When enjoying the spectacular landing at Nice airport and approaching from the west, you are bound to notice the two small islands off the coast of Cannes, Ile Sainte Marguerite and Ile Saint Honorat, known collectively as the Iles de Lérins (along with two much smaller and uninhabited islands). Both car free islands offer a huge contrast to the hustle and bustle and frenetic pace of the French Riviera and in this article, I will focus on the smaller and less visited of the two, Ile Saint Honorat. Famed for its historical and still functioning medieval abbey run by Cistercian monks and for the special wines and liqueurs that they produce locally, this small island of just 40 hectares is full of bucolic charm and splendid views and can be visited all year round. Carry on reading this article to experience a total culture shock, just 25 minutes from the port of Cannes and for full photos of my visit, please visit the Ile Saint Honorat album on the French Riviera Blog Facebook page.
- Historical background
Ile Saint Honorat is named after Saint Honoratus from Arles who landed on this uninhabited island at the start of the 5th century AD. Initially, he came to the island to be alone but unfortunately for him, word went out of his presence and disciples quickly joined him, leading him to found a first monastery which quickly became extremely powerful. Legend has it that even Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, spent time studying on the island.
In 660, Saint Aygulf established Benedictine rules in the monastery and the monks carried on living there over the following centuries despite various problems such as attacks from Saracens and Genoese pirates due to the strategic location of the island at the entrance to the bay of Cannes.
Things came to a head in the 17th century when the Spaniards invaded the island and expelled the monks, who only returned two years later when the French took the island back. The abbey carried on despite the dwindling monastic community until just before the French Revolution in 1787, when the abbey was disestablished. During the revolution itself, the island was taken over by the State and then sold to a wealthy actress from the Comédie Française, Mlle de Sainval, who redecorated the place, notably the tower, and allegedly did a few things that weren’t exactly in keeping with the monastic heritage of the island.
The strategic location of the island was again taken advantage of by the military during the Napoleonic wars, to defend the entrance to the bay, with some additional military equipment such as the cannon ball ovens, dating back from that time.
In 1859, the Bishop of Frejus decided to buy the island back for the clergy and donated it to the community of Cistercian monks based at the Abbaye de Sénanque in Gordes, Provence (a spectacular place, famous for its stunning lavender fields) – in 1869, the Abbey of Sénanque decided to move the community to Ile Saint Honorat. The Cistercians are an order who separated from the Benedictines in the 11th century that and are known to be traditionally austere and hard workers, following the original guidelines of Saint Benedict for prayer (ora) and work (labora). This is why they eat in silence and grow wine to stay as financially independent as they can and developed certain business skills in between.
Over the last few decades, the island has developed into a tourist haven for those seeking a bit of peace and quiet and it is even possible to come and “retire” for a few days on the island to enjoy being in the middle of nature and silence just a few kilometres from the hustle and bustle of the city of Cannes in the company of the 20 monks living there. The wine growing business has also taken off in a major way since the 1990s and the wines, which have become more and more researched, have received several awards alongside the traditional liqueurs, which are also produced on the island.
- Getting to the island
It’s simple, from Cannes the only way is by boat from the ferry terminal located on Quai Laubeuf, opposite the Radisson Blu hotel on the western side of Cannes (at the foot of Le Suquet old town and 15 minutes walk at an easy pace from the Palace of Festivals). The boats are centrally run by the island administration and you can either buy your tickets on the spot, provided you arrive a bit early, or else online on the official website, where you can get some discount rates and also find the timetables.
In order to maintain the atmosphere of the island, the monks, who still manage it alongside some business professionals, decided to limit the number of visitors. This is the reason why it’s impossible to combine a trip to Ile Saint Honorat with a trip to Ile Sainte Marguerite without having a private boat or returning to Cannes: in the past, it was possible to do an island hopping tour and that deteriorated the quality of the welcome on the island so direct links between the islands were stopped in the 1990s. Less practical, but I can understand when I see how unspoiled the place is.
Once you’re on the boat, just sit on the top deck and enjoy a spectacular 25 minute cruise across the bay of Cannes, out of the port, weaving the way through the private yachts and around the side Ile Sainte Marguerite (note the wartime bunkers by the coast) up to the tiny harbour and docking point at the northern end of Ile Saint Honorat.
Now it’s time to go and explore the island!
- Walking round the island
The first thing that will strike you when getting off the boat and walking for a few minutes away from the main port and from the other tourists is the peace and quiet that reigns on the island due to the lack of cars as well as the clean air and pure light – the clean air also perhaps comes from the fact that smoking is forbidden on the footpaths of the island but smokers will be relieved to know that they can smoke in the restaurant complex. I would suggest getting acquainted with the general directions of the island using the maps provided at the ferry terminal.
