The bright, relaxed and unpretentious seaside resort of Bandol has a lot to offer. Expect miles of beaches, great shopping and buzzing seafront restaurants and bars - and some excellent wines.
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Bandol is not as famous or flooded with foreign tourists as nearby Cassis - which might be no bad thing. It is relatively sheltered from the fierce north-west Mistral wind which sweeps at times through Provence. And you will find plenty of ideas for excursions within the region when the beach begins to pall.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
Bandol's wealth came originally from its shipping traffic and local wines, then from the export of its cut flowers.
Those traditions continue today: the wines of Bandol have become internationally celebrated (click here to read our full guide) and the town remains vibrant with plants, shrubs and flowers.
Though the origins of Bandol date back to Roman times, there's not too much left in the way of ancient ruins or an historic old quarter: its 18th century château and chapel were both destroyed in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
But Bandol soared in the early 20th century. Then, powered by the new railway line from the north, it took off in a new direction, as a seaside resort.
Some of its most elegant villas and grand hotels, many now adapted into private year-round or holiday apartments, date back to that period, such as the huge, pink Hôtel des Bains, pictured top left.
Writers came there too, pulled by the mild climate or, in some cases, pushed from their homelands by the rise of Naziism. Among them were Katherine Mansfield, Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, DH Lawrence, Marcel Pagnol and Georges Bernanos.
Other artists included the French singer Mistinguett, the film-maker Louis Lumière and the actors Fernandel and Raimu. In most cases, though, the villas they stayed in aren't open to visitors or else long gone: the main surviving evidence of their presence is to be found in Bandol's street names.
WHAT TO SEE
The town's beaches fall loosely into four clusters, each with its own different qualities: click here to read our full guide. Most of the shops, bars and restaurants are lined up on the allée Jean Moulin / quai Charles de Gaulle, the wide, bustling double boulevard that runs along the seafront.
Lined with pointus (colourful traditional fishing boats, pictured) as well as huge private cabin cruisers, the marina, one of the largest in France, can accommodate 1,600 boats. A full range of sea-related activities is on offer, as you would hope and expect: yacht hire, kayaks and stand-up paddle, jet-skis, fishing, diving and so on.
Other outdoor sports include cycling, horse-riding, rock-climbing and golf. There are lots of hiking trails in the region, notably the sentier du Littoral, the coastal path once used by patrolling customs officers.
Activities, festivals and events are centred on the allées Alfred Vivien, a large pedestrian plaza at the end of the marina by the Tourist Office. The main weekly market is here on Tuesday morning (a smaller, daily market may be found on the square by the church, L'Église Saint François de Sales).
Wine-lovers! There's no vineyard within easy reach of Bandol's town centre, but instead something just as good: the welcoming and very informative Oenothèque / Maison des Vins, where you can discuss, sample and buy wines from a range of local makers at vineyard prices.
It's at the eastern end of the coastal boulevard at 3 place Lucien Artaud, 83150 Bandol. Tel: (+33) 4 94 29 45 03. You don't need to make - indeed, you can't make - an appointment; just turn up. And, if you fancy a winter break in Provence, the town's wine festival on the first Sunday of December is a major draw.
Strictly speaking in Sanary sur Mer, but only just outside Bandol itself is a zoo, called the Zoa, a combination of parc animalier and exotic gardens (parc exotique). Another family-friendly destination nearby is the OK Corral amusement park.
The Île de Bendor (Bendor Island) is one of Bandol's oddest attractions, and well worth a look. The pastis magnate Paul Ricard bought this tiny island in 1950 with the aim of developing it as an arts and cultural centre, with a hotel - the Delos - and a handful of restaurants as well.
Visitors sometimes compare the quaint cluster of craft shops at the landing stage to the Disney-pretty yet eerie village in the cult 1960s television series The Prisoner.
And there's certainly a resemblance. If you were feeling unkind, you could say Bendor was the brainchild of a man with more money than taste.
On the other hand, the project has a kind of grandiose eccentricity about it. You can see why the likes of the surrealist painter Salvador Dali - a frequent guest of Ricard's - enjoyed the place.
It's just seven minutes from Bandol on the boat shuttle: it's even within swimming distance. Boats leave regularly throughout the day and into the evening. From here you can walk round the island easily in half an hour (there are no cars on Bendor).
But it does boast two museums and an art gallery. The grandly named Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux is devoted to the industry that made Ricard's fortune, wines and spirits, and is guarded by two giant neo-classical statues of Bacchus and the goddess of the vine.
Inside it's decorated in faux mediaeval style with candlesticks, frescos and vaulted ceilings and contains some eight thousand bottles of them, sadly all empty. A separate collection has displays of bottle labels, menus and recipes.
The island's gallery mainly displays paintings by Ricard himself, who was an enthusiastic amateur artist. Opening hours of all these exhibition spaces are restricted outside the midsummer months.
Other art of varying quality is dotted all round the island. On a patch of high ground, Neptune's Garden is dominated by a large statue of the sea god himself and contains numerous sculptures.
