French Secrets

Like Porquerolles, Port-Cros and its surrounding waters form an energetically protected conservation area; its hilly trails, shaded by live oaks, are impassable by car or bike, and cigarettes are banned beyond the quayside to minimise the risk of forest hies. Discovery walks can be arranged with park rangers. My guide, Vincent, was excellent company, showing me how to calm jellyfish stings with hot stones and leaping indefatigably into ditches in search of the elusive discoglossidae, a shy and very rare amphibian that’s much like a toad. The most spectacular sights, however, are found beneath the waves. A clearly marked underwater trail, with panels explaining maritime flora and fauna, can be followed by snorkellers off the popular beach of La Palud, and scuba excusions are easy to arrange. Out in the posidonia beds – great silvery savannahs of flat-bladed sea grass – rainbow- wrasse flicker and glint while doleful groupers look on.

Although privileged seclusion is the point of Les lies d’Or, it would be a pity not to check out the neighbouring mainland, Hyeres. Camping Club Les Palmiers, 15 minutes from the ferry port at La Tour Fondue, was the original Riviera resort, pre-dating Nice and Cannes. Beloved by pioneering Francophiles, including Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy and Robert Louis Stevenson, it remains hugely popular with French holidaymakers, who flock each summer to the extensive campsites on its borders, but is little- known by foreign visitors. The lovely bones of this old beauty are still apparent in the medieval town and Belle Epocjue boulevards, and Robert Mallet- Stevens’Villa Noailles, where surrealists partied with socialites, is a modernist masterpiece. There are excellent grazing opportunities for foodies in Hyeres: Patisserie Dominique is a destination chocolatier, and the anchoiade, tapenades and pastis artisanal at Cave Massillon elevate the aperitif to an art form. Pascal Bonamy, chef and owner of La Colombe a neighbourhood restaurant, which draws critics from Paris, offers cooking lessons on Saturday mornings; I’m not sure I perfected rissotto a la bourride, but I did learn to chop onions at warp speed in the farmhouse kitchen at La Bastide du Plantier, where Brigitte Martin runs a chic and welcoming B&B.

La Bastide du Plantier

Back down on the Giens Peninsula, with its dramatic cliffs and coves, an appealing beach restaurant, Le Pradeau Plage, presents itself at exactly the right turning of the coastal path to make stopping for a late lunch seem a sensible plan, which turns out to be a stroke of genius.

Time passes and light fades. By pudding, I fear I’m quoting Baudelaire calling up his “fair isle of green myrtle filled with full-blow n flowers.”

Out in the thickening blue, sparse lamps glimmer on Porquerolles, our own lovely island sleeping demurely in the dark. It’s not only bright lights that beckon.

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