As you can see on the map, the island is a flattened triangle shape, about 1.5km long by 400m at the widest point. Most of the main attractions – the abbey and the fortified monastery – are located on a north-south line leaving directly from the port, as are the restaurants, so if you don’t fancy walking too much, that’s the easy option. The centre of the island is covered with vineyards, with different areas allotted to the different varieties of grapes.
I would however recommend, if you have the time or inclination to do so, a full walk around the island, which will take around an hour and will provide spectacular views and a great opportunity to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the vegetation. Here are some of the main highlights:
- The medieval chapels located at various parts of the coastline, 5 of which can be visited: La Trinité, St Sauveur, St Caprais, St Pierre and the ruins of St Michel. Each of the chapels has its own setting (with some directly by the sea and others in slightly more secluded locations) and its own unique charm. Below are from left to top right, St Sauveur, St Pierre and St Caprais.
- Cannonball ovens… These rather original contraptions were built by the Napoleonic army to heat up the cannonballs that were used to defend the island and the bay of Cannes against attacking ships, it’s easy to imagine the damage that was caused. There are two of them, located at the cardinal points, one next to Chapelle St Caprais to the west and the other next to Chapelle La Trinité to the east.
- The splendid views and vegetation: each side of the island offers a different panoramic view. The north coast (the longest, where the port is located) faces Ile Sainte Marguerite and the channel in between the islands is full of private yachts in the summer. The western coast affords spectacular views across part of the bay of Cannes and the Esterel mountains and the southern coast has unlimited views across the open sea. The island is dotted with small rocky beaches and creeks where you can easily go for a dip in the inviting turquoise water or have a picnic. Here’s a sample of the views on offer whilst walking around.
- The abbey
Once you are half way around the island, stop by the beautiful Cistercian abbey close to the southern tip, which was dedicated in 1088, even though all that remains of the original abbey from the 11th/12th centuries is the medieval cloister where the monks still live and where guests wanting to spend a spiritual retreat can stay. The spectacular main church, set in some beautiful Mediterranean gardens full of palm trees and flowers, was built between 1874 and 1878.
The interior of the church is pretty spartan (as befits a Cistercian monastery) but the surroundings are gorgeous so just walk around and soak in the serene atmosphere.
I had the opportunity during my private tour to visit some parts that are inaccessible to normal visitors, such as the relaxing private gardens that can be used by the visitors on spiritual retreats, the water tower and the intriguing Clos de la Charité. This tiny group on small vines just behind the main abbey is used to grow special wines that are then sold each year at charity auctions, the proceeds of which are used to help the poor. Each vine is sponsored by a benefactor who gets nothing in return apart from a small plaque with the name, one of the most notable of these is H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco.
Regarding the spiritual retreats, they are open to anyone who wishes to live in isolation and is willing to cut off from the outside world without wi-fi or a mobile phone, follow some strict monastic rules, meditate and eat in silence for a period between days and a week – spiritual guidance by a monk is also available for those requiring it. Honestly, the prospect is sometimes appealing, especially when the last tourist boat has left in the evening and the whole island is plunged in near total silence at sunset, cut off from the world. However, before you decide to jump on the opportunity, bear in mind that the conditions are pretty spartan and applications need to be justified and are strictly vetted so that nobody can just come and take advantage of cheap accommodation during the Cannes Film Festival! It is also recommended to book at least two months in advance as only 30 people can be accommodated at a given time. If you are still motivated, you can find the information on this link, but only in French.
- The fortified monastery
After the Abbey, walk down to the coast to visit what is probably the most spectacular sight on the island, the fortified monastery. This very elaborate work of art was built due to the necessity to protect the strategically located island and its monastic community from invaders, mainly the Saracens in the 10th century. Over the years, no doubt for practical reasons, the monks moved most of their major daily activities from the cloister in the abbey to the tower, whose role changed from a purely defensive outlook to a fully functional fortified monastery. Like most of the other buildings (and like Rome), the fortress was not built in one day but over several centuries, the final flourishes being added in the second half of the 15th century.
Today, like all of the other attractions of the island, entry is free and although the inside isn’t in a great state, the main structure of the tower is definitely worth visiting to understand how the monks lived and protected themselves at the time. The inside is made up of three floors, each with its own cloister, and if you can climb all the way up, the 360° panoramic view from the top, dominating the whole island, is probably one of the highlights of the whole island.
