards, lavender beds and herb gardens. The black-and-white cassocked Brothers can be wafting through the wisteria-hung cloisters towards the winery. As monastic tradition dictates, the fragrant herbs often end up in potent liqueurs, fortified by Menton lemons and secret brews.
The abbey church is most compelling at Easter Day Mass, when the simple but heartfelt `service of light’ justifies the crossing. If doing a retreat here, you can even join the monks in the Saturday night Easter Vigil, held before sunrise on Easter Day. Later, if you are lucky enough to bump into the beaming Frere Marie-Pacques, he might be toasting the Resurrection with a glass of abbey wine.
Spirits for the spiritual
There have probably been vineyards here since the foundation of the abbey as wine was needed for Holy Communion. Brother Marie-Pâques, in charge of wine-making, began as a beekeeper before God called him to serve. Today, the 8-hectare vineyards are renowned for their unique terroir that produces wines of great subtlety, helped by the temperate, maritime climate and the minerality of the soil. After tasting the abbey wines, whether St Honorat or St Saveur, sacrilegious visitors have been known to cry: “Hallelujah, there is a god!”
If keen on Bordeaux-style wines, toast the monks in their own brew: Brother Marie-Pâques is certain that the island vineyards offer a unique ‘terroir’ that is behind the striking freshness and minerality of the wines, reinforced by the salty air and marine breezes. Sample the renowned wines in the abbey boutique, bar or restaurant (see below). Instead, the affordable liqueurs include: Lérincello, made with Menton lemons; citrussy Lérina Jaune; and herby Lérina Verte, made with mint, aniseed and verbena.
Where to eat
Tonnelle (restaurant and wine bar) & Les Canisses (cafe)
Ile Saint Honorat (by the jetty)
Tel: +33 (0)4 92 99 54 08 (same day only)
For a discount on your ferry, book everything online on the web link above.
La Tonnelle, the charming waterfront restaurant, is only open for lunch. Choose from reasonably-priced grilled meats, seafood, shellfish, foie gras and salads, matched with (pricey but special) monastic wines. This is a proper restaurant but Les Canisses (11.45am-5pm, open year-round) serves snacks such as panini, sandwiches, ice cream, coffee and cakes (lemon tart and chocolate cake for tea); lounge bar too.
The islands are a shopping-free zone. But if you’re pushing the boat out, buy the renowned abbey wines (or better-value liqueurs) which can be sampled at the Abbaye de Lérins, or over the water in Cannes.
Cannes – Office du Tourisme Palais des Festivals
1, Boulevard de la Croisette
Tel: +33 (0)4 92 99 84 22
Open daily March-October 9am-7pm
Cannes hotel booking on line
Pricey monastic wine, good-value Lérincello liqueur and olive oil can be bought online or in person.