L’Esterel & Nearby Towns
The Massif de l’Esterel is a large natural area of mountains located between Cannes and St Tropez, on the western side of the French Riviera. The red cliffs and mountains that represent the massif rise steeply from the coast and are quite breathtaking.
The Esterel Region
This low-altitude volcanic mountain range of 32,000 hectares, with red porphyry cliffs, is located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It covers the south-east of the Var, a small part located in the Alpes-Maritimes, France. The red rock scenery and the far-reaching views make it an interesting region to explore. The massive covers an area of 320 km², of which 130 km² are officially protected forest.
There are three ‘parts’ to the Massif de l’Esterel:
L’Esterel: The Coast
The coast road which follows the southern border of the Massif de l’Esterel is one of the most scenic coast roads in France. Between Mandelieu-la-Napoule and Saint-Raphael is the most pretty, with the red mountains of the Massif de l’Esterel to one side and coves and beaches to the other. (The road east from Mandelieu towards Cannes is rather industrial.) In many places the cliffs of the massif reach the sea, forming small coves surrounded by the red rocks, with more jagged rocks emerging dramatically from the sea.
Along the coast road there are a few small resort towns and beaches (see below for guides to these towns), but it is the natural scenery that is the big attraction to the area.
Away from the water, be sure to leave time to explore the hills that surround the town. The Mont San Peyre is a volcanic dome to the south of Mandelieu-la-Napoule and near the coast which has an easily followed pathway to the summit (there is a viewpoint and table d’orientation on top of San Peyre), while the open wooded slopes of Mont Turney are also close to hand.
There are several points where you can access the massif and reach the highest peaks – sometimes a small walk is required to reach the highest points – and each has its own attractions, and most have impressive views stretching far out along the coast and across the Mediterranean.
There is little in the way of villages to discover within the Massif d’Esterel itself, and a great deal of the forests that once covered the area have been destroyed by fire (there is still an area of forest towards the north) but what remains is still very impressive.
There are several marked trails for hikers and off road cycling in the Massif d’Esterel and these are the best way to explore the region. Among the most popular are those to the Cap du Dramont, the peak of Mont Vinaigre (the highest point in the Massif), the walk to the viewpoint at Cap Roux (our favorite of the walks we have done here), and the Blavet Gorges at Bagnols-en-Foret to the north.
Les Calanques de l’Esterel
Les Calanques de l’Esterel are rocky inlets and coves that expand from Saint Raphaël to Mandelieu-la-Napoule and drop steeply into the limpid waters of the Mediterranean.
Discover imposing rocky cliffs and multiple wild coves characterized by the contrast between the red color of the granite rock and the turquoise blue sea. Easily accessible, they form one of the most remarkable landscape of the French Riviera. Many ancient shipwrecks also lie in the shallow waters near the coast.
You can hike along these impressive formations and enjoy the breathtaking views over the Mediterranean sea, or book a boat trip and take a look at them from the sea. But don’t forget your snorkelling gear, as you won’t be able to resist the turquoise waters.
There are several coastal resort towns in the area. Here is a description of each:
Saint-Raphaël is a family-friendly holiday resort town located on the French Riviera midway between Saint-Tropez and Cannes. Its heyday was in the late 19th century when beautiful Belle Époque mansions were built along its seafront overlooking the Mediterranean.
Whilst Saint-Raphaël isn’t filled with ‘must-see’ tourist attractions, it is one of the most low-key, charming and welcoming resorts along the Côte d’Azur. You can easily spend a leisurely day in this lovely town.
The resort is home to a small but charming Old Town with a number of interesting attractions including an excellent archaeological museum. There are some attractive beaches within walking distance of the town center and a fine selection of stylish cafés and restaurants.
First impressions for many visitors are the beautiful Belle Époque buildings which overlook the promenade. These were destroyed during the Second World War and have been rebuilt in their original style. Just inland from the harbour stands the Basilique Notre Dame de la Victoire, which dominates the skyline of Saint Raphaël. Dating back to 1887 this beautiful church is the town’s main architectural and religious attraction.
There is a small Old Town which is well worth wandering around. It is located around the medieval Eglise Sant Raféu , which houses the Musée Archéologique de Saint-Raphaël. This museum has some impressive artifacts discovered in the region some of which go back to prehistoric times together with an underwater archaeology section. Visitors can climb to the top of its tower to get great views over the port.
If you’d prefer to spend a few hours relaxing in the sun, there are some lovely beaches within easy walking distance of Le Vieux Port. The nearest ones are Plage du Frejus to the west and Plage du Veillat to the south-east.
There are two parts to the town – the seafront at La Napoule itself and the town of Mandalieu-la-Napoule a little way inland. It is the sea facing La Napoule that is of most interest to visitors.
There are several ports along the sea front here, from the small port at Riou de l’Argentiere to the much larger ones at Port de la Rague and Port La Napoule. The beach areas, although not very extensive, are sandy and popular and have been awarded the ‘blue flag’ award for cleanliness and facilities.
The most impressive monument here is the Chateau de Napoule, at the southern end of the beach. Although a small part of the castle (the Saracen Tower) dates back to the 11th century, most of the castle you can see is a 20th-century reconstruction of a 14th-century castle destroyed during the Revolution. The work was carried out by Henry Clews, an artist who owned the castle and whose work you can still see exhibited inside. Make sure to stop and have a cup of tea at the cafe overlooking the sea.
Local markets, a good chance to sample many local products, are held in Mandelieu four times a week – but not always in the same place. Wednesday and Friday mornings the market is in the Place des Combattants in the town center, Thursdays it is in La Napoule at Place Saint-Fainéant, and Saturday mornings in Place Jeanne d’Arc.