The photos below will give an idea but my favourite angle is looking back towards Cannes, over the top of the abbey, across the channel to Ile Sainte Marguerite and then directly to the city and the foothills of the Alps towards Grasse and the Col de Vence in the background.
- The wine growing culture and the Vin de Lérins
After this, you can either carry on the tour of the island or else head back through the picturesque vineyards towards the port or the restaurants. The vineyards represent 8.5 hectares, therefore over 20% of the total area of the island, producing 6 different types of grape: Clairette, Chardonnay and Viogner in white and Syrah, Mourvedre and Pinot noir in red. The particular flavor of the wine comes from the geology of the island, which is located on a fault line that has an effect on the soil quality: other factors such as the presence of the sea, and the sunlight lead to a tasty if particular wine that has won lots of awards since the monks started developing a real commercial policy since the 1990s. For wine connaisseurs, all the wines are listed as “Vin de Pays de Méditerranée” and respond to the evocative names of amongst others Saint Césaire, Saint Sauveur, Saint Cyprien, Saint Salerne and of course Saint Honorat.
The island also has a small distillery where different sorts of liqueurs are produced, such as the Lérincello (a limoncello made with lemons from Menton) and green and yellow Lérina, a liqueur made from a 19th century recipe using 44 plants.
The different wines and liqueurs can be purchased in the gift shop, in the restaurant or even now in the online boutique and are a very original gift: just be warned that they do not come cheap (from 26€ to 380€) but that’s pretty normal given the tiny size of the vineyard and therefore the small production that makes the wine pretty rare.
- Where to eat and drink
To cap off the tour of the island before taking the boat back to Cannes and the mainland, if you want to grab a bite to eat there are several options:
- La Tonnelle restaurant is the more upmarket venue for a real sit-down and relaxing lunch, with a splendid view over Ile Sainte Marguerite and the turquoise waters full of private yachts. The food is very tasty with specialities such as mozzarella bruschetta, fritto misto and tuna tataki, washed down with the local wine – I can also definitely recommend the tasty lemon dessert which is out of this world,; see the pictures below! Naturally it’s important to book in advance and it doesn’t come cheap (budget around 40-50€/head for two courses and a glass of Lérins wine) but that’s justified by the fact that everything needs to be brought over by boat. You can however find special lunch and wine-tasting deals on the website.
- For something simpler and more accessible like a snack, an ice-cream or a cold drink, just go the Les Canisses snack bar, located next to La Tonnelle.
- Finally, if you just want to picnic on the beach or secluded under a tree and bring food which has been purchased on the mainland, that’s also an option – there are plenty of picnic tables, one of the nicer spots is near Chapelle La Trinité at the eastern tip of the island, as you can see below.
- Practical information
To conclude, here’s a recap of the practical information that I gave out earlier in this article:
- Getting there: travel to Cannes by train, car or bus and then take the boat from the Quai Laubeuf. You can find the latest timetables and buy tickets on the website : the times and frequencies depend on the season: the first boat leaves Cannes between 8am and 10am and the last boat leaves the island between 4pm and 6pm. If you wish to park at the harbour, it is possible but be prepared to fork out around 20€ for 6 hours of parking.
- When to go? The restaurants and the abbey are open all year round so if you’re in Cannes on a sunny day in winter or late autumn, it’s worth checking out and the island will be much quieter! Obviously spring and summer are the best times to go for the longer days and especially if you want to swim a bit.
- On this island: there are obviously no cars so you’ll need to go everything on foot, even though the distances aren’t huge. Wear comfortable shoes, a hat and bring plenty of sunscreen. Bear in mind that the island is run by a monastic community so there are certain dress code rules which amount more to common sense: like in Monaco, it is forbidden to walk around in just swimwear, especially around the religious monuments. Also smoking is forbidden on all the footpaths of the island, this means pretty much everywhere except the central restaurant area – simply because of the potential fire hazard given how vulnerable all the vegetation is.
Once you’re done, you can just head back to Cannes by boat and why not enjoy the sights of the city, some of which are outlined in my Film Festival article. If you’re in the region, especially at the time of writing this article in February, check out the Tanneron hills and the spectacular mimosas in full bloom.
During my visit in early September 2016, I was a guest of the island and would like to thank the managers, especially Samuel Bouton, for the kind welcome that helped me discover this beautiful part of the Riviera and gain the information that I am sharing today with you, my readers.
Have a wonderful day out on Ile Saint Honorat and if you have any feedback or tips, I look forward to your comments below.
See you soon for on the French Riviera,