Just 20 minutes from Cannes by boat, the Lérins islands feel a whole world away from the buzz of the mainland. Visitors are seduced by their idyllic natural beauty with quiet sandy paths, rocky coves to explore and swim in, and a fascinating history combining the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask and the spirituality of Cistercian monks.
The archipelago separates the Gulf of Napoule to the west from Golfe Juan to the east, and is composed of two main islands: Sainte-Marguerite and Saint Honorat, just a kilometre from each other.
They are not accessible to cars, bicycles or scooters and make wonderful, peaceful getaways for walks, swimming, games of pétanque and long lazy lunches. Oaks and creaking pines cover both islands, as well as a fragrant scrubland of myrtle, cistus, honeysuckle and wild clematis – and there’s plenty of wildlife here too.
Île Sainte-Marguerite: Natural Treasures and Military History
The larger of the two islands with 22km of hiking trails criss-crossing it, Sainte-Marguerite combines nature and culture. There are 152 hectares of forest and exceptional flora and fauna as well as the eerie Fort Royal, a former prison containing the cell of Alexandre Dumas’ legendary Man in the Iron Mask which is open to visitors. The Maritime Museum is also not to be missed; sheltered within a fortified enclosure, it offers visitors an insight into the area's history. The island’s Étang du Batéguier, where seawater mixes with fresh water, is home to a migratory bird reserve and on the sea side, Posidonia forms beautiful underwater ‘meadows’, a refuge for aquatic wildlife.
For more information on the marine backgrounds of the Lérins Islands, visit Méditerranoscope, a group of aquariums, exhibitions, and lectures. You can also discover the different groups that have occupied the islands over the years: the Romans, the Spanish (including Fort Royal, its ramparts, and the Musée de la Mer), and finally, the French (with canons installed by Napoleon Bonaparte). The Fort Royal, a simple fortified house, was reinforced by Richelieu and Vauban. It would go on to become a Prison d'Etat and hold captive several famous figures, including the Man in the Iron Mask.
Île Saint-Honorat: In Search of Calm and Contentedness
Sainte-Marguerite’s smaller neighbour, Saint-Honorat is just 1,500m long and 400m wide, predominantly covered by a forest of umbrella pines and vineyards, and home to an active community of monks who have been in residence here for centuries.
Soak up the breathtaking views from the 15th-century fortress (renovated by Viollet Le Duc) in the 19th century and enjoy a peaceful moment in the majestic Abbaye de Lérins. You can also visit the monastery’s shop and buy wine produced on the island, as well as honey, olive oil and a number of liqueurs. The monastery hosts annual retreats for those in search of spirituality or calm, while the abbey offers guided tours on various themes. The island’s restaurant, La Tonnelle, is the perfect place for a lazy lunch with a view of the sea.
By car: 12 hours from Brussels
By train: 7 hours and 45 minutes in TGV from Brussels Midi
By plane: 1 hour, 40 minutes (Brussels-Nice)