The Blue Coast calanques are a well-kept secret. They're not as dramatic as those south of Marseille. But they are easily accessible by train via some of the loveliest scenery in France. And they won't be over-run with foreign tourists.
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This guide to the western calanques along the Côte Bleue, or Blue Coast, complements our general introduction to the calanques of Provence.
The western calanques can reached on a boat trip starting in Marseille or Carry le Rouet and taking in a number of them from the sea, by rail on the Blue Coast train line, on foot along the coastal hiking paths or by car. Note, however, that road access will be restricted in the middle of summer.
And, if leaving your car at the entrance to any of the calanques, be aware that these car-parks will be jam-packed and are all notorious for break-ins during the tourist season. Do not leave valuables in your vehicle and try to retrieve it before nightfall.
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The western calanques are not included in the National Park, created in April 2012, which encompasses the calanques south of Marseille, though they are still subject to certain restrictions on camping and sporting activities. Click on the map to enlarge the image.
During this period there are three risk levels: orange (access authorised), red (access authorised between 6am and 11am) and black (access banned).
The level varies according to weather conditions and is set daily at 6pm for the following day. It's available on the official helpline, tel (+33) 8 11 20 13 13, in English as well as French and published (in French only) on the Bouches du Rhône regional website. Check the reading for the Côte Bleue as well as for the calanques.
Even on days when access is authorised, the heat - amplified by the sun and reflected by the sea and the white rocks - will make hiking disagreeable in the middle of the day.
Sheltered by a breakwater, the harbour is a very short walk downhill from the station and a slightly longer one from the main car-park just outside the village.
It has a small pebble beach and (despite the "no swimming" signs) is a favourite venue for snorkelling, kayaking, swimming, tombstoning and multifarious other sea activities.
The UCPA has a large diving school which offers courses (some Roman amphorae and pots retrieved from wrecks have been resubmerged just off the coast for divers to explore).
For hikers, Niolon is also a good spot to strike out on the sentier des Douaniers, the picturesque coastal hiking path formerly patrolled by customs officers.
You won't go hungry in Niolon. This little village has a store that sells excellent takeaway snacks and sandwiches, a lively bar, La Canne Bambou, with a rooftop bar serving grills, salads and light meals, and four more restaurants.
L'Auberge du Mérou has a smart dining room with panoramic views across the bay and is a frequent destination restaurant for Marseillais for special occasions and business lunches.
The atmosphere at La Pergola is more informal and the food simpler, but it enjoys the best location in the village, with a vine-shaded terrace right on the harbour.
At the entrance to the village, L'Ancre serves pizzas, grills and exotic combination platters. The small indoor dining room with its open fire is cosy in winter; in summer the tables to go for are on the raised outdoor terrace with views over the bay to Marseille.
The shortage of accommodation makes Niolon less viable for an overnight visits, though the Mérou has five tiny ship's cabin style rooms and there are a number of gîtes elsewhere in the village for longer stays.
The adjacent village, La Vesse, has no station but can easily be reached along the coastal path or, if travelling by car, on a fork off the Niolon road. It's not set in a amphitheatre-like bowl like its sister-calanque but along a narrow gully straddled by a railway viaduct.
La Vesse has a boules court, a diving school and shop, Au Delà Plongée, a small restaurant, La Calanque, and a tiny snack bar, Chez Chris, which sells grilled peppers, anchovies, vine leaves and other local delicacies. The harbour is fringed by a narrow pebble beach.
In summer (June-August) both Niolon and La Vesse are closed to tourist traffic at weekends and, if driving, you will need to stop in the car-parks at the entrances to the villages (or even further on busy weekends when these too are full).
The visitors' car-park at Niolon is about half a kilometre / 0.3 miles from the centre The La Vesse car-park is 1.2 km / 0.75 miles out of the village.
How to get to Niolon and La Vesse: Catch the Blue Coast train to Niolon. The ride takes about 30 minutes.
Or drive north out of Marseille along the D5 via L'Estaque until you reach the signposted turn-off.
You can also walk to both La Vesse and Niolon along hiking trails, from L'Estaque in one direction or Ensuès la Redonne in the other.
The small town is a short, steep walk downhill from the station, which offers commanding views over it and the sea.
La Redonne has a restaurant, L'Auberge des Calanques, a small harbour, a marine centre, Aieje, and a scattering of minuscule beaches. The Auberge has no accommodation but there is a luxury B&B, La Palmeraie des Calanques, on the edge of town.
The twice-weekly provençal street market in Ensuès la Redonne is held on Wednesdays from 7am to 1pm at the Robert Autes car-park and Saturdays from 7am to 1pm at the La Maison car-park.
On the outskirts of La Redonne is a Wild West theme park, Magic Park Land, which you would need a car to get to.
How to get to Ensuès la Redonne: Catch the Blue Coast train to Ensuès la Redonne. The ride takes about 25 minutes.
Or drive north out of Marseille along the D5 via L'Estaque until you reached the signposted turn-off.
You can also walk to Ensuès la Redonne along hiking trails, from Niolon in one direction or along the GR51 (Grande Randonnée 51) from Carry le Rouet in the other.
3. Petit Méjean and Grand Méjean, two of the most idyllic western calanques, lie outside La Redonne.
These peaceful, picturesque spots are an unrivalled strip of coast to go walking amid the pine and olive trees and wild herbs of Provence, as well as to go scuba diving in the clear turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.
There's a single spot to get refreshed, but it's a good one: Le Mange-Tout, tel: (+33) 4 42 45 91 63, a simple bar-restaurant right on the harbour in Grand Méjean.
How to get to Petit Méjean and Grand Méjean: Catch the Blue Coast train to Ensuès la Redonne. Petit Méjean is 1.3 km / 0.8 miles from the station and Grand Méjean is 1.8 km / 1.2 miles. A local shuttle bus connects with certain trains three times a day.
Or drive north out of Marseille along the D5 via L'Estaque until you reached the signposted turn-off to Ensuès la Redonne. Go past the harbour and turn right along a narrow single-track road that hugs the railway line (pictured). Parking, once you arrive, is extremely limited in summer.
You can also walk to Petit Méjean and Grand Méjean along hiking trails, from Niolon in one direction or along the GR51 (Grande Randonnée 51) from Carry le Rouet in the other.
Further west, Carry le Rouet sometimes touts itself as a calanque, but the landscape is beginning to flatten out at this point and is, compared to its neighbours, underwhelming. However Carry le Rouet itself has other attractions. You can also take a boat trip from Carry, on the Albatros Côte Bleue, of the western and/or southern calanques or the Château d'If and Frioul Islands.
How to get to Carry le Rouet: Catch the Blue Coast train to Carry le Rouet. The ride takes about 30 minutes.
Or drive north out of Marseille along along the A55 motorway until you reach the signposted turn-off (Junction 8).
You can also walk to Carry le Rouet along the GR51 (Grande Randonnée 51) hiking trail, from Ensuès la Redonne in one direction or Sausset les Pins in the other.