There are also several large parks in the town, known for their mimosa trees (several events are held to celebrate the mimosas at the end of February each year).
Various boat trips can be arranged from the harbor area of Mandelieu-la-Napoule, to see the nearby coast and the Lerins Islands, while the footpath that heads south-west along the coast can be followed about two kilometres to reach Theoule-sur-Mer.
There is little in the way of major monuments, but don’t worry too much – just stroll around, enjoy a drink in a cafe, look at the gardens, and generally relax. There is also a harbor for pleasure boats and a selection of cafes and restaurants – visit the courtyard (by the train station entrance ) opposite the castle entrance for a few options.
Alternatively if relaxing isn’t your thing there are ample opportunities to set off hiking into the hills and forests behind the town or exploring the region by bike. Of course after these exertions you will need to find time to enjoy one of the beaches in Theoule-sur-Mer.
There is a choice of sandy beaches available and these are the principal local attraction. The principal beaches along the Theoule headland are:
- The Plage du Suveret and the Plage du Château are the two main beaches in the town center, easily accessible although parking can be difficult, and very busy in summer.
- The Plage de la Petite Fontaine , a small sandy beach about 5 minute walk east along the promenade from the center of Theoule.
- The Plage de l’Aiguille , a popular sandy beach about 10 minute walk along the promende east from the center of Theoule. From here you can also walk along the coast to reach the more isolated beaches of the Aiguille Creek .
- The Suveret Beach , to the west of the Port of Theoule, is a nice sandy beach that is slightly less crowded than the beaches in the center.
There is a coast path that runs from Theoule-sur-Mer towards Mandalieu-la-Napoule that passes the castle, a couple of very small coves, and crosses some rocky sections with views across the sea to Cannes.
Fréjus was the first naval base in the Mediterranean Roman, a thriving city full of emotions and stories. Today, it is a city of art, history and culture. Fréjus has preserved a large number of monuments from its past. The town possesses an important historic and architectural heritage, with many Roman remains.
The magnificent Fréjus Cathedral is a national monument with a history dating back as far as the 5th century. There’s also a Roman aqueduct in the town center. The baptistery, which dates from the 5th century, is one of the oldest in France. In the cloister, the archaeological museum contains objects excavated in Fréjus.
Port Fréjus marina and the fine sand beach at the end of Fréjus Beach make the town a popular seaside resort. All nautical pleasures are available in Fréjus (bathing in sea water, fishing, coastal shipping in the coves, scuba diving, water skiing, surfing windsurfing, kayaking, kitesurfing, sailing…), without forgetting the Provencal getaways, walks in the picturesque narrow streets, gourmet indulgences (truffle, honey, olive oil, wine “and Castles of Fréjus” AOC Fréjus).
Agay is a village and coastal resort on the Cote d’Azur, on the coast between Saint-Raphael and Theoule-sur-Mer. There is a timeless beauty to Agay village: the long main beach is studded with small cafés and backed by large red cliffs made of volcanic rock. It is in a sheltered position in a large natural bay with the Pointe de la Baumette to one side and Cap Dramont on the other side.
Occupying a natural bay overlooking the Mediterranean, Agay has a long main beach, backed by a string of small cafes and shops, and with villas running up the steep hill behind. Numerous sporting activities such as kayak and jet-ski are available on the beach.
There are basic facilities here, including a few small shops and restaurants, but Agay is a much smaller, quieter beach and resort than its more famous neighbors along the coast. The real reward here is the solitude. Unlike its popular neighbors on the French Riviera, one can explore the many coves and small beaches of this area without fighting the masses for a square bit of sand on which to slowly crisp.
As well as the main beach there are lots of smaller beaches and creeks along the coast here where you can enjoy yourself in virtual solitude away from the crowds at Agay beach. Several of them are backed by the lovely red cliffs and pine trees typical of the Cap d’Esterel. Our favourites are those to the east of Agay near Trayas (direction Theoule-sur-Mer) but you will enjoy exploring them to decide for yourself!
40 kilometers south of Saint-Raphaël is the former fishing village of St Tropez which became world famous in the 1950s after Brigitte Bardot appeared in a movie which was filmed there. To this day it remains a playground for the rich and famous which is home to a luxury marina which attracts some of the world’s most expensive superyachts during the summer months.
A novel way to visit the famous tourist resort of Saint-Tropez is to take a boat trip from Quai Nomy with Les Bateaux de Saint-Raphaël. Their trips take about an hour each way and provide fabulous views of the coastline en route. If the Saint-Tropez route is sold out or inconvenient for your time in port (they only operate from April to early November) you can take a shorter trip along the coast to see the fjord-like calanques of the nearby Esterel coast.
How to Get to the L’Esterel Area
You will most likely be arriving in France through the Nice Côte d’Azur Airport which lies 60 kilometers along the coast to the north-east.
Bus #3003 from outside the terminals runs directly to Saint-Raphaël. Alternatively, bus #99 from the airport delivers passengers to Gare de Nice-Ville train station, from where there are direct train to Saint-Raphaël. Otherwise, passengers can walk to Nice’s St Augustin train station and travel to Saint-Raphaël with a train change in Antibes or Cannes.
The most well known part of coastline is the so-called Corniche d’Or, a road that follows along the red coastline below the Esterel massif (a red volcanic mountain range offering trails for hikers & cyclists, plus sweeping sea views) and is famous for being one of the most attractive stretches of road in France. The road passes beautiful landscapes with the deep blue sea to one side and the red cliffs to the other.
The main sights of Saint-Raphaël and the local beaches are easily accessible on foot from the Vieux Port in Saint-Raphaël and the train station. There are buses to nearby Fréjus and the town stands on the main railway line which provides access to well-known destinations along the Côte d’Azur including Cannes, Nice and Monaco.