Complete Guide to the Estérel
The Massif de l’Estérel is a large natural area of red-colored rocky 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 one of the most breathtaking natural phenomenon in the world.
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 massive covers an area of 320 km², of which 130 km² are officially protected forest.
The red rock scenery and the far-reaching views make it a particularly interesting region to explore.
L’Estérel was named after the fairy Esterelle, who intoxicated and deceived her ardent lovers and thus fittingly made her home on the Coast of Illusion.
Between Cannes and Frejus, this fairy Coast of Illusion provides one of nature’s strangest interludes: a wild massif of blood-red cliffs and promontories, with sandy or shingle beaches amid disheveled porphyry boulders tumbling into the blue, blue sea. It’s the kind of romantic landscape where holy hermits like St Honorat and unholy brigands like Gaspard de Besse felt equally at home.
The handsome Gaspard, from a bourgeois family of Besse-sur-Issole , was himself the stuff of romance novels — a generous highwayman with courtly manners, a lover of good food and wine, a scholar who entertained the jury at his trial in Aix by reciting passages of Homer and Anacreon in Greek. When they hanged him anyway, many a woman wept bitter tears (others wondered where he hid all his booty (it has never been found).
Unfortunately, the virgin cork forests that once hid Gaspard’s band in the Estérel have been repeatedly ravaged by fire. These environmental tragedies were caused by brigands in the form of greedy property developers and their grotesque cement-mixers, who torch protected trees to clear up land for development. They race neck-and-neck with the forestry service’s gallant attempts to reforest the arid mountain with drought and disease-resilient pines and ilexes.
Come in the spring, when wild flowers ignite this Fauvist volcanic fairyland. In summer, the internal roads and hiking trails are often closed to lower the risk of accidental fires.
There are several features that make up the Massif de l’Estérel:
The Coastal Road
The coast road which follows the southern border of the Massif de l’Estérel 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’Estérel to one side and coves and beaches to the other. (The section of road east from Mandelieu towards Cannes is rather commercial.)
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 coastal 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.
Inland Estérel Hikes
Away from the water, be sure to leave time to explore the inland hills. The Estérel massif is the perfect area to hike. There are several points where you can access the massif and reach the highest peaks – you’ll need to hike 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’Estérel itself, and a great deal of the forests that once covered the area have been destroyed by fires caused by humans (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’Estérel 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.
The Mont San Peyre is a volcanic dome near Mandelieu-la-Napoule and the coast. It 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 nearby.
Mont Vinaigre is the highest point in the Estérel massif and perfect for a hike. There are many places from where you can start a hike in the Estérel region but the hike to Mont Vinaigre is recommended by many locals. From there you will have a view over the forest but also over the coast; you can see all the way from from Cannes to St. Tropez! You can access the start by car and then hike up for around 45 minutes. Here are the hike details.
In the summer time some parts of the Estérel can be closed because of fire (since humans are the primary cause of forest fires). In the fall and winter you’ll need to watch for stray bullets from hunters (which is, unfortunately, true of most wild places in France aside from reserves). Inform yourself before going by checking this website.
Saint-Cassien lake is a perfect alternative to the (crowded) beaches. For about €70 per person, you can rent electric bicycles at Moovbike in the nearby town of les Adrets de l’Estérel and go for a ride in the forest around the lake (only forest trails, no need to go on dangerous roads with cars).
If you decide to enjoy the lake’s turquoise water, you can also decide to swim, go on a pedalo or do some stand up paddling. There are places to rent paddle boats, canoes, or kayaks and several casual restaurants on the lake.
Fondurane Ecological Reserve
The reserve allows you to stroll along marked trails, in a 43 hectares protected natural area, in the western part of Saint-Cassien lake. There’s a mobile app that will guide you (download the app called “Pistes et Trésors” on Apple Store and Google Play and launch the circuit “Cap nature à Fondurane”.) Make sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring a backpack with eco-friendly sunscreen (zinc oxide only), a refillable container of water, a snack, binoculars (if you want to look at the wildlife) and a bag for your trash. Cigarette smoking is prohibited due to so many wildfires being started by smokers.
An observatory allows you to discover the animal and plant species of the site in complete tranquillity. 175 bird species have been recorded and it is possible to observe some of the most threatened species such as the mallard, teal, grey heron, marsh harrier…
Les Calanques de l’Estérel
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 snorkeling gear, as you won’t be able to resist the turquoise waters.
Mini-Islands & the Marine Reserve
The Estérel is one of the best places in the world to go snorkeling or scuba diving. The Cap Roux marine reserve, covering 445 hectares , is located between Saint-Raphaël and Cannes, at the foot of the Estérel mountain range. Thanks to the “fishing restriction” that prohibits all types of fishing, this areas has exceptional underwater flora and fauna.
The Cap Roux Reserve houses many groupers, and lucky snorkelers or scuba divers may even see whiptail stingrays. On the program for your underwater encounters: barracudas, morays, groupers, sea urchins, octopuses, lobsters. It is easy to dive to a depth of 30 meters.
Navigation is simple as you are swimming around an underwater rocky peak, and there is almost no current. The view from the boat when heading from La Napoule port to Cap Roux is worth admiring in itself, with these incredible red rocks of the Estérel that plunge into the deep blue of the Mediterranean.
Near Saint-Raphaël, you’ll find a tiny island called the Ile d’Or . It’s not far off-shore, so it’s within everyone’s reach and is home to lots of underwater delights. Legend has it that Hergé was inspired by it when writing Tintin and the Black Island.
In 1897, an architect became the first owner of Ile d’Or, bought at auction for only 280 francs (a petrol-powered Peugeot car was worth 20 times that sum!) In 1909, the island became the property of a doctor / gynecologist who acquired it (for the equivalent of today’s €200,000.) after the previous owner lost a large sum of money to him in a card game.
He then proclaimed himself the sovereign king of the golden island, created an anthem, currency and stamps for the island, and immediately erected (at great expense) an 18 x 8 meter square tower in red Estérel stone. The tower stood out, as it was built in Saracen architecture, which was unusual in the region (towers were typically round). Over the next few years (before the war started), he hosted many sumptuous parties on the island.
Note that the Ile d’Or is private, and the family that owns it still vacations there in the summers. In fact, if you see a flag flying at the top of the tower, it means it is currently inhabited.
Nearby (just a little farther west), you’ll find more of these little rocky islands. These fathoms from the fine sandy beach at Saint-Raphaël, are an incredible underwater playground. Half the diving sites around the Sea Lion island are found in water that is fairly shallow (around 40 meters) and clear, above a white sandy bed. In addition to an especially beautiful underwater arch, there are also two statues, one of the Virgin Mary and one mermaid, located 10 meters down.
Towns of the Estérel
There are several picturesque towns along the coast. Check out Iconic Riviera’s guides to each town:
Wondering how to get to the Estérel and its coastal towns? Check out our guide: Ways to Get to the Estérel Area and our recommended side-trip.