At one end of the island a large monolith, pictured with the Hotel Delos in the background, bears Ricard's favourite motto Nul bien sans peine (No pain, no gain). Bendor also has a theatre, the Théâtre Vincent Scotto.
The bestselling comic writer Stephen Clark set part of one of the novels in his "merde" cycle - Dial M for Merde - on Bendor.
There is a helipad on the island, of course, plus three tennis courts and a row of seven pétanque courts side by side for tournaments. Some parts of Bendor are a bit run-down; others are being restored.
All along the coastal path are nicely manicured gardens and there's a small sand beach on the north side. The south shore is very rugged. Picnicking is not permitted on the island of Bendor, but you have a choice of bars and restaurants.
There is a charge for the shuttle boat - but you can avoid it! To tempt visitors over in the evening, Bendor offers free boat crossings for anyone with a dinner reservation. It's a rather informal system: you phone one of the island's restaurants to book your table and it will then inform the boat operator, which keeps a list of names.
Dining at the Hotel Delos in late April, we were the only passengers in each direction, and the boat even waited for us to finish dinner before ferrying us home! Read our review of the Hotel Delos. (Another island owned by Ricard, Les Embiez, can be reached by boat from Six Fours les Plages.)
Further details and the full shuttle boat timetable can be found on Bendor's website.
Except in the midwinter months, boat excursions run from Bandol to the island of Porquerolles, to the calanques of Cassis and Marseille, Marseille's Old Port and the Château d'If. Some companies also offer shorter trips to observe marine life in a glass-bottomed boat.
Le Castellet also has the Circuit Paul Ricard motor-racing track, which offers a serious fun activity: you or your children can zoom round the racetracks on motorbikes, cycles, skateboards, Segways, scooters, go-karts or another vehicle of your choice. No Ferrari required!
Bandol is flanked by other popular coastal towns - La Ciotat, Saint Cyr sur Mer, and Sanary sur Mer - and many tourists will make a beeline straight for Cassis. However, don't underestimate Toulon and Hyères, two of the most interesting yet least known destinations on this stretch of the coast.
The Tourist Office is on the allées Alfred Vivien, 83150 Bandol. Tel: (+33) 4 94 29 41 35.
Where to stay: We stayed at the super-plush, recently refurbished Île Rousse, Bandol's only five-star hotel, which also has a spa and overlooks the town's best beach. Click here to read our full review.
This beach, Rènecros, pictured from our balcony at the Île Rousse, has two other interesting-looking hotels. Le Plein Large is right on the tip of the spit that leads round to it (try to get a room on an upper floor as the lower one is exposed to the curious gaze of passing strollers).
Also on Rènecros beach, Le Golf Hôtel was one of Bandol's first grand hotels of the 20th century. It was briefly a casino before reverting to its original function.
Over on Bendor island make for the Hôtel Le Delos, which has superlative views and a good restaurant. The regular boat service ensures you don't feel totally isolated from the action on the mainland.
How to get around: A weak point in Bandol is its number of taxis: a grand total of six when we visited in 2015. The taxi rank is on the marina, tel (+33) 4 94 29 43 67.
On the other hand, the public transport is brilliant. Four electric bus routes - all eco- and disabled-friendly - run around the little town and, what's more, they are free. If you're travelling outside Bandol, there are lots of ways to get around too (see below).
HOW TO GET TO AND FROM BANDOL
By bus: Bandol is well served for regional buses. Bus no.8001 runs between Le Beausset, Le Castellet, La Cadière d'Azur, Bandol, Saint Cyr sur Mer and La Ciotat. Bus no.8804 is an express service that links Bandol to Toulon via the motorway.
Bus no.8805 runs between Bandol, Sanary sur Mer, Six Fours les Plages and Toulon. Bus no.8806 runs between Bandol, Sanary sur Mer, Six Fours les Plages and La Seyne sur Mer.
All these services are operated by a company called Varlib. Type in the number of your chosen route in the box marked "numéro ou nom de ligne" to view the current bus timetables.
By rail: Unlike some resorts along this strip of the coast, the train station in Bandol is relatively close to the centre of town: 900 metres / just over half a mile and an easy ten minute walk. Several local buses also run between the station and the marina.
The station sits on the Marseille-Toulon-Hyères line. Click here for the train timetable. Select timetable no.1 (Marseille-Toulon) from the drop-down menu at the top of the page.
By car: Bandol is just off the A50 motorway between Marseille and Toulon. Take exit 12 and you arrive virtually in the middle of town.
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As everywhere on the coast, parking is in desperately short supply in summer in the centre of Bandol. Two of the largest car-parks, and the best ones for the beaches, are by the Casino and the Deferrari football stadium, but even these fill up quickly.
By air: The nearest airport is Toulon-Hyères, 41 km / 25 miles away: see our full guide for details of onward transport connections. Marseille-Provence airport is 76 km / 47 miles and Nice is 158 km / 98 miles. Among several small private airports in the area, the closest, Le Castellet, is just 20 km / 12.5 miles away.
Photo credits: All images © SJ for Marvellous Provence.