porquerolles beaches bikes smallIts picture postcard beaches, peaceful woods and vineyards and proximity to the mainland lure over a million visitors a year to the island of Porquerolles.

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What's surprising is how relatively unspoiled the island remains. Some areas, such as the village, shops and restaurants around the harbour, are very lively. Still, (if you want to) you should not find it too difficult to escape the crowds.

Porquerolles is one of a cluster of three lovely islands off the coast of Hyères (click here to read our tourist guide to Hyères' town centre). Collectively they're known as the Îles D'Or or Golden Isles.

Of the others, Port Cros is renowned for its flora and fauna and for its highbrow literary connections. And Le Levant belongs largely to the French army, which - slightly improbably - shares it with a nudist colony! We'll be writing more about these two islands in due course.

la courtade beach porquerollesThe largest, most popular and the closest of the three, Porquerolles' own attractions range from bike and walking trails and sea-based sports for the energetic, to bars, restaurants, vineyards and award-winning beaches for those who want to chill out.

Pictured: an inviting seafront bar awaits at the Plage de la Courtade.

You need a whole day to explore and enjoy the island to the full, ideally staying overnight. We've never done this, and indeed most people just make it a day trip.

But we understand that the place quickly become quiet in the evening, with a much more relaxed and intimate atmosphere after all the visitors have gone.

 

 

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

The tourist literature promotes a whimsical myth about beautiful princesses who were turned to stone to explain the origins of the Golden Isles. But the real history of Porquerolles is just as romantic.

Invaded and settled by successive waves of colonisers, monks, pirates and tourists, Porquerolles has passed through many hands. Finally in 1912 François-Joseph Fournier, an adventurer who had made his fortune in Mexican gold and silver mines, bought it as an irresistible wedding present for his bride.

The island had recently been devasted by forest fires, and so Fournier planted vines as firebreaks, as well as in order to make wine. His heirs still live on Porquerolles today, running one of the island's three vineyards.

Porquerolles fell into neglect during and after the Second World War, but most of the land on it was acquired in 1971 by the French state. Eventually it became a national park, the Parc National de Port Cros. It goes a long way to explaining the lack today of ugly commercial development.

cycling on porquerollesAnd the natural environment has been protected too, by the Conservatoire botanique national méditerranéen de Porquerolles, or National Mediterranean Botanical Conservatory of Porquerolles. It was set up in 1979 to research biodiversity, both on the island itself and all along France's Mediterranean coast.

Porquerolles claims to possess over seven hundred varieties of fruit and olive trees and the Conservatoire preserves rare and heritage varieties in a seed bank.

Wildflowers are abundant too, including species found nowhere else in the world. Located in the interior of the island, the Conservatoire and its orchards may be visited by prior arrangement.

There are dozens of birds: falcons, puffins, kingfishers, herons, pheasants and more. And, on the human front, Porquerolles has a small year-round population of around 350 inhabitants, a village school - and even its own hermit!

 

WHAT TO SEE

Porquerolles is about 7 km / 4.3 miles long by 3 km / 1.9 miles wide. No cars are permitted on the island, but you can easily explore it on foot or by bicycle along four well-marked pedestrian and bicycle trails with different themes and levels of difficulty.

bike hire shop porquerollesSome people bring their own bikes on the ferry, for which there is a charge. But it's cheaper to rent one on the spot. You'll find plenty of hire shops offering regular, electric or VTT (mountain) bikes in the village near the harbour.

The interior of the island is lovely, with paths snaking lazily through avenues of pine, fig, mulberry, cypress and eucalyptus trees and alongside vineyards.

Another great way of exploring Porquerolles is by sea, with a kayak, stand-up paddle or pedalo. You can also rent equipment for kite-surfing, snorkelling, diving and scuba diving and other marine-based activities. Some suppliers will lend you an aquascope too, so that you can see underwater.

notre dame beach porquerollesMany trippers will head straight for Porquerolles' celebrated beaches. The best ones are on the north coast, including the Plage Notre Dame, pictured.

In 2015 it was voted the most beautiful beach in Europe by European Best Destination, a Brussels-based organisation which promotes culture and tourism.

Brilliant turquoise blue-green waves lap at this sweeping white crescent edged by pine trees. It's a half hour walk from the landing stage and so relatively secluded outside the middle of summer.

A little closer are the Plage d'Argent and the Plage de la Courtade, which (unlike Notre Dame) have bar-restaurants. All these beaches are of sand, with a gentle incline into the sea. And motor boats are banned from coming in too close to the shore.

The south coast of the island is a series of rocks and creeks, with one small black sand beach, the Plage Noir du Langoustier.

Like most islands, Porquerolles was always vulnerable to invaders, so it's not surprising that it's peppered with forts, including the 16th century Fort Sainte Agathe and the 17th century Fort de Alycastre.

The 19th century Fort de la Repentance was once an orthodox monastery and is now the home of that famous hermit, who is restoring it and is sufficiently in touch with the 21st century world to have his own website.

Sainte Agathe is the only fort open to the public and it's an easy walk or ride up there. At the top you can enjoy excellent views over the harbour and island and go inside to see a permanent exhibition on the history of Porquerolles (these visits are with a guide, and there's an entrance fee). Nearby is the wondrously named Moulin du Bonheur (Windmill of Happiness).

Social activity revolves around the village near the harbour. Bike hire shops, souvenir stores, bars, restaurants and a handful of hotels cluster on the place d'Armes, a sandy square shaded by eucalyptus trees.

As the name suggests, there was once a military centre here, for convalescing soldiers. Today it's the most touristy part of the island, bustling by day, but soon sleepy after dark.

botantical garden porquerollesTake a moment to step inside the Église Sainte Anne, the church. Its exquisite stations of the cross were hand-carved out of walnut wood by a soldier named Joseph Wargnier, who subsequently became a deserter. The parish priest defended him at his court martial - and saved his life.

And do try to find time for a detour to the gorgeous little Jardin Emmanuel Lopez botanical garden, pictured, where cacti, palm trees and hundreds of different exotic plants and shrubs rub shoulders with modern sculptures. It's an oasis of calm on the western edge of the village, just a few minutes from the harbour, yet few people seem to find it.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

You'll find a tourist information centre by the boat landing stage on Porquerolles. It sells maps, a small selection of gifts and fruit preserves made on the island. Website for the Porquerolles Tourist Office. There is also a bank and cash dispenser / ATM in the village, as well as small supermarkets and other shops and basic services.

hyeres ferry ports smallHow to get to and from Porquerolles: Boats to the islands of Port Cros and Le Levant sail from the Port d'Hyères, near Toulon-Hyères airport. However boats to Porquerolles sail from La Tour Fondue, at the far end of the Giens peninsula. Click on the map to enlarge the image.

This road along the long spit can be a terrible bottleneck for traffic. We've visited Porquerolles twice, once in mid-July and once in late April. Each time it was busy, unpleasantly so in the summer and quite brisk even on a sunny, windy midweek spring afternoon.

So it's best, if you possibly can, to avoid the place in the middle of summer, when access routes to your secluded island paradise are clogged solid with thousands of other people on exactly the same mission.

Then, when you finally get there, parts of Porquerolles may be sometimes closed off due to fire risk. The shuttle boat service runs all year round, and spring and autumn visits are definitely better bets.

Whenever you go, allow plenty of time to make your sailing. And, on your way home, get off the boat as fast as possible and head straight to your car in order to make a quick getaway and avoid getting caught in traffic back into town.

The last boats to the mainland leave from Porquerolles in the late afternoon / early evening, depending on the time of year. You should arrive in good time for these too, as they can fill up and sail early. Don't worry: you won't be stranded on the island overnight! But you will have to wait for an extra boat to arrive.

The crossing (which can be quite choppy on a windy day) takes approximately twenty minutes. It's far from cheap: click here for the boat tariffs and timetable. And the price of a day on Porquerolles is bumped up still further by the three pay-for car parks by the boat terminal.

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To keep costs down, you might consider taking a bus: no.67 runs to the boat terminal from the place Maréchal Joffre in the centre of Hyères. Click here for the timetable.

You can take also a trip from La Tour Fondue in a glass-sided boat to view the marine life around Porquerolles (without disembarking at the island).

And in summer you can visit Porquerolles by boat from a number of other towns and cities along the coast, including Bandol, Sanary sur Mer, Toulon, Saint Tropez and even as far as Saint Raphaël.

Click here to view a map (scroll down to the bottom of the page). This page also has a list of companies offering private boat excursions to Porquerolles.

 

Where to eat and drink: Picnicking is permitted on the island (but the ever-present fire risk means you're not allowed to smoke outside the village).

If you're after sampling the island's wine, there are three vineyards on Porquerolles producing Côtes de Provence AOC wines: Domaine de la Courtade, Domaine de l'Île and Domaine Perzinsky.

Best for ice-cream: Coco Frio, which offers unusual favours such as jasmine and lavender as well as the traditional ones. Le Pelagos is recommended for snacks and tapas.

Where to stay: Camping on Porquerolles is prohibited. In the heart of the village, L'Arche de Porquerolles (formerly called L'Arche de Noé) has some rooms with sea views. It was once favoured by the crime writer Georges Simenon and his fictional detective, Inspector Maigret.

Les Mèdes is a hotel-residence with rooms, apartments and a lovely garden. More secluded, at the western edge of the island, is the high-class Le Mas du Langoustier, which has a one-star Michelin restaurant.

insider for porquerollesBack on the mainland, Le Pradeau Plague restaurant, perched on a beach at the end of the peninsula, is a dreamy spot for dinner at the end of the day while you wait for the traffic to disperse.

Photo credits (from top): © Hyères Tourisme, SJ for Marvellous Provence (three images), Julien Veyssade for Hyères Tourisme, SJ for Marvellous Provence.

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